Photo courtesy of Department of National Archives

One of the few government officials who knows what she’s doing, Dr Nadeera Rupesinghe, remains a cut above the rest. Deeply committed to her work, she epitomises in every way the enormity of the work required of her. History has yet to prove that she was in the right place at the right time but I think she is. The fact of the matter is that during her tenure, the Sri Lanka National Archives, the de facto repository of archives in the country, has embarked on probably the most ambitious modernisation drive in its history. This may be one of the most ambitious drives undertaken by any government institution or library. And unlike in many other places, the wheels here have been set in motion.

On June 9, the National Archives signed the Universal Declaration on Archives. The event was attended by ambassadors, politicians, academics and ordinary people. It revolved around a catchy slogan – #ArchivesMatter – and ended on a sombre if hopeful note. The Universal Declaration is now more than a decade old. Adopted by the 36th Session of the General Conference of UNESCO on November 10, 2011, it has since been endorsed by many archive institutions across the world. It reflects the ideals of the International Council of Archives, which has established links with the Sri Lanka Archives. The latter, in effect, has now endorsed those ideals.

The Universal Declaration does not consider archives as a passive repository of information and historical knowledge. It in fact endorses the role that such institutions play in recording human activity and in reflecting the evolution of our society. It is very much linked to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which dwells on the right “to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” In other words, archives institutions play an indispensable role in not just disseminating information, but also securing and democratising access to it. Linked to this is another crucial imperative: that of “establishing individual and collective memory.”

The latter theme was picked up by all three key speakers at the event. Nalaka Gunawardene, in particular, raised some rather uncomfortable questions, which I felt needed to be asked. Dwelling on the role that the archives plays in preserving the memory of the nation, he brought up an important concern: “Whose memories are we talking about?” History, to be clear, is always written by the victors, be they European colonisers between the 16th and 20th century or majoritarian revisionists from the 20th century. Yet this does not and should not mean only their version should be recorded. In Mr. Gunawardene’s felicitous phrasing – he spoke in Sinhala at an event which incorporated all three languages – “highly consequential” and “highly contentious” events needed to be catalogued too.

The next two speakers – Tanuja Thurairajah of the University of Zurich and Nigel Nugawela of the Collective for Historical Dialogue and Memory, the latter, in my view, the only civil society organisation concerned with historical and cultural engagement in the country – picked up these themes and strands and extemporised on them. Thurairajah commented on the need to bridge different communities and worlds, and commented on how archive institutions can and indeed should perform this task. Mr. Nugawela was perhaps even blunter, contending that we cannot afford to whitewash history, that the dark underside of a society’s past also forms part of our heritage. He then regretted that our universities have not incorporated and have not thought it fit to teach archiving as a subject and a discipline.

Archiving, to be sure, is as much an exact science as it is an inexact art. Perhaps in the highly polarised, compartmentalised intellectual climate Sri Lanka finds itself in today, teaching such a subject, especially as a separate discipline, may be more challenging than one might assume. Yet such a challenge needs to be taken up urgently. It’s not that Sri Lanka lacks a culture conducive to archiving although its tropical climate may be an issue where preserving historical documents are concerned. And as Dr. Rupesinghe noted recently, the Sri Lanka Archives can stand with the best institutions in the world. But what is lacking is the funding and the initiative from relevant authorities. Although the Ministry in charge of the archives is headed by Vidura Wickramanayake, someone who I believe is aware of the importance of these issues, the state has yet to display proper initiative.

The state itself is in a rut. It is effectively bankrupt. Of course, to its credit, it has approved the modernisation and digitalisation of the archives, a project which, in its first phase, will cost an estimated Rs. 120 million. Yet there is so much that a government can be expected to give or sponsor, especially at a time of crushing austerity. The fundamental contradiction in the societies of the Global South lies between their long, rich, immensely kaleidoscopic past, which cries out to be recorded and catalogued, and their present, limited economic prospects. A country requires a significant material surplus to fund research, and to encourage specialisation of the sort that can help it make sense of its history. While this is certainly not an excuse for neglecting the task of archiving the past, it is true that, until our economy recovers, and industry, rather than primary commodities, forms its base, academic institutions will be forced to rely on private donors for funding.

In that regard, it there is something we can all do: inculcate the archivist in us all. Hidden inside us all are archivists waiting to leap at whatever opportunity we get to collect, to collate and to catalogue. A nation that loses this instinct will be doomed to intellectual degeneration. We are already facing a massive rut in terms of not just our intellectual standards but also our understanding of our past. In that regard Dr. Rupesinghe may well have found herself in the right place at the right time. It is debatable whether she will be encouraged or stalled in her efforts. Judging from Mr. Wickramanayake’s speech, the government appears to be paying attention to what she’s doing. If so, good. But much more needs to be done.