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The Nation, 15 November, 2000

A wealth of information

Starting with this article, we will be serializing write-ups on the history of holdings and activities of the National Archives. Brief HistoryThe early development of archival services in the then British Central African Protectorate was largely due to the efforts of some British ministers. For instance, in March 1914, Lord Harcourt, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, asked his colonial governors to "furnish me (him) with a brief report as to the existing arrangements for the custody and preservation of the older official records of the government which you (they) administer."In 1929, L. S. Amery demanded to be apprized not only the condition of the state of organization of the records themselves. His successor as Colonial Secretary, W. O Ormsby Gore, revisited the situation and followed it up with a colonial dispatch in which he emphasized that:

'The preservation of its records in a satisfactory state must be regarded as one of the first duties of a colonial government, a duty which derives greater urgency from ... delay in the institution of suitable protective measures may and does lead to the inevitable loss of documents of value.

Because of such bold measures, a National Archives was established in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia. Through a series of laws, this new institution was later to collect and preserve the records of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.

In the year 1947, depots were opened in Livingstone, Northern Rhodesia and in Zomba, Nyasaland. Eleven years later, a consolidating legislation was carefully drawn up. Consequently in 1959, the legislation was passed as the Federal National Archives Act.

This act provided for the preservation, custody, control and disposal of the public records and judicial records of the federation and its territories. The federal government thus acquired, together with various other assets, the records of the territorial records centers created in Nyasaland and the two Rhodesias. The records upon reaching the age of 30 years and after being judged to be of enduring historical value - were Declared public archives right in the National Archives Headquarters in Salisbury.

Early in the 1 960s, Nyasaland seceded from the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. In 1963, she became a self-governing state. On the dissolution of the federation, the Federal National Archives Act became obsolete. It was thus amended by the Archives Enactment RegulationIt then became very prudent and even more necessary for each of the three countries to et up its own national archival institution. With such a reality in the minds of government officials, an Archives Working Party was established. Its main duty was to make recommendations on how the archival resources, then in Salisbury, could be proportionally shared. This Archives Working Party later on became the Committee on Federal Records.

The committee consisted of a chairman, a secretary and a representative from each of the three territories. For a period amounting to a decade, that is, 1964-74, the committee physically examined the federal records. Thereafter schedules for their disposal were drawn-up. The result here was that at intervals the records became repatriated to the country from which they had been imported.However, a sizeable body of records which were of purely federal nature presented some problems. Since they were indivisible it was decided to keep them permanently in Salisbury. Researchers of all the territories were guaranteed unimpeded access to these controversial archives.

In general terms, what had earlier on been the Zomba depot of the Federal National Archives graduated into what became known as the National Archives of Malawi. This took place on January 1, 1964, just six months before Nyasaland became an independent state. To this day, the National Archives of Malawi as a department enforces two acts of Parliament, namely: the National Archives and the Printed Publications Acts. It operates through five professional divisions, namely records centres, public archives, historical manuscripts, conservation and the library.


Underscore from its humble beginning at independence, the National Archives of Malawi has grown to become one of the well-organized archival institutions in this part of Africa with numerous problems which deserve a I special attention not in this article but a later one.In 1964, through the 60s, its holdings consisted of about 4,500 cubic feet of government records. By 1984, this figure had grown to not less than 39,000 cubic feet. As at now. the holdings of government files are in excess of not less than 60,000 cubic feet. The number of files that can be consulted in the search room is :in excess of 25,000. In 1984, it was 14,000. The figure of 25,000 could have been exceeded had there been more room, available than is the situation at the moment. The historical manuscript section has 174 accessions from various sources.The library has also experienced unprecedented growth. In 1964, there were 120 books. At present the figure is in excess of 50,000. This includes Central Africana Collection. The library also has also 1,495 titles of periodicals.

Divisions and their activities

1. Records Management centres:

There are three of these, one in each of the country's regions. Their main responsibility is to promote government records managements services. They act as immediate storage areas for all the records falling noncurrent in the government department. The employees in these centres also conduct records management surveys for government records. They also offer file-issue service to those ministries and departments which have deposited their records.

