Rescuing Liberian history: preserving the personal papers of William V. S. Tubman, Liberia's longest serving President (EAP027)

Aims and objectives

In the abandoned library of an unoccupied mansion in Liberia, the personal papers of William V. S. Tubman, Liberia’s longest serving President, have been found in a deteriorating condition. During Liberia’s most recent civil war in 2003, rebel soldiers had rummaged through the file cabinets in search of valuables, tossing folders and papers onto the floor, leaving them damp and insect-infested in Liberia’s tropical climate. Immediate conservation and preservation measures are needed for the papers, followed by restoration of organisation to the collection and then microfilming for long-term preservation of the papers’ content.

A report prepared in the late 1980s of this material by a consultant for the Tubman family reported that the materials showed the nearly complete integration between Tubman’s personal and political lives during his presidency from 1944 until his death in 1971. The bulk of the collection clusters at the beginning (1944-1950) and end (1961-1971) of his administration. Of the collection’s importance, it was stated that given Tubman’s stature as an African head of state during the de-colonization era, these papers will be of particular value for the study of the Organization of African Unity’s early years, as well as for the study of West African diplomacy.

The project proposes to pack and ship the documents to Indiana University where they will be deep frozen to stop mold growth and exterminate insects and then placed in a freeze-drying facility for several months. The facilities to undertake this are not available in Liberia. Damaged documents will be restored wherever possible – if not possible then imaging staff will capture and preserve their content.

Once organised, the entire collection will be microfilmed and the original papers will be shipped back to Liberia to a safe archive.

The costs of shipping the papers to Indiana University and the deep-freeze and freeze-drying, document conservation and restoration processes are not funded by this grant.

The proposal has the full support of the Tubman family and of the Liberian government.


Over 40,000 pages of historically important papers from the era of Liberian President William V. S. Tubman were recovered from deteriorating conditions, their original organisation restored and the papers microfilmed for preservation and accessibility by researchers and the public. Forty-seven reels of publically available microfilm have been produced.

The retrieved Tubman materials were in a worse condition than anticipated. Documents in many record groups reported in 1979 were not found, while other documents were missing sections damaged by mould, insects and animals: sometimes only around the edges and sometimes rendering the document completely illegible.

After arrival at Indiana University, the Tubman boxes went into the deep-freezer for one week of extermination freezing on 21 August 2005. Because the materials were not water-soaked, but only limp from high humidity, freeze-drying was not necessary.

A team of five students supervised by a preservation specialist at the E. Lingle Craig Preservation Laboratory began the hands-on conservation process in late September 2005 and completed work six months later in March 2006, delaying description and arrangement work by several months. Most papers required being flattened and brushed clean. Because of fecal matter from bats and rodents, many of the materials first required washing in a disinfectant bath by workers wearing gloves, lab coats and masks.

A total of three archivists were involved in the sorting of the papers, with the help of ten student archivists assisted in the sorting and organization tasks under the supervision of the project archivists. The archivists estimate the Tubman materials required at least twenty-two passes through the collection to achieve the final organisation.

By February 2009, the microfilming service bureau had shipped the microfilm master negatives, duplicate negatives, multiple sets of service copies and the complete collection of twenty-one boxes of President Tubman’s personal papers to Indiana University.

In May 2009, microfilm sets were presented to the family of President Tubman, the presidents of the University of Liberia and Cuttington University, and the Director-General of the Center for National Documents & Records Agency (National Archives). Sets were also provided to the project’s supporters, the Endangered Archives Programme and the Title VI Librarians of the Africana Librarians Council.

In the US, the Center for Research Libraries (CRL) was provided with a set of microfilms for its financial support of the project. Four member libraries of CRL’s Africana Librarians Council (ALC) also purchased sets at cost: The US Library of Congress, Yale University Library, Stanford University Library and the University of Florida Library. Indiana University Libraries received a set of Tubman microfilms for its logistical and staff support of the project.

A finding aid and file listing is downloadable from the website of the Liberian Collections and the digital images are available to view here.

The Africana Librarians Council (ALC) of the African Studies Association funded the conservation and transportation costs and also contributed towards the personnel and microfilming costs, which were significantly higher than the original budget due to the poor condition and profound disorganization of the materials.

The return of the papers to Liberia

As the microfilming was nearing completion, the Tubman family requested that the collection be held at Indiana University until they approved their return. This was to allow the conditions for storage, security and access at a Liberian repository to meet their standards of safety for President Tubman’s papers.

Representing the Government of Liberia, Director-General Philomena Sayeh of the Center for National Documents and Records Agency (National Archives) endorsed this request in writing and undertook to meet the storage, security and access requirements within the next five years.

The physical collection of the President William V.S. Tubman Papers is currently housed in a secure, restricted vault at Indiana University. Access to the original material is totally prohibited whilst it is stored at Indiana University. Users seeking access to the papers are referred to the full set of Tubman microfilms in the Indiana University Libraries or other libraries holding sets or to the digitised Tubman papers online at Archives Online at Indiana University.

The records copied by this project have been catalogued as: