Archives and records management practice, like many other disciplines and practices in Kenya, was born of the onset of British colonialism during the early periods of the 20th century. Records are any recorded information in a reproducible form created, maintained and used by an individual, or organization. They act as a source of evidence of activities, transactions or decisions being made by their owners in the course of their day-to–day activities and operations. Certain kinds of records bear an enduring value either to their creators, holders or even the general public at large. For this reason, they may be passed on from ordinary record centers or registries to an archival facility. Thus, archives apart from being a physical housing units, they are also those special records of enduring value that are deemed fit for permanent preservation. This is for the purposes of research, referencing and for their enduring value.

The historical development of archives and records management practices in Kenya has however, faced numerous challenges that we can analyze in two distinct phases that include the colonial era and the post colonial era. In as much as the two phases may be distinct, some of those challenges experienced during the colonial era remained persistent and poured into the post colonial era alike.


  1. The problem of oral traditions.
  2. As mentioned earlier on, the concept and practice of archives and records management in Kenya is as old as the period around 1900. Kenyans of the pre-colonial period mainly relied on oral traditions and for that reason, most of their transactions were conducted in a similar way. This posed a challenge to early records management practitioners in the sense that major activities conducted by Africans were not documented. Memory of such major events and occurrences were kept through naming of children, associating events with seasons, holding ceremonies and planting of trees among other objects and practices. These practices did not give a detailed account of an activity as a record would. Even a story told by the finest of all story tellers would still lack the precision, detail and authenticity that a record would provide.
    Absence of documented information in colonial Kenya was made worse by the fact that the colonial secretariat offices in Nairobi were consumed in a fire in 1939 thus, virtually destroying all the central government’s records (Mnjama, 2003).

  3. Absence of an archival institution
  4. For a very long period of time, Kenya did not have either a public records office or an archival institution. Very low priority was accorded to the practice of proper records management. This was also the case not only in Kenya but also in many other African countries at the time. For instance in Nigeria, the colonial secretary in England in 1914 sent a circular to the colony expressing his concern for records preservation. The circular requested for a brief report as to the existing arrangements for the preservation and custody of the older government records and also advised that appropriate steps be taken to ensure safe keeping and preservation of the records in question (Ukwu,1995). The same was replicated in here in Kenya whereby in 1929, all administrators were asked through a circular to protect records from being destroyed by insects, rats, dust and loses through theft. Responses returned did not indicate any positive interest or attitude towards records management and we may therefore deduce that those in the political class accorded very low priority to matters pertaining to records and archives management. For this reason, many would-be archives were lost or destroyed.
    At this time, despite the great value attached to those early records, most administrators and people of the political class did not feel the need for any records and archives administration policies and programs.

  5. Inadequate skills and high staff turn-over.
  6. The early practitioners in the field of archives and records management did not have any basic skills pertaining to records and archives preservation. Their practice was done through trial and error efforts before the senior administrators began to feel the need for proper records and archives management and preservation. This condition was made worse by the fact that there were no colleges and institutions and if there were, they did not the capacity to train professional record managers and archivists. East Africa’s first institution to train professional librarians, archivists and other information management professionals was Makerere University in Uganda. Thus, all trainees before then had to be sent abroad and for an alternative, foreigners had to be sourced from overseas in their place.
    However, this did not ease the problem of personnel at all. Once these new professionals came back to Kenya, their skills were considered by many as too unique, special and rare to be merely spent in archives and records management. In a very short while, they would be preyed upon by the more dynamic and lucrative private sector leaving archives and records management to the junior untrained clerks, again. The problem of high staff turn-over only started to ease in Kenya after Moi University opened up its school of information science in 1985a.

  7. Inadequate funding
  8. The problem of high staff turn-over mentioned above can also be partly attributed to the problem of inadequate funding. The archives and records management department may not be as financially intensive as other departments in an organization or government, however, this does not therefore mean that it can do with just any amount of money allocated to it. It too like the other departments requires adequate funding to enable it to efficiently carry out its functions and operations. This is a problem that was not only experienced during the colonial era but was passed on even to today’s Kenya National Archives and Documentation Service. Payment of employee’s salary, purchase of modern preservation equipment and chemicals among other day-to-day activities that facilitate records and archives preservation are vital activities that call for proper adequate funding to enable the institution to achieve its objectives. Low salaries to the employees especially those who are qualified professionals is demoralizing and easily leads to high rates of brain drain and personnel turn-over in the profession. For this reason, the public archives and records management practice is abandoned with unqualified personnel thus suffering from inefficiency and ineffectiveness.

