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October 27, 2003

REINERIO A. ALBA

Archives. Here in our country, the word easily conjures images of dust, musty smell, mildew, dank places, termites, sneeze, a place best left to itself. And one would be right in having such a mental picture, especially if we are talking about the state of Philippine Archives centuries ago.

The Archives being referred to here are the documents turned over by Spain to the American government in 1898 and eventually passed on to the Philippines. These documents cover birth records, royal decrees, political situations, crimes, natural disasters, health institutions, schools, business inventions, public works, and almost everything related to the execution of the government’s functions and its people’s responses between the 17thand 19th centuries. All these documents are now in the safekeeping of the Records Management and Archives Office (RMAO).  

Our Archival Heritage

RMAO (formerly known as Bureau of Records Management), located at the east wing of the National Library Building at Kalaw, Manila, has the principal task of disseminating Filipino history, culture and tradition, by preserving the archival heritage. RMAO reputably holds a collection that is considered the richest in Asia. The most important of which are the Spanish Collection, comprising an estimated 13 million manuscripts from the 16th to the 19th century, covering social, legal, ecclesiastical, medical, military, and cultural history of the Philippines under 333 years of Spanish rule.

The Archives also holds permanent records of the government during the American and Japanese regimes. These include records of the military and civil government established during the two regimes and a collection on Japanese war crimes.

Numbering over a million and still piling, the Archives have had a long and tortuous journey. As early as the British occupation during 1762-1764 the records suffered severe damage and loss. Later, much of these documents were recklessly dumped from one place to another including an iceplant and a kitchen prison, and thousands were even burned during the Japanese invasion while others were used as beddings by the American soldiers.

Each transfer expectedly caused the progressive disorganization, destruction and loss of the holdings. After the war, the documents continued to deteriorate, though this time from termites, floods, rodents, insects and moulds, and mainly due to lamentable storage conditions and human neglect.

But not everything was lost. A substantial number of documents managed to survive, although many still were subjected to constant physical and custody transfers. 

The most recent collections of  RMAO comprise mostly of notarial documents and registers and civil service records.

New Face of RMAO

Anyone interested in the state of our past government records or even personal papers like birth certificates to trace one’s genealogy, should take some time to visit the new RMAO office. The new office definitely puts fears away of another “nightmarish experience” for our archives, and just might help one rethink about the value of archiving in the country.

For someone who is used to accumulating papers (read: unclassified matters) on the job,  the sight of neatly stacked documents at the impressively renovated RMAO, was a truly impressive sight to behold. In place of  wooden shelves were steel racks lined up so sturdily like soldiers waiting to extend out a document at one’s command. And they even have Compactus! These are the steel shelves with a sort of a sailor’s wheel at the side–one turn and the shelves adjusts more to the right or left–one need not call on a horde of men to push a shelf to be able to squeeze into one side of it. The result has been a spectacular increase in the deposit space, with defined areas adapted to the various forms, sizes and physical characteristics of the documents, and has given them safer conditions against natural disasters and adverse storage conditions.  

The place being referred to is called The Depository Room or the storage room where most of the documents are. This room is directly behind the Reference Section where the public like myself  can go to trace family genealogy or look up land titles, etc. 

Everything about the old RMAO office has been refurbished and given a new face with much of the wooden partitions done away with to give way to steel partitions, steel landings–even a once wooden walkway now seemed like a veritable catwalk. The electrical installation has been upgraded, a ventilation system has been installed, and disaster control features have been set up. The colors of the walls have been changed to light colors, and there are now “wider spaces to move into,” as commented by a long-time employee, and visitors to the office would agree that every room interestingly connects to another. The canteen itself has been transformed into the “Archives Cafe.” 

“Everyone is of course happy to be working in such an environment,” says RMAO Assistant Director Leticia R. Arcangel. One is wont to ask if all these surprises at RMAO would have happened without the openness of RMAO Director Rosalina A. Concepcion who, Arcangel emphasized, positively welcomed all such changes. 

