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The National Archives : historical overview

Trying to formulate a clear idea about the history of archives in Tunisia is obviously hard. Available sources are, indeed, rare. It is, nonetheless, possible to claim that the greatest number of the successive political regimes which marked the history of this country for more than two thousand years formed important archival fonds.

Unfortunately, however, we are not in reach of the major part of these fonds. Frequent wars and political instability, especially prior to the advent of the Husseynite Dynasty in 1705, were major causes in this sense.

The second half of the XIXth century was marked by the accomplishment of a whole series of reforms which affected both the political organisation of the country (the Fundamental Pact of 1857 and the Constitution of 1861), and the administrative system of it (the determination of ministries’ missions and organisation in 1860).

It is within this context that the Great Ministry “Prime Ministry” witnessed the creation, in 1874, of a service whose main task was to look after records. Known as the « Centre des correspondences de l’Etat » (State Correspondence Centre), this service had, with the other “Great Ministry’s services”, Dar El Bey, as headquarters. This service soon undertook the gathering of public records by transferring them from the Bardo Palace and collecting them from various other sources namely senior civil servants and statesmen.

The organisation of these records was carried out according to elaborate technical methods. Such methods took into consideration the organisation and communication of these records and their restitution. Directed by Cheikh Mohamed Taib Boussin, this service benefited from the use of several valuable manpower resources.

Hence, Tunisia, and compared to other Arab countries, was a precursor in this field. It was the second country, after Egypt, to opt for the organisation of its records, and this even before the establishment of the French Protectorate.

The situation turned into complexity during the Protectorate Period (1881-1956). The Tunisian administration was maintained. However, its functions were restricted to fields of action directly linked with the Tunisian population (regional and local administration, justice, cult, habous “endowments”…).

Besides, it was subject to the supervision of a French senior official, « Secrétaire général du gouvernement » (Secretary General of Government). This period witnessed also the foundation of some technical directorates playing the role of real state departments.

They were under the direct supervision of the « Resident general » ( High Commissioner ), France’s representative in Tunisia, who jointly ran the affairs of the Ministry of War and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Records generated by the activities of these two entities were organised differently. As for the Tunisian administration, “Section d’Etat”, the implemented system was much affected by the registries system used by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs (as a protectorate, Tunisia was among its mandates ). The records generated by the different services were grouped into series following a classification system set in advance. Records offices were established within the various structures of the Section d’Etat.

Their main task was the collection of current records and files. In 1883, and from there on, the “Centre des correspondences de l’Etat” became known as « Les Archives générales du gouvernement » (State General Archives) and turned into a depository for the « Section d’Etat » records which lost administrative value and importance.

This service was attached to the Secretary General of Government.

Several senior civil servants presided over this service, namely Chokri Ghanem, Mohamed Karoui (1887-1923), Hassen Hosni Abdelwaheb, Tahar Lajmi, Larbi Ben Abdallah, Ali Abdelwaheb, Mohamed Salah Mzali and Mohamed Laziz Lakhoua. 

The National Archives presently undertakes the preservation of the major part of these records. The records generated by the technical directorates were not arranged in the same way, however. They were not transferred to the State General Archives either. They were kept at the directorates, which led to their loss except some.

As for the records collected by the services relevant to the French « Resident general » in Tunisia, they were transferred to France (They belong to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs). Since 1983, Tunisia has actively proceeded to the microfilming of these records.

With Tunisia’s political autonomy in 1955, services of « the Presidence du Conseil » (Council’s Presidency) were reorganised (Decree of October 13, 1955), and the General State Archives took the name of “Archives générales” (General/Central Archives). In 1967, the Presidency State Secretariat underwent a whole restructuring, and the archives administration became known as the « Division des Archives générales et de la Documentation » (Division of General Archives and Documentation). It had as a task the centralization and preservation of the State’s general archives.

It soon undertook to establish a full list of the state’s records and to make them accessible to researchers. 

Administratively, a division is a body which ranks in the middle between a sub-directorate and a service.

The establishment of the Prime Ministry and the organisation of its services, following Decree n° 70-118 of April 11, 1970 caused the archives administration to be renamed as

the “Department (Division) of General Archives”. It was in 1971, following the reorganisation of the Prime Ministry’s services, that the archives administration got promoted to the ranks of a sub-directorate keeping The same denomination.

It was not possible for the newly-born Tunisian state to pursue the organisation of its records using the State Section’s method. Archival activity and processing began, then, to disappear from public administrations, and records transfer came to a halt. The role of this institution was confined to the communication of preserved records to the users.

Meanwhile, records accumulated within public services, which necessitated a deep meditation about the question.

This ended in the establishment of the National Archives as a public institution in accordance with the stipulations of Act n° 88-95 issued on 2 August 1988.

Under the tutelage of the Prime Ministry, the National Archives is a public institution which, in addition to its administrative character, enjoys the status of civil person and financial autonomy.

Since the beginning of 1999, the National Archives services were transferred from the Prime Ministry to their new headquarters located at 122, Boulevard 9 avril 1938 in Tunis.

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