  9. Absence of collaborative and cooperative efforts.
  10. During the colonial era the few existing institutions did not have the capacity to engage in regional and international organizations and associations in the field of archives and records management. Such associations include the International Council on Archives (ICA) established in 1950 through a UNESCO initiative as a world body for archival policies and development; the Association of Commonwealth Archivists and Records Managers and a more recent one, the Society of African Archivists (SAA) inaugurated in 1994 during the Pan-African Conference on Archival Policies and Programs in Africa held in Nigeria’s Abuja from October 31st to November 5th . Such associations provide a regulatory platform through development of policies, programs and standards that help to check and control practices in such a field as records and archives administration. For this reason, they lagged behind due to lack of up-to-date developments and practices in the field thus slowing down its own growth in Kenya.
    Associations also offer training seminars and conferences that help to impart skills to participating archivist which could not be easily accessed by the Kenya counterparts during the colonial era.
    However, the Kenya National Archives and Documentation Centre was privileged in 1978 to host the round-table conference of the International Council on Archives in Nairobi Kenya (Mnjama, 2003).

  11. Poor housing and equipment.
  12. The Kenya National Archives were only migrated from the basement of the old Jogoo House “A” to its present location at the old Commercial Bank building along Moi Avenue in Nairobi during the reign of Dr. Maina Kagombe (1978-1981) as director of KNA. Before then, the old Jogoo House basement was widely seen by many as more of a dumping store for non-current records other than a proper archival facility. The equipment used then were also crude in nature and also of inadequate capacity. The archival staff did not have access to modern equipment due to the combined problems of inadequate funding and low technology.
    These two factors did not in any way help in the preservation of records and archives during this period but rather records and archives were exposed to nearly all the elements of destruction. Such digitization equipment as scanners, cameras, microfilming machines and computers were hard and even too expensive to come by or afford. Records were therefore constantly handled by hand during use and during routine management practices. This exposed them to wear and tear thus reducing their life spans. Preservation chemicals such as deacidifiers and even binderies and weather conditioned reservatories did not even exist in Kenya at the time.

  13. The problematic nature of format.
  14. Most archival materials were and still are of organic nature, most of them being paper based. This means they are capable of ageing, advancing and deteriorating with time. For this reason, they need special and expensive chemicals and equipment to be treated and handled with for purposes of preserving them. For such a country like Kenya which lies within the tropics, such conditions are worsened by high level of humidity in the atmosphere and high temperatures all round the year. All these conditions combined work to hasten the natural chemical process of decaying records and archival materials. Furthermore, the archival facilities in pre-independent Kenya did not have weather controlled reservatories where all weather conditions can be controlled to enhance records and archives preservation thus, making the whole preservation process even more difficult.

  15. Absence of an archival law.
  16. Kenya only got her first archival law, the Kenya National Archives and Documentation Service Act in 1965 through parliament. Prior to this, the colonial administration had operated a small archives repository in Nairobi (Musembi, 1982a). The few records and archival institutions that existed did not have legal description, backing or definition of their services. Legal backing provides for authenticity, serves to promote and also provides confidence to the public and those practicing in a profession about the service being offered. These are very important elements that this early facilities lacked.

  17. High levels of illiteracy.
  18. It is only after the Second World War that a substantial number of Kenyans could read and write. This was also the period when the records management practice in Kenya experienced a “records boom” whereby a large number of records began to be produced in different government agencies and departments and in the private sector. Initially very few people could read and write and therefore very few records were being produced mainly by the colonial administrators. Even those few that were produced were used on a very limited scale and thus their demand did not justify for production of very many records.

  19. Poor transport and communication network.
  20. Kenya’s underdeveloped system of transport and communication hampered the development and progress of archives and records management during the colonial era. The poor systems did not encourage movement of materials and people from one place to another including records. Communication between the colonial archives repository in Nairobi and other government administrative regions was difficult and therefore most of the records remained where they were created. Thus, they did not receive proper attention needed for preservation. Most were lost, stolen or even easily got destroyed.