The collaboration to modernize the Archives was formalized in June 1999, when the Philippines, through the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, the National Archives and Fundación Santiago; and Spain, through the Agencia Española de Cooperación Internacional, the Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores, Fundación Histórica Tavera, the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas and the Ministerio de of Educación Cultura y Deporte, confirmed the intent to work together so that the maximum benefits could be progressively attained for those people interested in gaining information from archival sources in areas such as history and culture, public service, political science, education, law, economics, sociology, and many other subject matters.  

“Modernizing the National Archives” has been the theme given to the collaboration between the governments of the Philippines and Spain,” to ensure that the written memory of our nation is preserved and made accessible, to realize more effectively its vital part in the study of our progress as a society.”

A New Laboratory

At the heart of these changes is the Paper Conservation Laboratory, which was inaugurated in October of 2002. It boasts of the latest technological equipment necessary for curing, treating and preserving documents. 

The state-of-the art laboratory is designed to conform to weather conditions in the Philippines backed by a training program that instructs its employees on preventive and intervention techniques on deteriorating documents.  The Laboratory team, ably headed by Senior Archivist Estrella M. Domingo, continuously receives training in the research and development of techniques and procedures, expense and inventory planning and control, and its integration with the other functions of the Archives. The progress of the team has been evident in the training that they themselves have been providing to students from other institutions, with the team already contributing significantly to the growing field of paper restoration.  

RMAO Gets Automated

The group called the Arrangement Team also received intense training in the archival techniques and procedures from Archivist Consultant Simone Frieiro. Aided with computer operations, the training led to the development of diverse and valuable finding aids such as catalogues, inventories and guides, that now serves as indispensable tools for the archives users. In addition, the team has been strongly trained in the physical and logical control of the total holdings. 

The other teams, which serve as support groups, are the Information Technology Team, responsible for the maintenance of the hardware/software, and the Depository Team, responsible for the control of location, cleaning and maintenance of the depositories.

The team concept is improving the employees’ level of involvement and interest, says Ms. Arcangel.  The results are visible, and the quality of archival description is progressing. In time, the academic and professional community of historians, professors, journalists, scientists, teachers, students, lawyers, etc., locally and from other countries, will be able to avail, through the database information, the rich documental resources of the National Archives.

The database that is being developed was designed according to the General International Standards for Archival Description, which is included as one of the most important subject matters of the training program, aside from the study and practice in filling each field of the database, in accordance to the principles and concepts of archival science.

Under the keen supervision of Chief Archivist Teresita R. Ignacio, the Arrangement Team handles the classification of the whole documentation into proper groupings, following the principle of provenance, and in accordance with the rules of the archival classification. This makes it a lot easier for researcher historians to look up supporting documents to validate facts on hand. This is a far cry from when former Bureau of Records Management himself Domingo Abella had to go abroad to source fro primary records where such documents are properly catalogued.

The training for those in management positions in the Archives includes the planning of human resources, infrastructure and services. The knowledge is transmitted through workshops and seminars regarding policies, legislation on archives, and archives management for the improvement of the work process, teamwork, followed by the coordination of the main archives services: microfilming, conservation and restoration, arrangement, information and reference, dissemination, etc.

The seminars also include recommendations to elaborate on the National Archives Act. This act will be the most important legal disposition in terms of the organization and functioning of all public archives in the Philippines as a system. The objective is to form a kind of network in order to make all the public archives work in coordination with the head: the National Archives.

Much remains to be done until RMAO is able to accomplish its role. There are still government offices without an archival system. There are still other holdings kept in rented private buildings and there is still the ongoing restoration of the old Intendencia building at Intramuros where such holdings will eventually be housed. For now, the future looks bright — the institution already has the principal tools: the documentary heritage, and the trained archivists who will guard, conserve, treat and serve its inexhaustible source of information. And already our recorded past as a people is looking a lot “clearer.”

Contact the Records Management and Archives Office (RMAO), located at The National Library Bldg., Kalaw St., Ermita, Manila 1000, at 525-0021, 525-1407, 521-6830, 525-1828 / 525-1828.