Looking back, looking forward: In quest of closure on issues of displaced archives

Forget Chaterera-Zambuko

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Archives are invaluable in making a nation understand and appreciate her past and present, hence contributing to the overall development of the people. The ability to access and use that which define you as person, community and a nation need not be over emphasised. In that respect, this brief article seeks to bring the attention of all ‘shared heritage’ principalities, authorities and stakeholders on the need to conclude the issue of displaced archives. As such, I particularly want to acknowledge and applaud the efforts that the International Council on Archives (ICA) together with various national archival institutions and individual experts have been putting towards resolving the issue of shared heritage, displaced and or migrated archives.

As insinuated in the last sentence of the above paragraph, it is clear that to this date, interested parties do not agree in terms of how to refer to archives that are being kept in a different country from which they were created. Consequently, a plethora of terms have been invariably used to seemingly suit the views and interests of those using the terms. Such terms include but may not be limited to migrated archives, displaced archives, shared archival heritage, disputed archives, expatriate archives, seized archives, exiled archives, requisitioned archives, lost archives, archives in the diaspora, confiscated archives, contested archives, colonial archives, archives in the wilderness, archives purchased under duress and archives gone astray. The invariable use of so many terms to refer to the same item(s) points to the inner feelings and thoughts that different people, institutions and countries have towards the issue of archives being kept in a different country from which they were created. To that effect, I wish to highlight that it is high time responsible authorities and all affected stakeholders move away from conflicting views and genuinely work towards at least fair and equal access to the archives in question.

The efforts by ICA in resolving the issue of archives being kept outside their country of creation cannot go unnoticed. Seized with the importance of the issue and the professional need to offer an amicable solution to the delicate matter of displaced archives, ICA established an Expert Group on Shared Archival Heritage (EGSAH) during the September 2016 ICA Congress in Seoul. The goal of the group is to discus and conduct empirical field research on issues pertaining to the history and cultural heritage of more than one community, country or region where the custody, ownership and access is unclear or in dispute. ICA has been very supportive in helping the established group attain its noble obligation of obtaining a composite picture of the current extent of this issue on a global level. This has assisted and will continue to assist concerned parties to know the key issues and be able to define priorities and map the way forward on the issue of “shared heritage”.

Efforts by ICA to see the issue of ‘displaced archives’ being resolved did not begin in 2016. For decades, ICA has been directly and indirectly working towards the resolution of ‘displaced archives’. Using the example of the East and Southern Africa Regional Branch of the International Council on Archives (ESARBICA), ICA as early as the 1960s has been supporting its Regional Branches to host Biennial Conferences where issues of ‘displaced archives’ were given priority. In 1969, ESARBICA members met in Nairobi, Kenya and resolved to seek through ICA the moral support of the United Nations and its agencies and the Organisation of African Unit (OAU) in persuading governments and national bodies possessing ‘displaced archives’ to secure their return or at least supply photocopies of them. In 1974, ESARBICA met again in Lusaka, Zambia and recommended affected governments to formulate policies for the repatriation of displaced archives. A series of such biennial conferences have been ongoing since then and resolutions towards the repatriation of ‘displaced archives’ have been passed at every such gathering. While efforts by ICA are undoubtedly visible and commendable in trying to resolve the issue of “displaced archives”, I wish to reiterate the fact it is high time the issue of displaced archives comes to a conclusion and allow the 21st century archivists and other information management practitioners to focus more on emerging technologies and how these can be embraced to advance the records and archives management profession. The debates, discourse and negotiations over ‘displaced archives’ now span more than four decades and the issue might keep going in circles if appropriate decisions are not put in place. I am glad to highlight that I had an opportunity to participate in the ICA’s 2019 conference in Adelaide-Australia, where I got the opportunity to briefly discuss in person with Mr Jeff James who is the Chief Executive Director of The National Archives (TNA) of the UK. As is documented in several publications, it was confirmed that the issue of displaced archives is tangled with legalities and technicalities which have to this date made it impossible to repatriate the displaced archives to their provenance. However, The Chief Executive Director made it clear that TNA is open for dialogue and has always been willing to discuss and assist within the institution’s legal and technical boundaries. It is the trust and hope of many that ICA amongst other professional bodies will not tire until a mutual agreement has been arrived at among concerned parties. Having said all, what remains key is for archivists to set aside their emotional, political and geographical differences and consider themselves a global family that should always work towards the advancement of the profession to achieve a better information world. This is particularly critical in a world seized with fake news, misinformation and disinformation.

Forget Chaterera-Zambuko, ICA-New Professional (2019-2020), Postdoc- Sorbonne University in Abu Dhabi, Research Fellow University of South Africa