  21. The problem of migrated archives
  22. On the eve of independence, the imperial government opted to remove certain records from the country arguing that it was an not a common practice for a government to hand over its records to another government (Mnjama, 2003). However the main motive behind the exercise was to conceal far away sensitive information on atrocities perpetrated by colonialist against Kenyans. The Kenyan government embarked on retrieving these records even as early as 1963 from Britain. This process was however not completed until later on in 1990 when the government of Kenya closed down the office it had opened at its London High Commission in 19980. By then several microfilm copies, photographs, photocopies and even some original manuscripts had been obtained through donations and purchasing.

    The entire process of retrieving Kenya’s migrated records was a lengthy and time consuming exercise and more so an expensive one. This would have well been avoided if the records had been left intact back here in Kenya during independence.

  23. Lack of good working relationship with other government agencies.
  24. The KNA Act of 1965 mandated the KNA institution to be the sole custodian of all public records and archives. However, in Mnjama, 2003, an incident is cited whereby officers from the KNA Records Management Survey team in a 1983 report on the former East African Community records expressed dissatisfaction regarding an instance whereby a Kenya Railways official denied them access to their records.
    In many other instances, the relationship between KNA and other government agencies is not cordial. For this reason, it becomes very hard if not impossible for the institution to perform its mandated functions. Section 4(2) of the public archives act states; it shall be the duty of every person responsible for or having custody of any public records to afford to the director or any officer of the service authorized by him reasonable access to such public records and appropriate facilities for the examination and selection thereof and comply without any undue delay with any lawful directions concerning assemblage, safe keeping and preservation of public records or the transfer of such public records to the national archives to form part of the national archives.
    This, in the case of practices at the KNA is seldom observed in as much as it amounts to a criminal offence.

  25. The challenge of information technology.
  26. According to the KNA Act of 1965, public records refer to the records of any government department and of any commission, office, board or any other body established by or under an act of parliament. This definition also includes electronic formats of records as public records. Emphasis is now shifting to e-governance, e-learning and many other e-transactions. Most of these transactions are recorded and stored in electronic information storage formats. The problem comes in when the traditional institutions that have for long been used to processing and preserving paper based documents are now being required to acquire process and preserve electronic information. Some of the problems posed by the electronic information formats include:

    • The ease with which they can be permanently altered.
    • Their dependence on software and hardware which are constantly evolving.
    • Their reliance on power without which they are unusable.
    • There need for special computer skills.
  27. The problem of unnecessary programs.
  28. Since the time of independence, KNA has been engaged in certain activities that have been widely criticized as irrelevant towards the attainment of its set objectives and mandate. For instance during the period 1974- 1981, during Dr. Kagombe Maina’s reign, the institution envisaged programs for retrieval of migrated archives, collection of oral traditions, preservation of the freedom tree, establishment of a documentation center, preservation of sites and monuments and the establishment of an audio-visual archives facility. Most of these were considered non-archival practices and for this reason, the Kenyan government commissioned Ian Maclean, a UNESCO consultant in records management from Australia to evaluate and accordingly advise the government concerning the functions being undertaken by the KNADS. His report concluded that the institution engaged in non-archival practices and for that reason was not able to assist in the development of records management programs for the government.

  29. The problem of unassertiveness by KNA.
  30. The KNADS has been criticized for having no strength or fiber in asserting its mandate. For this reason, it has not been accorded its proper role of being the leader in public records management. This is largely due to the reason that the institution had for long only emphasized and concentrated on preservation of archives and records that had passed the appraisal test. Good records management practices during the entire records life cycle is very important for good quality archives. Thus, the institution needs to get involved in records management from the time a record is created to the time it is passed on to the institution for final preservation. There is also need for greater cooperation between the institution and other public agencies if it is to be involved in the entire records life cycle management. If this is achieved then we could say the institution is right on course to achieving it presupposed goals and objectives.

