Endangered Archives

EAP026: Rescuing Liberian history: a pilot study to preserve and enable access to Liberia's Presidential and National Archives

Dr Verlon Stone, Indiana University
2005 award - Pilot project
£19,446 for 8 months

Archival partner: The Center for National Documents and Records/National Archives, Liberia

Project Overview

This project proposal arises from a 2004 trip taken to Liberia to assess document repositories still extant after a quarter-century of civil strife in Liberia. This trip confirmed that the vast, valuable repository of presidential documents remained in good condition and that the official papers of Presidents Tubman, Tolbert, Doe, Sawyer (Interim), and Taylor were still intact.

A visit was also made to the Liberian National Archives. In the early 1990s, civil war combatants looted the purpose-built Center for National Documents and Records/National Archives building. Document boxes were rifled in search of valuables and papers thrown outside during the rainy season. Archive employees and other Liberians cognizant of the materials’ historical value salvaged many documents and carried them to the Old Executive Mansion, earlier site of the National Archives. Among the thousand plus boxes of rescued documents were government correspondence, communiqués and reports dating back to the early 19th century, when the colony was settled and the Republic of Liberia founded.

These 19th century materials will be a treasure trove of information on the founding and development of the first independent republic in sub-Saharan Africa. Of additional value to contemporary Liberians would be the use of these early records to reinterpret and retell the history of Liberia. Histories used in Liberian schools largely told the story of black settlers from the new world (both USA and Caribbean), never more than 5% of the population. These histories focused on the foreign-derived Liberian state with little appreciation for the societies into which it was embedded. Contacts and conflicts with the indigenous population and neighbouring European colonies were inadequately addressed. These earlier histories did not address the social cleavages spawned by such contacts and conflicts nor the resistance and rebellion that followed. The challenge of writing an integrated history of Liberia remains and the 19th century documents in the Liberian National Archives are the primary source materials with which to begin the process.

Director-General G. Narrison Toulee and his National Archives staff are making a valiant effort to preserve the salvaged materials, but it is a struggle. The ceiling leaks and rain blows in through air-circulation vent holes. The archival organization has never been completely restored after the looting, and serious preservation challenges remain. The small staff is nearly overwhelmed by the mass of materials and lack of current training, preservation materials, and funding.

Taken together, documents in the post-1965 Presidential Archives and the older National Archives papers offer invaluable and irreplaceable materials for understanding Liberia’s history. The proposed pilot project will survey and sample the Presidential Archives to ascertain the quantity and distribution of the Liberian presidential documents, confirm their organizational scheme, and assess their preservation state. At the National Archives the study will survey and sample to locate and assess the condition and content of the 19th Century documents. Key sets of documents at both archives will be identified for microfilming and, where necessary, preservation, description and arrangement. From this resulting information, plans will be developed and grant proposals written.

Project Outcome

This pilot project was completed in March 2006 and successfully surveyed the National and the Presidential Archives, creating a database of 1,442 sampled items, identifying their content, date, creator, format and preservation status.

The survey of the Presidential Archives revealed the unexpected discovery of a basement room full of undiscovered material. Regrettably most of the expected 19 th century documents in the National Archives were not found and were reported as destroyed in the 1990 looting.

Three National Archives archivists and three technicians received intensive training in survey, document recovery and preservation techniques. In addition they, and 13 technicians from the Archives, attended a four day workshop in archival issues and practices.

Liberian scholars and the Liberian public were reached via radio stations and newspapers, and information packets were presented to education and government officials.

This pilot study enabled the research team to draw together the necessary material for a future major research project.

The Liberian Archives Survey Database

This database is based on a 2005 survey of the Republic of Liberia 's Presidential and National Archives, a project funded by the British Library's Endangered Archives Programme.

Presidential Archives: The Presidential Archives is located in Liberia's Executive Mansion. Originally known as the "Central File Room," it stored the active and archived records for the Executive Branch of the Liberian government. The bulk of the records (over 4,100 linear feet) span from the second half of the W.V.S. Tubman presidency through the Charles Taylor administration. Approximately 50% of the records are from the Ministry of State, Executive Mansion, and Ministry of State for Presidential Affairs. Most of the remaining records are from other Liberian government ministries and agencies.

National Archives: The Center for National Documents and Records/National Archives was established as the statutory repository for all inactive records of the Liberian government during the 1970s. Following the 1980 looting of the purpose-built National Archives facility in Sinkor, archive employees recovered and moved about 600 linear feet of surviving materials back to the Old Executive Mansion on Ashmun Street, the earlier site of the National Archives. Approximately 33% of the extant records surveyed were from the Ministries/Departments of Foreign Affairs, State, Defense and Finance. The remaining records came from a variety of sources including other Liberian government offices, business entities, civic and religious organizations.

Download a searchable copy of the database or visit the Liberian Collections Project website.