Yesterday I was at Singapore’s National Archives picking up an order for a client. Tucked away at the foot of Fort Canning Hill, the archives is located at the former Anglo-Chinese School building between the Philatelic Museum and the Registry of Marriages.
It was a busy morning for the counter staff at the Archives Reference Room. There were four people on the microfilm readers, two at the computers and a couple more at the tables. Eight researchers might not seem much but it was quite a bit to handle as the two staff had to retrieve materials, help with the machines, answer phone calls, attend to walk-ins like me and a whole load of administrative work.
The archives was set up for a soon-to-be bygone era of research. When I started going regularly about seven years ago, they still issued a reader’s card and made every researcher sign in stating their research topic every day. The counter staff knew you by name and the materials you were after. Researchers would go in regularly for months, or even years, painstakingly going through rolls and rolls of microfilm, or listening to reels and reels of tapes.
I did this for about two years, and finally stopped not so much because my employer at the time no longer wanted my services, but because my eyesight was rapidly fading. It was the hours squinting and staring at the faint black marks on those microfilm rolls that did me in!
Despite this, I do look back at those times fondly. Although tedious, research is something that is relatively relaxing for me. Furthermore, there is also no greater joy in finding a rare gem in a haystack of neglected records.
But of course there were frustrations. The many forms to fill out by hand; I’m not that fond of writing my address over and over again. Once or twice I had gone down to look at specific documents only to be told that the staff cannot find them, or the records have not been microfilmed. Some records are closed and there was a bit of to-and-fro about how to get permission for them to be viewed.
On hindsight, these seem trivial. But at the time the delays and obstructions constantly made my blood boil. On record I’ve submitted at least three “feedback” forms, none of which I’ve ever received a reply. Yesterday, I spotted a large sign about “mutual respect” at the front counter which suggests to me that there probably were other frustrated people who might have taken it out at the staff.
In the recent years, there haven’t been many overt changes at the Reference Room but there have been changes in the back-end. In the past, one had to go down to the Room to listen to oral history on cassette tapes or CDs. Now, a majority of those interviews are available online, many with transcripts. One can also order archival photos through email (of course with a formal request form and annex!) and receive them through file sharing. Both of these developments have been extremely helpful to our work, and researchers in general.
The National Archives used to be a unit under the National Heritage Board but now it is managed by the National Library Board. I’ve heard that more changes are planned. Here’s hoping that whatever these changes may be, it would mean greater access to the treasures which are hidden in the dear old archives.