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Opinions of Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Columnist: Dzandu, Sammy

Can Any Good Thing Come From Archives?

I happened to have a glimpse at a questionnaire administered by a colleague when he was writing his Master’s Degree Dissertation in Archives Administration. The comments made by some interviewees regarding their perceptions about archives were so interesting that I would like to share some with you:

“We’re in an era of wealth creation so I think it’s a waste of resources trying to work on some discarded dirty materials.”

“I don’t see anything special about the archives profession. After all, you need not acquire a university certificate to be able to collect “borla” (rubbish)

“Given the opportunity to become the human resource manager of my company, I cannot justify the employment of an archivist. What will be his duties? To be paid for packing useless papers into boxes?

The above and similar comments made by some people show the extent to which they are ignorant about what archives entails. Archives are records selected for permanent preservation. The basis of the selection is not how dusty or old the record is. Instead, the records are adjudged professionally, taking into consideration the values that they contain. Examples of such values are administrative, legal, historical and financial. In fact, all archives are records but not vice versa. Archives serve as the mirror of an organization’s operations. It is therefore important that they are managed professionally to enhance reference and research.

Archives administration, like many other professions is dynamic. Archivists therefore respond accordingly when there are new developments. For instance, in this era of information and communications technology (ICT), archivists are seriously working to ensure that the authenticity, security and the preservation of electronic records are ensured.

With the introduction of computers, records are increasingly created, stored, transmitted and used in electronic form. However, without effective programs and appropriate capacity to manage these records, development aspirations for electronic governance will not only be undermined but resources would also be wasted. In fact, electronic records created using ICTs contain business information in digital format that must be preserved and made available to support policy and operational needs, legal and regulatory requirements, fiscal auditing as well as research. If ICT programs are to be sustained then there is the need to develop policies, standards and structures to protect the records. The role of archivists to achieve all these can therefore not be overemphasized. It is time people erased the erroneous notion that archivists are only concerned with the managing of some disorganized dirty materials.

It is disheartening to see some organizations, institutions and individuals still apathetic towards records management. We may run away from the demands and the commitments needed to keep proper records today but we could not escape from the consequences in future.

I heard a sad story about a gentleman who had been sick for some time. He visited the hospital and he was made to undergo different medical tests to enable the doctor properly diagnose his sickness. In fact the tests cost the gentleman much time and money. Unfortunately, his medical folder got lost at the hospital. He therefore had to do the tests all over again since the doctor said without the medical results; he would not be able to treat him.

I ran into a former class mate some weeks ago. In fact he was the Financial Manager of a renowned company. He looked very worried and frustrated. Narrating his woes to me, he said his company folded up and they had to pay the entitlements of their employees based on the number of years that each person served the company. The one who leased the buildings to them also claimed the company owed him (a claim my friend denied).Some business partners had also taken them to court for breach of contract. Unfortunately, the records of the company were so badly kept that it was impossible for management to make the relevant references to enable them address the issues. As a friend, I wished I could assist him professionally but alas, it was too late to do so. All I could do was to sympathize with him. I did just that, wished him well and we parted company.

A retired public servant that I knew, who worked very hard for twenty-seven years, might have counted his years of service as a waste of time and energy. In fact words could not describe the kind of mental agony that the poor old man went through. On his retirement, the office that was responsible for his benefits needed his personal file to enable them work out his entitlements. Unfortunately, his file could not be found. He had been to his former work place on countless occasions without success. The truth of the matter was that the records were poorly kept, resulting in the loss of the file.

I witnessed an incident last year when I went to seek admission for my nephew at one of the senior secondary schools. Just as I was about to enter the school’s administration office, I met a young man who was very furious, hurling insults and curses on the entire staff of the school. I wanted to ask him why he was so “mad” but looking at his mood, I was scared hence I changed my mind. Fortunately, I overheard him narrating his ordeal to somebody behind the office. Apparently, the gentleman, who was a former student, had been to the school on several occasions for a testimonial, which he needed in the course of his preparations to pursue a course abroad. He claimed he was fed up with the officers’ daily anthem: “go and come next week, we’re looking for your personal file”. According to him, he was upset because it was obvious that he had lost a golden opportunity to further his education since that day was the closing date for the submission of his admission particulars. Only God knows what happened to his file — May be termites feasted on it, or the file got burnt, or stolen or destroyed by flood.

From the above instances, one is likely to blame corporate entities for improper records management. Unfortunately, as individuals, many of us are equally guilty. How many of us could locate our vital documents including certificates, passports, land title documents, receipts, pay-slips etc without any difficulty? It is amazing that many aged, who neither studied Records/Archives Administration nor had any formal education are able to keep their documents properly to one’s astonishment whereas literates, who are expected to know better and educate others, look down on people who teach, study or practice archives administration.

The Department of Information Studies of the University of Ghana should be highly commended for training an appreciable number of archivists in the country. But how many institutions, organizations or companies are making use of these professionals? We should remember that many countries that are making it are doing so mainly because they are serious with records management. We should remember that probity, transparency and accountability are very critical to every government. However, the foundation of all these is well-managed records. Without records, there can be no accountability framework, and without accountability framework, it is quite difficult to have a responsible government.

The time has come for us as individuals, corporate entities, and as a nation to be more serious with records management. The archival profession is an enviable one. We should therefore encourage archivists to contribute their quota to national development instead of looking down on them.

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.