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Archives is a repository of historically important public and private records, documents, rare books, manuscripts etc. Derived from the Greek word Archeion meaning what belongs to an office, it originates from the word arche which again means beginning, origin, sovereignty, empire, magistracy and office. From the Greek word was derived the Latin archivium from which came the French word l'archive and from the French came the English archives in the collective sense. The Oxford English Dictionary defines as a place in which public records or historical documents are kept; and a historical record or document so preserved. TR Schellenburg gives the modern definition of 'archives' as those records of any public or private institution which are adjudged worthy of permanent preservation for reference and research purposes and which have been deposited or have been selected for deposit in an archival institution.

National Archives of Bangladesh, Agargaon

Archival institutions probably had their origins in ancient Greek civilization, continued through the middle ages, and further developed in the modern period to become an important institution as the storehouse of a country’s history and heritage - a receptacle of information forming the memory of that nation. Significant developments of the institution took place in Germany, Italy, Spain, France, England and USA.

In the Indian subcontinent, official records and documents used to be preserved in central depositories called the Mahafez Khanas during the Sultanate and the Mughal periods, though not in a systematic way. However, the systematic preservation of public as well as private records, both at central or provincial government levels, and even at the local government level, started with the beginning of British rule in India. The Government of the east india company was a government that emphasized writing and records and that developed the secretariat structure of administration with all its divisions and sections. These departments and offices began to accumulate large number of documents of various types. In 1854 'Record Rules' were framed and in 1888 a Records Manual was separately published which was revised from time to time. The increase of secretariat files and records with the passing of time called for such measures as transferring the important ones to a central repository and then destroying the unimportant ones. In order to preserve important records, the Imperial Records Department was established in Calcutta in 1891. The transfer of capital from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911 necessitated the transfer of official records to the new capital. After India achieved independence the name of the Imperial Records Department was changed to the National Archives of India in 1947.

The Bengal Records Manual was reprinted in 1943. It lists documents as 'A' (for permanent preservation), 'B' (to be destroyed after 12 years), 'C' (need not be kept for more than 2 years) and 'D' (to be disposed of quickly). Since then, the records of the Bengal Presidency continued to be preserved in the record rooms of the Bengal Secretariat in Calcutta.

National Archives of Bangladesh (NAB) After 1947, the National Archives of Pakistan (NAP) was established in Karachi in 1951 under the Directorate of Archives and Libraries, which had no branch whatsoever in East Pakistan. The government of Bangladesh founded the National Archives of Bangladesh (NAB) in Dhaka in 1973. It was placed under the Directorate of National Archives and Libraries, and initially was housed in a rented building at Elephant Road near the Dhaka University campus. In 1985 the office of NAB and its collections were temporarily shifted to a newly completed building of the National Library complex located in Agargaon at Sher-e-Bangla Nagar in Dhaka. Since then, it has remained there.

Initially, NAB carried out its work under the administrative control of an official called the director in accordance with existing laws. Record management was practised in accordance with many exiting directives and regulations: the Secretariat Instructions, 1976; Rules of Business, 1975 (revised upto 20 October 1976); Bengal Records Manual, 1943; Civil Accounts Code, Treasury Manual, Land Registration Manual, 1938; Law Manual, Income Tax Manual, General Financial Rules Vol I; Rules of High Court of Judicature, etc. For the purpose of preservation, records were classified under 'A' (permanent category), 'B' (semi-permanent category), 'C' (ordinary records) and 'D' (to be retained only for a year).

In 1983, the government promulgated the National Archives Ordinance with a view to establishing a national archive as well as creating certain regional archives. A thirteen-member National Archives Advisory Council, with representatives from different universities and ministries, was constituted to advise on all matters relating to location, preservation and use of public archives. The archive legislation of 1983 laid down rules regarding accessibility of records but it has not issued any substantive rule for the national archival authority in the management of current or dormant records. Therefore, the greater bulk of records deserving permanent retention still lie with their originating departments. The whole operation relating to appraisal and retention lies in the hands of the record creators themselves. So the ultimate fate of records rests on their unilateral judgement, as was the case under colonial rule.

NAB performs the following functions and responsibilities: (i) preserving and maintaining historically important government records; (ii) acquiring and preserving private collections; (iii) collecting and preserving printed government materials/publications, including newspapers and periodicals; (iv) developing a special library for the use of researchers and scholars; (v) publishing guidebooks on materials available in the NAB; (vi) maintaining relationships with international archival organisations and liaison with foreign institutions and organisations which are members of the International Council on Archives; (vii) providing advisory services to different government and private institutions in matters of conservation and restoration of documents of historical importance; and (viii) offering reference services to scholars from home and abroad in connection with their research works so that they can utilise materials in the NAB and elsewhere throughout the world.

