Preserving records for 100 years: A peek into operations of National Archives of Singapore

History comes alive with work to enlarge and preserve the collections at National Archives of Singapore

From left: Mr Wong, Dr Phang, Ms Chee at the Archives Conservation Laboratory with assistant archivist Abigail Huang and Mr Chng.
From left: Mr Wong, Dr Phang, Ms Chee at the Archives Conservation Laboratory with assistant archivist Abigail Huang and Mr Chng. ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

Approving supplies of meat for troops was among some of the everyday issues Commandant of Singapore Sir William Farquhar had to deal with in the 1820s.

In a Jan 15, 1823 letter to a storekeeper called Captain W. Flint, Farquhar gave the nod for "salt pork" to be purchased for troops although there was still salt beef. This was so that the troops would "as usual have a regular change of diet", he wrote.

"I would recommend in future that particular attention be paid to preserve an equal proportion of each in store as far as practicable."

The handwritten correspondence offering insight into how the colony was run is one of more than 10 million records in the repository of National Archives of Singapore (NAS).

Established in 1968 with just 15,000 records, its archives have grown over the years to include government file records, photos, maps, building plans, posters and audio and video recordings.

NAS oral history centre's deputy director Julia Chee said it is in a better position to boost growth in all areas of its collections after it became an institution under the National Library Board in 2012.

  • Conserving paper records

  • • To eliminate insects, records are loaded into an air-tight vacuum chamber, which is then filled with 99.9 per cent oxygen-free nitrogen for 14 days.

  • • The next step is to remove soluble stains and dirt through a deionised water bath. Records are then immersed in mild alkaline solution to remove the acid content in the paper and ink (above).

  • • The missing parts of records are filled with cotton and flax slurry using a leaf-casting machine developed by the National Archives of Singapore.

    • The documents are then mounted between special repair tissue and a coat of gelatin is applied to improve their strength for handling.

  • • Records in the form of books are reassembled via hand-stitching and binding. The book title is then hot-stamped onto a hard cover.

    • Records that come in sheets are sealed with archival-quality polyester film for long-term preservation, using an in-house-developed ultrasonic encapsulating machine.


About 80 staff work across key departments such as audio visual archives, the oral history centre and records management at NAS' headquarters in Canning Rise, once the home of Anglo-Chinese School.

NAS gave The Straits Times a peek into their operations.


The oral history centre now has 22,000 hours of recording - from 18,000 five years ago.

There are 30 ongoing projects, said oral history specialist Mark Wong. They include topics such as the Japanese Occupation in Singapore, the history of the public service and vanishing trades.

There are 300 interviews under the Japanese Occupation and Prisoners-of-War projects. Interviews usually take place in the three recording studios at NAS' headquarters.

Over several sessions, the specialists encourage interviewees to share stories and anecdotes.

One of Mr Wong's interviewees, Major (retired) Foong Fook Kay, talked about how his father, a sergeant in the Strait Settlements Volunteer Force, had reported to a registration centre during the Japanese Occupation and had passed through safely, only to have someone calling out his name.

He was moved to another section and was never seen again. Major Foong believed that his father had been betrayed by his comrade.

Candidates for the oral history centre are usually sourced by word of mouth. Mr Wong said: "We usually get older interviewees. By then, it's been a life well-lived. The interviewees are usually proud to share their experiences."


On the fifth floor of the NAS building is the sound and moving image laboratory.

It is home to a range of film, video and audio equipment from different eras that are needed for audio-visual preservation and the digitisation of obsolete analogue formats to digital files.

Devices include open reel and audio cassette players, and vinyl and shellac record players, as well as film cleaning equipment and film scanner.

The department has digitised more than 40,000 of 100,000 recordings that are at risk of loss. Of these, 37,000 can be viewed at the archive's reading room - the rest are upon request.

Highlights include footage of the 1966 Grand Prix in Thomson and a 1940 Peranakan wedding shot on 16mm film.

The team has five more years to complete the digitisation of nationally and historically significant audio-visual content. It also records present-day events, such as daily prime time news broadcasts on Singapore's free to air channels.

NAS will be hosting a three-day joint technical symposium starting today. About 200 international archivists will gather to exchange notes on developments in the field of preservation. It is held in partnership with the South East Asia-Pacific Audiovisual Archive Association. This is the first time the event will be held in Singapore and Asia since its inception in 1983.

Senior assistant director Phang Lai Tee said this was testament to the progress made by NAS.


Behind closed doors in the heart of the civic district, a team of six NAS staff painstakingly piece together records dating back to 1800.

Among their duties - to reconstruct brittle maps, stem the growth of mould and mildew and save records from ink corrosion.

So far, they have conserved and restored 975 volumes or over 40 per cent of the Straits Settlements records in NAS' repository.

The lab started mechanising its processes in 1981 to improve and speed up the conservation of records. They developed their own leaf machine, hydraulic press, encapsulation device and a polyester film storage system. They also have their own book binding and stitching operations.

Assistant conservator and acting supervisor at the laboratory, Mr Chng Yak Hock, said: "The aim is to restore records so that they can be preserved for about 100 years."

Volunteers' painstaking efforts in transcribing work

Eyes squinting at the screen, Ms Vandana Aggarwal, 53, deciphers a cursive, handwritten Straits Settlement record.

Since last March, the freelance writer has single-handedly transcribed about 2,700 records, or 20 per cent of the 15,000 Raffles administration-era records, on the National Archives of Singapore's (NAS) Citizens Archivist Project.

Ms Vandana, former vice-principal of the Global Indian International School in Balestier, takes about 20 minutes to transcribe a page. Sometimes she stumbles on the letters "f" and "t", which can be easily confused.

NAS is harnessing the power of crowdsourcing on the Citizens Archivist website, in its race to transcribe a million of these records by 2019 - the 200th anniversary of Raffles' landing in Singapore.

More than 9,000 of these pages have been transcribed while another 1,600 old photographs have been described by the community so far.

More than 250 volunteers have contributed to the project. NAS said it welcomes more people to volunteer their time to transcribe and describe these documents.

The pull factor for volunteers such as Ms Vandana is the chance to be one of the first to decipher and record these documents for posterity. She said: "I'm always on the portal. It's a special feeling to be involved in ensuring such important information is not lost in time.

"I'm very fond of history. This process has made Singapore very real for me. When I see a certain road, I can link it to the historical person it is named after."

NAS will be hosting an appreciation dinner on March 17 at its 1 Canning Rise headquarters to thank volunteers such as Ms Vandana.

The NAS team had initially tried using handwriting recognition software to do the transcriptions, but were thwarted by their elaborate cursive penmanship. NAS realised the public could pool their collective wisdom to make sense of the materials. This would also speed up the transcription process. Similar efforts by archives in countries such as the United States and Australia have been successful.

Assistant archivist Abigail Huang, 29, said she was impressed by the community's effort and dedication. Ms Huang said: "I think it's amazing how people have contributed to the portal and done further research to verify names and places, to be certain of what they are transcribing."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 07, 2016, with the headline Preserving records for 100 years: A peek into operations of National Archives of Singapore. Subscribe