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National Archives of Sri Lanka

National Archives of Sri Lanka

Managing Municipal Archives seminar in Colombo, Sri Lanka

In September 2018 Laura Taylor, a Senior Archivist in the Public Services team at London Metropolitan Archives had the very exciting opportunity to visit The National Archives of Sri Lanka (SLNA) in Colombo and assist with providing training on archives and records management in a two-day seminar in Colombo for those working with municipal records in Sri Lanka on the behalf of the International Council on Archives (ICA). Sri Lanka has just introduced legislation relating to access to information and the various institutions with responsibility for national, local and parish records required guidance on implementing this legislation and good record keeping generally, and it was thought that delivering training via the International Council on Archives would be a good way to approach this.


When the call went out for a speaker, I was keen to volunteer but also daunted as although I provide training and guidance to readers in the public rooms at LMA all the time, and explain complex collections in an accessible way, I don’t often provide training in the traditional classroom or lecture theatre style environment to large numbers.

Bart Ballaux, Manager of the Records Management Unit of Rotterdam, volunteered to be the other training provider and we decided it would be sensible to meet before the seminar so that we had an idea of what to expect from each other and to work on the programme. A quick visit to Rotterdam was arranged and we were both relieved that we got on well.  Bart’s experience is very much on the records management side especially in electronic records management and he also has a decade’s experience of lecturing on records management theory. This was reassuring for a rookie like me and meant that I could base my presentations on the traditional paper environment where I have more experience.

Margaret Crockett, an independent archive trainer, very kindly spent time with me after delivering a Basic Archive Skills Training Day at LMA. It was very useful as she ran through the practical aspects such as inoculations, ensuring accommodation is booked, asking questions about the lecture room facilities and also checking the programme would be feasible in the timeframe.

The topics of my three presentations were: the management of historical archives including how to provide a search room service and searching an online catalogue; the creation of a paper records management system including how to create a retention schedule; and records disposal, sensitive records and the processing of personal information.

One of the most challenging things was not knowing what the delegates themselves would expect and what level of knowledge they already had. We also knew that English was not the delegates first language and whilst a lot were fluent in English some had very little. The Director General’s team at SLNA had prepared a draft glossary of terms and phrases in archival science which translated some key terms into Tamil and Sinhalese from English. If I were to speak again in Sri Lanka, I would create my slides in all three languages, where possible, to assist the delegates.

The seminar was supposed to be on Tuesday 6 and Wednesday 7 September with an outing on the 8 September, but due to circumstances beyond the control of the archives team the seminar was postponed by a day. This allowed additional time to prepare and the nerves to kick in but had my flight home been booked for the Friday and not the Saturday I’d have missed the trip to Kandy on the final day which would have been disappointing.


We were asked the day before the seminar to give a short introductory speech after the formal welcome by the Sri Lankan Minister of Higher Education and Cultural Affairs. The opening involved processing into the lecture theatre following traditional dancers and drummers, and also lighting candles – Bart and I had not been expecting such a spectacular start to the seminar! My introductory speech drew on the work of the ICA and the sharing of knowledge and expertise internationally.

International Council on Archives attendance certificates

​Attendance certificate

Attendance certificates were required by all the delegates and a lot of time was spent on the Wednesday evening by Bart, Nadeera Rupensinghe (the Director General of SLNA) and me signing them to be handed out at the end of the second day.

All delegates were fed very well during the two-day seminar and SLNA had also arranged their accommodation. The hotel for the speakers was new and some floors were still being built but it was of a very high quality and as the only female staying in the building (or so it appeared) the very friendly staff were keen to know why I was travelling alone. I suspect the hotel will soon be too expensive for visiting archivists but the good facilities and excellent Wi-Fi made last minute work on presentations easier.

Bart and I were given a tour of the national archives building - I liked the design a lot. Parts of the building need repair, although some of the strong rooms such those for the national film archive, have excellent facilities. The SLNA appear to be coming out of a period of restricted funding and hope to have the funds released for building repairs soon. The Director General also wishes to return to previous numbers of qualified archivists and conservators on staff.

Bart and I were asked if we would mind being interviewed by a reporter from the national newspaper of Sri Lanka and we were happy to help raise the profile of SLNA and their work around the implementation of the new legislation. The interview lasted well over an hour and a half which was rather tiring, and we were concerned about what angle the reporter would take, but the article was fine (obviously there’s always an element of risk when talking to any journalist in any country).


The seminar was a great opportunity to see archive provision in another part of the world and in terms of personal professional development I learnt a lot. I’ve wanted to be involved in the work of the ICA for a while but had been focusing on my role at LMA up until now and hadn’t made the time to be involved.  I was very daunted at the prospect of delivering presentations to such a large audience in another country but I’m very glad I did it and it has bolstered my confidence in the expertise I have gained over the years.

It would have been nice to have been able to talk to the delegates more and find out about their archive services in different parts of the island, but when planning the programme Bart and I didn’t think we would have enough time to engage with small discussion groups. Work in smaller groups is likely to have provided the opportunity to learn more about their collections and provide more tailored guidance. This was not feasible with a large audience and two training providers, but if the project is repeated, I would want small discussion groups factored in. With hindsight a third trainer would have been good, but more expensive for the ICA to fund.

Colombo delegates


The lecture hall facilities were very good even if the air conditioning couldn’t be adjusted (but better than having none). The IT was excellent which enabled me to demonstrate searching on LMA’s online catalogue and I used records relating to Ceylon/Sri Lanka in LMA’s collections to do this. The training on using online catalogues and the way collections are arranged hierarchically was well received and search tips appreciated as a few of the delegates were planning research trips to the UK.

I didn’t show any of the short films created by LMA to guide readers (and available via the website) as I felt that this may have been viewed as the lazy option. If providing this training again I would have broken up the lectures with videos to keep the sessions fresh and reinforce the theory with a visual guide.  Also, I was aware of the British legacy in Sri Lanka and took care to not appear ‘colonial’ in my attitude as opinions of the English are mixed but everyone was friendly and welcoming regardless of their private opinions.

All the delegates (approximately 200) filled out the feedback forms - the trainers didn’t see all of them nor would we have been able to read them as not all were in English but most of the feedback was positive. The audience was a very mixed crowd ranging from those who clearly had been made to attend to by their places of work to those who were very keen to hear what we had to say and enthusiastically invited us to visit their local archives.

On the last day we were treated to a day out to Kandy to see the local museum, the Temple of the Tooth and the Botanical Gardens with the staff from SLNA. Our hosts were very kind and I had the opportunity to speak to the staff in an informal setting and see some of the beautiful scenery on the way to Kandy. I hope to return one day to see more of Sri Lanka.

12 February 2019
Last Modified:
28 February 2019