The National Archives of Thailand is getting a much-needed revamp to make its important materials more accessible
When going to public libraries in Thailand, people imagine a gloomy atmosphere, outdated technology and over-bloated bureaucracy. The National Archives of Thailand, the official keeper of historical documents of invaluable significance, inspires the same feeling. Visitors can easily imagine the traditional process: showing ID cards, opening drawers, searching through indexes, filling in forms.
However, some of these procedures will soon be things of the past. Realising the need to upgrade, the Fine Arts Department's project to improve the National Archives of Thailand is now moving ahead with the digitisation of documents, photos, maps and microfilms, some dating back over a century, and enabling online searches.
"Now the National Archives of Thailand has the computerised user card issuance system which takes pictures of users and issues cards immediately. Second, it allows online searching for a number of document file names, photos and maps via intranet. Third, as for maintenance and conservation, more documents have been and will be kept in acid-free envelopes and boxes," said the National Archives of Thailand's Conservation Sub-Division chief Nanthaka Pollachai.
According to the chief, new computer programs are being installed and will be functional by next month, if things go as planned. Users will be able to search for the titles of documents and look at a number of photos which are shown in small sizes and low resolution via an intranet system. They will be able to do it from home by entering the National Archives of Thailand's official website in the future (at the moment, the website has already listed some of the historical documents, such as personal documents of Prince Damrong, and ministerial records from the late 19th century, though the search is not enabled).
At the Archives on Samsen Road, users still need to fill in application forms in the reading room and the photos and maps room for borrowing materials and requesting photographic copying. However, other procedures will be faster and easier with the help of computers.
In the reading room on the ground floor, users can now search for lists of the Foreign Affairs Ministry's documents, again going back over 100 years, which have been digitised and kept as PDF files. In the photos and maps room on the first floor, users can now search for a number of photos and maps. According to Nanthaka, the intranet searching system has so far included 22,009 photos and 2,456 maps and plans.
A huge task is digitising the microfilms that contain records of over 15 million written materials.
"So far, 45 microfilm rolls have been digitalised. We're working on the rest. It is estimated that all of them will be ready for service next year. The whole set of equipment for this task is worth more than 2 million baht," said microfilm archive expert Patchaneekorn Sekrat.
As of Sept 30, 2011, the National Archives of Thailand had 10,285 written documents, 24,508 wet plate collodions, 444,009 photos, 808,693 films, 20,062 maps and plans, 2,696 posters, 4,472 calendars, 4,467 audio records, 3,941 visual records, 9,503 microfilms, 734 compact discs, 34 digital visual records, 43,628 bound volumes, government documents and rare books, 1,867 meeting minutes, memos and incident records and 677,269 important news clippings. The oldest document in the National Archives of Thailand dates to the reign of King Rama IV and is on paper.
Established in 1916 as a section of Vajirayan National Library, the National Archives of Thailand became a division of the Fine Arts Department in 1952. It is responsible for collecting and keeping public and other historical records, giving knowledge and advice to all government agencies on how to manage documents and records, and providing a public service for studies and research.
There are two kinds of archive materials -- written materials and audiovisual records. The latter includes photos, films, videos, slides, maps, plans and more. All documents are classified according to their provenance and only archive documents dated over 25 years are accessible to the public.
Repairing documents at a workshop.
Each year, between 1,500-1,700 people use the service of the National Archives of Thailand. Many of them are multiple-time visitors, mostly graduate school students who need primary information for references in their theses. A number of visitors are foreigners, especially Japanese, which reflects the globalisation of academic research, said Nanthaka.
A group of art students from Silpakorn University regularly use the service.
"We have come to the National Archives of Thailand countless times. Digitisation makes it easier to find things though it is still difficult," said one. "We want the electronic search engine and want things to go online."
According to the students, it's a hassle that users need to search for things manually from lists of documents, and understand the categorising system since a number of documents are kept and classified according to ministries. However, staff are very helpful and polite, they said.
"Everything -- documents and photos -- should be digitised and kept on computers and be readable from homes. And we want the photo files to be bigger," another student added.
In accordance with Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn's suggestion for the Fine Arts Department to improve the National Archives of Thailand and its branches, Culture Minister Vira Rojpojchanarat earlier this year appointed the National Archives of Thailand Development Committee. Later, the National Archives of Thailand proposed introducing the digital system. It has begun to digitise materials and connect its database with branches and will seek to enable online searching via smartphones.
"HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn used to lead her army cadet students to visit the National Archives of Thailand," said Nanthaka. "Her latest visit was made in 2006. She visited numerous archives abroad. In January this year, she said to the culture minister that museums, libraries and archives in Thailand must provide modern and quick services with the help of information technology."
The Princess also expressed her concerns for the health of document repairing staff and suggested concerned agencies find natural alternatives to chemicals. Therefore, the culture minister receives weekly updates about IT and herbal research from these agencies so that he will be able to inform the Princess regularly.
According to Fine Arts Department director-general Borvornvate Rungrujee, the National Archives of Thailand must revamp its management and conservation of manuscripts, search system, copying methods and human resources. Also, it must make databases about the Asean community and exchange information with other Asean nations.
The Reading Room. Borrowed documents must be read in the Reading Room only and can be on hold for the same user for up to two weeks.
In November last year, the culture minister declared his policy for the National Archives of Thailand to move towards a digital platform, and to be able to share data with all 10 branches, including those in Chiang Mai, Phayao, Ubon Ratchathani and Songkhla. Meanwhile, these branches must find and collect more information and photos from local sources.
Author Anake Nawigamune, who writes extensively about Thailand's bygone culture, sympathises with the fact that the National Archives of Thailand has a tremendous workload.
"All agencies submit documents to it for sorting and conservation while it has only 131 staff and an annual budget of 80 million baht," he said. According to him, the word "archive" should be newly defined to include objects related to specific documents and photos. Access to archives should be easy and flexible.
Ideally, archives must keep and provide a wide variety of information. Archives in foreign countries keep everything. Thailand's archives have no materials about Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos but have a number of Chinese documents.
Thai culture expert Phuthorn Bhumadhon agreed with Anake, saying information provided by the National Archives of Thailand must be diverse and borderless.
According to him, when he wants to search about history in the Ayutthaya period, he has to go to archives in France, for example. However, it is not too late to revamp the system with the emphasis on digital searches.
"Officials must be professional and willing to facilitate research," he said. "Good archives must provide services that allow users to use documents conveniently and easily. Actually, those in our country can be better with more staff and more convenience."