Collections As of July 2000, NAB's total collections of documents and records number more than 7,00,000 volumes, most of which have been collected from the Bangladesh Secretariat Record Room and the government record rooms of various districts of the country and private collections. The bulk of these documents are official records of the governments of Bengal and Assam of the British period and the governments of East Pakistan (1947-1971) and Bangladesh. In addition, other important collections are the records of the Dhaka Divisional Commissioner's office, records of various district level offices of the deputy commissioners and the documents and miscellaneous collections of two great zamindars or land-owning families of Bengal, namely the Nawab Family of Dhaka and the Bhawal Raj Family of Joydebpur. The NAB also has collected a large number of records from the National Board of Revenue, and the entire collections of the defunct national daily, The Dainik Bangla, which include newspapers, journals and various magazines of the years from 1950 to 1990.

The most important collections include the volumes of proceedings and files of the government of Bengal in British India. The records therein date back to the time of the East India Company and emanate from its business transactions, and later from administrative decisions/activities of the central government under the British Crown. These volumes contain letters, orders, resolutions etc of the executive council headed by the provincial governor or lieutenant governor. The volumes of proceedings were originally called Body Sheets, then Consultation Books, and finally Proceedings Volumes. These volumes were classified into 'A' and 'B'.

Those proceedings that dealt with policy questions were printed and marked 'A' for permanent preservation, while proceedings marked 'B' dealt with important details of various government measures that were not printed. After partition of India (1947) the government of East Bengal and later East Pakistan followed same type and classification in maintaining their volumes. But most of these volumes have not yet been received by NAB.

The NAB also has a collection of some records (1875-1947) of the government of Assam, handed over to the government of East Bengal at the time of partition, which include mostly the records of the districts of Sylhet and Cachar. In 1874, the district of greater Sylhet was transferred to Assam to form a part of that chief commissioner's province, and since then it remained a part of Assam till 1947, except in the years from 1905 to 1911. These records contain valuable information about the resentment of the people of Sylhet over the transfer of their district to Assam, and the developments of Sylhet and Cachar districts during the British period, especially the growth of tea industries in the area. The records also deal with agriculture, judicial, revenue, local government, public works, census, and departmental and appointment matters in general.

One of the earlier collections of the NAB was old historical records numbering about 20,000 files from the office of the Divisional Commissioner of Dhaka, inclusive of those official correspondences from the districts to the government channelled through the divisional commissioner as well as the government's instructions and orders to the district officials despatched through the commissioners. These records are varied in nature but provide information regarding the administrative developments of the country, the implementation of major government policies, as well as a comprehensive picture of the social, cultural and economic life of the regions. Some of these records date back to the 1890s. These records have been classified and arranged as revenue records, judicial records, local self-government records, and so on. In or about 1999 about 3000 volumes of rare books on Bangladesh's administration and life during the 19th and 20th centuries were collected from the Dhaka Divisional Commissioner's office.

The NAB also has a collection of about 5000 volumes of records that belong to the 13 old districts of the British period, now parts of Bangladesh. Some of these records date back to the 1760s and run up to 1900. In fact, these records are considered the only extant documents concerning the life and condition of Bangladesh's districts during 18th, 19th and the early 20th centuries. The district records available in the NAB are those of Chittagong (1760-1900), Rangpur (1777-1879), Comilla (1782-1868), Dhaka (1783-1859), Dinajpur (1786-1951), Rajshahi (1782-1878), Mymensingh (1787-1869), Barisal (1790-1887), Faridpur (1799-1868), Sylhet (1777-1878), Pabna (1820-1886), Noakhali (1840-1879), and Jessore (1790-1862).

In its efforts to collect documents and oil paintings of the former zamindars of East Bengal, NAB has gathered a large number of records, books, files, maps, oil paintings etc of the zamindar families of Dhaka and Bhawal. These records are considered important sources of information on the zamindari system and the history of East Bengal in the 19th and 20th centuries. In addition, other important collections of NAB include press clippings of important newspapers from the Press Information Department of the Bangladesh Government that provide informative news and views on national and international events and issues covering the period from 1954 to 1988. A large number of old maps have also been collected from various sources including the Secretariat Record Room, office of the Dhaka Divisional Commissioner, and other district record rooms, which include copies of maps drawn by the famous cartographer James rennell, as well as many other cartographers at the times of periodical surveys conducted by the government. These maps are invaluable for studies on environmental and ecological issues of the country.

Since 1973, NAB has been collecting the Bangladesh Gazettes and since 1987 the daily radio monitoring reports from Radio Bangladesh that provide an important source of contemporary national and international history. Another good collection includes back issues of Bangladeshi and foreign newspapers, journals and periodicals.

As part of its other activities, NAB holds regular seminars related to archives and the history and heritage of the country. In addition, a programme has also been adopted by NAB to provide automation service to its users through the use of computers as well as worldwide circulation of its resources through Internet. [Sharif uddin Ahmed and KM Karim]