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Assessment of Liberian Document Repositories: 2004

Liberian Collections Project–Archives of Traditional Music

Indiana University-Bloomington

November 10, 2004


To assess the condition of document repositories still extant in the Republic of Liberia after the civil strife of the past twenty years, Elwood Dunn, University of the South, and Verlon Stone, Indiana University, travelled to Liberia in August of 2004. This assessment trip was a necessary first step in planning cooperative preservation and microfilming projects that would partner appropriate organizations in the Liberian Government, such as the University of Liberia or the Ministry of Information, with the Liberian Collections Project of Indiana University.

Ultimately, projects arising out of this trip should yield a number of important outcomes:

·     Location and preservation of important Liberian documents with great historical, political and cultural value

·     Restoration of the National Archives holdings to researchable condition

·     Availability and distribution of materials within Liberia and to US and international research libraries

·     Capacity building and personnel training in archiving, preservation, microfilming and digitization

Liberian Records & Papers Repositories

Presidential Archives, Executive Mansion, Monrovia

After Dunn’s 2000 visit to the Liberian Presidential Archives, he reported that the papers of Presidents Tubman, Tolbert, Doe, Sawyer (Interim) and Taylor were seen intact in the Executive Mansion and under the care of Mr. E. Wa-Valentine, Director. The 2004 visit confirmed that this vast and valuable repository of presidential documents remains largely intact.  While storage conditions are not up to international archival standards, the documents are in stable condition and well-protected. According to the Director, the documents are organized and filed according to guidelines developed in the 1980s by UNESCO consultants in cooperation with the Archives staff. One’s main impression is that the small Presidential Archives staff is nearly overwhelmed by the mass of materials and the lack of adequate staff, materials and funding. The value to scholars of this archives would be tremendous.

Center for National Documents and Records/National Archives, Monrovia, Liberia

A purpose-built Center for National Documents and Records/National Archives building was constructed during the 1980s in the Monrovia suburb of Sinkor. Looted and partially destroyed early in the 1990s civil war, Archives’ employees and other Liberians cognizant of the historical value of the materials collected and returned some documents to the Old Executive Mansion in downtown Monrovia, the former site of the National Archives. The National Archives staff is making a valiant effort to preserve the salvaged materials, but it is a struggle. The ceiling leaks and the roof overhangs are not built out far  enough to prevent rain from blowing in through the windows and air-circulation vent holes. The archival organization of the documents picked-up after the looting in the 1990s has never been completely restored and serious preservation challenges remain. Again the main impression is that the small National Archives staff is overwhelmed by the mass of materials and the lack of proper staffing, preservation materials training, and funding.  The first two critical tasks would be preservation and then reconstituting and executing an organization plan.

Personal Papers of President William V. S. Tubman, Tubman Farm in Bong County

About 30,000 items were estimated to exist in this collection of personal papers when Christopher Clapham, a consulting African Studies specialist, prepared a report for President Tubman’s widow in 1979. Although not official government documents, the materials show the nearly complete integration between Tubman’s personal and political lives. Clapham states that given Tubman’s stature as an African Head of State during the de-colonization era, these papers are of particular value for the study of the OAU’s early years, as well as for the study of West African diplomacy. The bulk of the collection clusters at the beginning [1944-1950] and end [1961-1971] of the Tubman administration. Clapham found the materials to be in fairly good condition in 1979, but when Professor Dunn later saw the collection, he reported that it had not been well cared for.

In 2003 Charles Taylor’s forces were rumored to have confiscated this collection, but Dunn and Stone found the papers still remained in the former President’s country home at Tubman Farm in Bong County.  The condition of the papers is very poor: Looters rifled through each folder looking for money and other valuables and then tossed everything on the floor.  In Liberia’s tropical climate, the papers were limp and damp.  Also found were many well-produced photo scrapbooks created by the Liberian and US government press offices documenting President Tubman’s many trips in Africa and to the US and other countries.  Although stored in the damp climate, most of these books were in better condition than the papers.  However, the immediate need for conservation and preservation measures is high for both the papers and photo books, followed by restoring the arrangement.

Additional Government Archives and Personal Papers

In discussions with officials, other Liberian governmental archives was confirmed to exist, such as at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Planning, but the sites were not visited. Dunn and Stone were also shown two intact and unopened safes in the old Ministry of Foreign Affairs building for which combinations were lost.  Officials report that they contain valuable historical documents, possibly even the original 1847 Constitution of Liberia. On behalf of some Liberian Government officials, the Liberian Collections Project is contacting the safe manufacturers for guidance on how to open these safes.

During the 2004 trip, many former and current government, church and education officials, as well as private persons, gave accounts that individuals held personal collections of private papers and government documents and media, often collected by persons with a keen sense of preserving the history and culture of Liberia. In several instances, small collections were offered to Dunn and Stone for deposit in the Liberian Collections at Indiana University.

Personal Papers of Bishop George Daniel Browne, Virginia, Liberia (Near Monrovia)

Bishop George Daniel Browne was the tenth Bishop of the Episcopal Church of Liberia (1970-1993) and sixth archbishop of the Anglican Church of the Province of West Africa. His intellectual and leadership contributions to Liberia and the Episcopal Church were highly significant. After his death in 1993, his widow held his books and personal papers at the family farm in Virginia, Liberia, a community outside Monrovia. During the 2003 civil war, the Browne farm suffered destruction and looting at the hands of the rebels. In the room containing Bishop Browne's library, books, his personal papers and documents were torn off the shelves and scattered about. Later Mrs. Brown re-shelved these materials and attempted to dry out the papers and re-file them. But there were major concerns about the termites and other pests as well as the pervasive damp. Responding to reports from visitors who saw “a crying need for rescuing his papers and books,” Dunn and Stone worked in cooperation with the Browne family, including son Canon Herman Browne, the Archbishop of Canterbury's Secretary for Anglican Communion Affairs, and The Archives of the Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas.  During the August 2004 trip, Dunn and Stone packed the Browne papers and they now await shipment to Austin.

A key accomplishment for the August 2004 Assessment trip was identifying key archive personnel at these document repositories and establishing professional relationships with them and their managers.  One highlight was a manager-convened meeting of all government archivists and their supervisors to discuss the situation of government archives in Liberia and to develop action plans for proceeding in an environment with very little financial support. At that meeting, the preliminary results of a survey of county records archives were presented: Many, but not all, county records centers, were destroyed or looted.

Considerations & Issues Addressed During 2004 Trip

·     Political Environment

     Access to & Control of Documents

     Key Contacts & Gatekeepers

·     Logistical Details

     Locations of Collections

     Power Availability and Reliability

     Physical Access and Security

·     Physical Properties & Condition of Documents




     Preservation Conditions

     Environment (damp, vermin, insects)

Next Steps

·     Identify Resources for  Support

·     Build Partnerships with Liberian Archivists & Stakeholders

     Training Liberian Archivists

·     Critical Projects (in priority order)

     President Tubman’s Personal Papers

     National Archives Document Conservation

     Presidential Archives Pilot Project


Comments: Marion Frank Wilson
Copyright 2004, The Trustees of Indiana University