Needless to say that these centers ensure that ministries and departments transfer their non-current records to the records management centers for safekeeping. Once the records have been retired to these centers, a decision is made on what to destroy and what to keep.

Such a decision is based on the standing instructions for the deposition of records drawn Jointly by prominent officials of ministries/departments and the senior staff of the National Archives of Malawi. The Instructions indicate how long the file is going to be kept after its closure.. Nonetheless, some records are eliminated as soon as their value to the government ceases, while others are recommended to be kept permanently for posterity's sake.

The Nation, 24 November, 2000

A repository of information

This continuation on the Nations Archives outlines the organization’s various sections and usesRecords deposited in the Records Centers remain in Property of the depositing ministry or department. It is for this reason that a file reference service is offered and maintained, ministries' and departments are, therefore, very free to consult or request for their files deposited at the records centers anytime they want them for reference

However, files or documents requested for reference are supposed to be returned to the centers as soon as reference is over.

No ministry/department is allowed to consult/request for records of another m Ministry/department without the consent of that ministry/ department. Furthermore any individual wanting to consult records of a particular ministry/department has to seek permission from the depositing ministry/ department. Otherwise, he want be allowed to inspect the records he wants.

2. Public Archives:

The records in the records centres after reaching the age of forty years after the closure of files of such records are appraised by the staff of the National Archives of Malawi. After being judged to be of enduring historical value they are declared. Public Archives. This means that such records ceases to be the property of those ministries/departments that created them and deposited them in the recordsIt also follows that the custody of such records goes into the hands of the Senior Archivist in the Public Archives Sections. This Archivist then following ICA rules for arranging and describing archives prepares finding aids to ease the process of retrieving the archives for inspection by researchers since they are open for public inspection.

Suffice it to say that permission to use the public' archives is possible only after government clearance has been granted. Permission is sought by applying to the Director of National Archives giving an explicit statement of the research project, the period of research, purpose of the research and its possible usefulness. In addition to this the applicant must enclose his/her curriculum vitae. Applications are usually supposed to be processed within six weeks.

3. Historical manuscript

Historical manuscripts are basically collections of private institutions such as corporate bodies, churches, clubs and societies and also of individuals such as missionaries, colonial administrators, planters, hunters, just to mention a few. This section is, therefore, involved in the collection of papers of the above-mentioned institutions and persons who played a role in the development of the nation from the formative years during the colonial era to the present. These complement official written sources and they are usually correspondences, minute-book reports, photographs, drawings, etc Such collections are then arranged and described in order to make them accessible through catalogues, guides, lists, indexes and inventories 'The section also controls the search room which provides services to general leaders, researchers and students. It also offers advisory services through the post or in person. Furthermore it is also involved in the training of personnel from private sector in establishing their own archives. It also conducts surveys of business archives.The section also coordinates oral history collection of prominent people. The interviews are transcribed thereby enriching the country's collection of oral history.

For one to access historical manuscripts he has to apply for permission through the Director of National Archives to the owners of the manuscripts.

4. The Library

Its main objective is to maintain a comprehensive collection of printed literature relating to Malawi and the neighbouring countries of which is to preserve the country’s documentary/literary heritage for posterity and provision of supplementary sources of information for research and scholarships. Its functions include the following: Collecting all publications relating to Malawi and neighbouring countries through purchase, legal deposit or gifts and exchange; Providing reference and bibliographic services to the general public.Compiling the Malawi National Bibliography; Acting as a national coordinating agency for International Standard Book Numbering system, (ISBN) Researchers and members of the public may consult the printed literature, without prior arrangement. The only restriction imposed is that researchers are not allowed to go home with library material.

5. Conservation:

The functions of this section are three document repairing, book binding and microfilming. Document repairing extends the useful life of material. The Bindery assists in binding loose material into book form. This also spares the material from deterioration. Microfilming is essential for protecting material that may be liable to further damage or may be at risk. Therefore multiple copies are made for security and ease of access.


The paper has briefly outlined the history of the National Archives of Malawi, its holdings, and its activities. However, the numerous problems confronting the institution have been sidelined in this paper. 'They obviously deserve a special and more rare treat 'This ought to be done in the near future.


Copyright 2001, The National Archives of Malawi