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Reclaiming Liberia’s heritage, one document at a time

Rita C. Shaw, archivist, is part of the team working on Liberia's Presidential Archive LA Bagnetto

On the ground floor of the Center for National Documents and Records Agency (CNDRA) in downtown Monrovia, a group of people huddle around a makeshift table made from pallets. They are looking over stacks of documents, with many more boxes informally labelled on shelves behind them, others haphazardly stacked in the corner.

“We’re classifying the Tolbert documents according to ministries-- presidential affairs and ministries,” says Rita C. Shaw, who has been contracted to help archive presidential papers. The 20th president of Liberia, President William R. Tolbert served from 1971 to 1980 before he was killed in a coup d’état by Samuel Doe, who later became president until he was killed in 1990 in another coup.

“After that, we sub-classify, and after, we digitize [the documents] to get them out there for the public and citizens of Liberia,” she adds.

Shaw is part of a small team on a 10-month contract to create Liberia’s presidential archive. The CNDRA, also known as the National Archive, will be handling President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s papers as she steps down after two terms, and are making headway in creating a functioning archive for scholars of Liberian history.

“Right now, the presidential papers we’re organizing go back to Edwin Barclay [18th president of Liberia, 1930-1944] and the Tolbert administration, the Doe administration [1980-1990], and the interim period, the [President Charles] Taylor administration and now, we’re expecting Madame Sirleaf’s administration papers to be coming in the national archives,” says P. Bloh Sayeh, Director General of CNDRA.

P. Bloh Sayeh, Director General of Liberia's National Archives LA Bagnetto

The archive, mandated by Sirleaf, has been trying to gather presidential papers, including memos, memorandums of understanding, lease agreements, as well as bilateral multilateral treaties. Some of these papers were stored in the presidential residence. In 2006, three years after the end of the Liberia’s civil war, electricity was restored to the capital, but the Executive Mansion caught fire, taking with it some important papers.

“That’s why we have a lot of presidential papers here-- papers that hadn’t been collected for years and years, from administrations; that is how come we ended up with them here,” says Sayeh.

Fascinating finds in the archive

The work in the archive is rewarding, says Processing Supervisor Quincy Johnson Willing, as he and the team look into Liberia’s history. He noticed a marked difference when preparing the William Tubman papers, Liberia’s 19th president from 1944 to 1971.

“In the Tubman days, you saw that everything went through President Tubman, whereas now you see everything is kind of decentralized,” says Willing.

“Nowadays you don’t see a lot of things, like school fees, in the presidential papers. But everything went through him,” he adds, noting the large number of boxes behind him. Some boxes even contain brochures, and personal photos of him showing another foreign counterpart around.

“Tubman had issues with the German embassy, and I saw those papers too,” says Willing, declining to go into detail.

His most interesting find came out of the Doe papers, however. Outgoing President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf worked as finance minister in Doe’s cabinet from 1980 to 1985, where she was known for butting heads with the then-president. Willing found some correspondence between the two in the Doe papers archive.

“She was not happy with President Doe, then Doe wasn’t happy with her, and there was a little back and forth here and there,” says Willing.

“We won’t go into detail because she’s still the president, but it was fascinating,” he says, laughing.

Other staff members found some presidential gems, too.

“I found out that President William Tolbert, for example, was a Baptist pastor, but at the same time he was in the Freemasons,” says Alan Paye, CNDRA technical coordinator.

“That was interesting to me, because a pastor then could be a freemason, and go to the society [of Freemasons], then come and preach on the pulpit,” he adds, pondering the possible contradiction.

Alan Paye, national coordinator of Liberia's National Archives, standing in front of the presidential papers yet to be sorted LA Bagnetto

The archivists are sorting more than 1000 cartons filled with presidential documents from various administrations, which will be kept in an air-conditioned room on the ground floor of the building to preserve the paper.

It is also the repository for Liberia’s original, hand-written Declaration of Independence and 1847 Constitution, thought to be lost. The CNDRA hired experts to open a safe in 2013, which had been found in the basement of the Executive Mansion.

“We were fortunate to find the safe where we found our original constitution and original Declaration of Independence. Both of them handwritten, so we’re very blessed to have that,” says Director General Sayeh.

The safe that held Liberia's original 1847 hand-written Constitution and Declaration of Independence stands in the parking lot of the National Archives, or CNDRA LA Bagnetto

“The first thing we did is scan them, so they can be freshly printed,” she adds, so that reproductions could be distributed to schools.

Funds, heat, and training issues

While the will to preserve Liberia’s heritage is there, the funds remain lacking.

“Our government have done their best, propping us up for all we’re doing, but there’s no money. We are making an appeal for help to have our documents intact, like any other archives in the world, says John Y. Yogi, the Chief Archivist.

And there are no archival studies in Liberia. The archives Director General Sayeh says students can only receive an associates’ two-year degree for library science.

The archive has been helped along by a number of academic partners, including Greg Mittman, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin in the United States, who has worked with the archives while doing research on his multi-faceted history website on the arrival of the Firestone Plantations Company called A Liberian Journey. Indiana University and George Mason University have also helped to provide some training.

“We have very few people trained in record management. We are looking forward to training more -- we managed to do some short-term training, but have been unable to do long-term training for financial reasons,” says Sayeh. She is hoping that these studies will be added into Liberian university curriculum so the archives can grow.

There have been some positives, however.

“Literally, we’ve almost skipped a technology level by going straight to digitization. We managed to do this with our holdings, especially the land deeds,” she says. Liberia’s archives avoided using microfilm and went directly to digitizing documents.

Working with partners such as the World Bank and USAID, the United States civilian foreign aid program, the archives have been able to digitize 95 percent of its land deeds.

“We wanted to increase land tenure security to lessen the possibility of strife, and fights, which could possibly lead to another war, so we tried to rescue that area,” she says. Those who walk through the door of the archives will have their land deed automatically computerized.

Keeping an archive in humid, tropical Africa is a true feat, where the weather eats at the delicate paper, says Sayeh.

“The survival of paper can be very difficult. And we’re looking for any assistance from anywhere that can help us to safeguard our national heritage, which is mostly documented on paper,” she adds.  “We want to encourage other Africa archives to come help also. We know they basically go through the same, as well as those who are post-war.”

The archivists are working until their 10-month project runs out in July 2018. “We have a lot of work to do. And we’re looking for funding on all areas of the archives to be able to work towards that,” says Sayeh.

Liberia National Archive workers looking for files in the presidential papers department LA Bagnetto