  31. The problem of the archival law itself.
  32. The archival law of 1965 has undergone several amendments to make it more up-to-date and more applicable to the ever changing conditions in the field of records and archives management. The act was amended in 1990 and in 2003 yet again. However the act still has got outstanding issues that it does not comprehensively address. These include for instance, the appointment of the Chief executive officer of the institution. It does not clearly define the needed qualifications and above all, no formal training in the field of records and archives administration is required. Furthermore, no mention is made of their training requirement in the field of archives and records management despite having a very well elaborated scheme on their role at the institution.
    Interestingly, the syllabus for the proficiency for the clerical officers was amended in 1990 making it mandatory for them to have basic knowledge in registry services, filing and classification systems, indexing and records disposal procedures. This is despite having no mention of qualifications or skills to be possessed by the chief executive.

  33. Lack of understanding and appreciation.
  34. Kenya’s archival institution is rarely appreciated and its role in provision and management of information understood by only a handful of people. This is also as true as is the culture in many other public and private institutions. Also, very many people in the public and private sectors who generate vital records on a daily basis have no basic understanding of the records life cycle and requirements of the records disposal act. They are also extremely ignorant of the vital role that can be played by the KNA institution to help them properly manage and preserve records both at the current, semi-current and non-current stages. They are totally uninformed about the records act and for this reason it is recommended that the archival institution should engage in programs that will help to educate public officers and those in the private sector on the requirements and contents of the records act. This would help the institution to have at the end, properly managed non-current records of enduring value and would also facilitate for a smooth transition of the same records to the institution for final preservation.

  35. Deterioration of existing infrastructure.
  36. The Kenya National Archives and Documentation Centre is among those government institutions that receive inadequate funding. Thus, facilities and infrastructure at the institution are constantly ageing and deteriorating. Such facilities as weather regulated reservatories, reprographic equipment, microfilming devices, scanners, cameras the bindery and even the building itself need regular and special routine management practices to keep them in form and efficient. However, this is not possible due to inadequate funding and thus records and archival materials are not well maintained as a result.

  37. The problem of records disposal
  38. The procedure for records disposal in Kenya is stipulated in the public archives act (1965, chapter 19) in section 7(1). It requires a public office to seek permission from the director of the KNADS or his authorized representative who shall then seek permission from the minister in charge before the records are destroyed. However, in some offices this procedure is not followed and even if the attention of the KNADS director is sought under such circumstances, it may be difficult for him as it is not easy for one department of a government to prosecute a sister department of the same government.
    Sections 26 and 27 however, allow financial officers to destroy certain financial records after a certain period of time with the exception of those that are still subject to auditing and those with archival value. It is also a problematic issue for most personnel departments to destroy employees’ records even when their time is up in the registry especially those needed to process payment of pension money. For this reason many are not willing to dispose of these records despite the problem of taking up a lot of floor space in the registry.

  39. The problem of conservative archivists.
  40. The early staff at the KNA has been criticized for being contented and feeling complacent with the little amount of traffic they always receive. They seldom put in their personal effort to woe more users to the institution. For instance, most college and university students rarely visit the institution in the course of writing their theses and dissertations. Only a few know of its importance. It is mainly visited by the same old users a majority being journalist, experienced writers and researchers. Furthermore, they did not keep track of activities and preferences of their patrons and for this reason, they did not record any progress and developments made by their patrons as a result of using these services and their impact on them.


    In as much as the archives and records management services have had their better share of problems, this is not to say it has not made any progress at all. For instance, the KNA is a very strong records and archives management facility widely revered in the entire Great Lakes region of Central and Eastern Africa. Many other issues however, herein not discussed, are still posing challenges to the practice of records and archives management and if well addressed by both the government, the archival institution itself and other major stake holders the institution and the larger field of archives and records management can perform even much far better in the provision and preservation of information in Kenya.


    1. Musembi, M. primitive archival practices in colonial Kenya. Harare: ECARBICA, 1982a.

    2. Mnjama, N. Archives and records management in Kenya: problems and prospects. Http:// , Records management Journal. Retrieved 19 Mar. 2010.

    3. Kemoni, Henry N [et al]. Obstacles to utilization of information held by archival institution: a review literature., Retrieved 19th Mar. 2010.

Otuoma Sanya

Otuoma Sanya is a full-time systems librarian, tech enthusiast and writer. His areas of interest are data mining, institutional repositories, library automation and web development using python Django.

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