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Conducting Archival Research in Kenya: Reflections of an Early Career Researcher

By June 12, 2024No Comments

by Diana Nduku Muthusi

During my Graduate Attachment Scheme at the British Institute in Eastern Africa (BIEA), I was assigned to work as an archival research assistant to two BIEA-affiliated researchers. The role involved engaging with the BIEA library’s archival records and Kenya National Archives and Documentation Services (KNA& DS). The staff in the two repositories were very welcoming and patient with me as I learned my way around archival research. It is primarily because of the staff’s guidance and my desire to learn that I have been able to develop archival research skills which are proving to be essential in my early career as a researcher.  In this blog, I will share my experiences and insights gained from over a year of conducting archival research at KNA&DS.

KNA&DS:  A Brief Introduction

KNA&DS is situated in the middle of the Nairobi Central Business District (CBD) between Moi Avenue and Tom Mboya Street. The location is synonymous with the KNA&DS and is popularly referred to as ‘archives’. This is because KNA&DS is the oldest and most recognizable landmark within the area. The location is also a popular meeting point and ‘matatu stage’ with several public transport vehicles that ply different Nairobi routes picking- up and dropping off passengers around the area. Further, there are also small-scale vendors selling their wares to passers-by and archives visitors. Given the various economic and social activities around the KNA&DS, it is not surprising that its role as an archival research center, Murumbi Art Gallery, and its general cultural significance go unnoticed. This ‘public invisibility’ is not new as Carotenuto & Luongo (2005) found that most Kenyans were unaware of the various archival and cultural heritage activities taking place inside. This is not unique to KNA&DS as Smiley (2006) made a similar observation in Tanzania regarding the locals not being familiar with the location of the Tanzania National Archives (TNA). While these observations may point to the need for increased public awareness about KNA&DS, they also suggest that KNA&DS’s location has over time been integrated into the Nairobi CBD’s tapestry, and as a result in addition to its official roles, it serves different urban functions.


In November 2022, when I first visited the archives to make inquiries about conducting archival research, the registration fee was strictly through cash. Currently, in line with the government directive to centralize public services payments on E-Citizen, to access the archives, visitors are required to log into E-Citizen and pay the entrance fee online. In addition, visitors are required to record their details in the visitor’s book at the reception desk. The data captured includes visitor’s names, personal contact information, and the place of visit. Following this registration, visitors are requested to leave their luggage. Visitors undertaking archival research also register in the search room. The difference between the entrance registration and the search room’s registration is that the search room’s visitor’s book captures details of the research one is involved in, the name of the institution, and the KNA&DS permit number. It is advisable for the people going to the search room to state prior so that they are not charged at the reception like the visitors visiting the Murumbi art gallery section on the ground floor

The archival materials database search room is located on the first floor. Before accessing the records in the custody of KNA&DS, a visitor is required to apply for a permit using the prescribed process. Currently, new members are required to register online via the E-Citizen. After logging into the platform, one is required to fill out an online application form, pay[1]for the application, and wait for feedback, once approved the applicant is contacted via a short message service (SMS) text, or email then a membership card is issued that also contains a personal permit number. According to the KNA&DS rules and regulations for users, the “permit will constitute an agreement to observe the rules made by the Director in accordance with the Public Archives and Documentation Service Act cap 19.” Following this admission routine, the researcher or visitor can interact with the records. It is important to reiterate that permit holders and visitors must sign the attendance register in the search room during each of their visits.  It is not mandatory for researchers using KNA&DS to provide their National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation (NACOSTI) permit. This is probably because researchers conducting their research in Kenya are legally required to obtain the relevant permit from NACOSTI. Regionally, access to different archival databases requires additional approval from other agencies. For instance, in Tanzania and Uganda, one must secure permission from the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH) (Smiley, 2016) and the National Records Centre, respectively. In the region, the access costs are different.[2] [3]

[1]To conduct research in the archives, non-citizens are required to pay a fee of 1500 Kenya shillings, Kenyan students with a diploma or certificate are charged 100, while undergraduate students in Kenya and other search room users are charged 200 (Kenya National Archives).

[2]Foreign researchers are charged USD 300 to conduct research at The Uganda National Records Centre and Archives, while nationals are charged the same amount. National undergraduate students who intend to conduct research at the National Records Centre and archives must obtain clearance from the National Council for Science and Technology through their Heads of Department. Students enrolled in a Master’s Program or PHD research are charged USD 50.( National Records Centre and Archives)

[3] To use the Zimbabwe National Archives, researchers must provide positive identification such as an ID, passport, or driver’s license to access the reading room and pay a $1 entrance fee. On-citizens are required to present a research permit or a temporary employment permit(Accessing the Archives)

KNA&DS Archival Database

The KNA&DS archival computer database comprises information materials from the Micro-Filming Section, Audio-Visual Section, The National Documentation and Information Retrieval Service(NDS) and repositories. Access to these databases may be restricted by regulations like closed periods, dictating when the public can access the records. For instance, Kenya observes a 30-year rule. This means KNA&DS user can only access records that have been in existence for over 30 years. However, there may also be additional caveats on access to some of the older than 30 years’ records on the basis such as confidentiality levels of the documents (Ngulube, 2002). In such cases, record keepers suggested that researchers would have to get special permission from the KNA&DS Director to access those specific documents. The records restriction rule is not unique to Kenya as different countries observe different periods for example, Botswana, South Africa, and Zambia observe a 20-year restriction period, Zimbabwe observes 25 years, Namibia and Tanzania observe 30 years, and Lesotho observes 35 years. In addition to these administrative access restrictions, records access may also be limited by the location of the archives, inadequate shelving and storage facilities, poor preservation and conservation of records and materials (Bhebhe, Masuku, & Ngulube, 2013), and, incorrect dating and inventory input (Ntewusu, 2014). All these factors can lead to insufficient data collection when conducting archival research.

Similar to information search procedures in other academic databases, archival records search at KNA&DS start by inputting specific keywords to identify the relevant archival resources in the computer database. Once you have identified the files or reports you want to request, you will write the information of the files or reports in a requisition form. The requisition form contains details such as your surname, your permit number, the title of the file, the date, and the file’s reference number. After recording these details on the requisition form, it is handed over to a search room staff who assigns a requisition number. The details are then transferred from the requisition form to a circulation register. The requisition form is then taken to the repository rooms for the files requested to be retrieved. KNA&DS has also provided manual guides to guide researchers in this process. Similar paper-based records access processes have been observed in Tanzania where researchers must complete a short form to access a file (Smiley, 2005). This step-by-step archival records access process helps enhance accountability and keep track of the retrieved documents and those not available.

Archival Records Digitization

KNA&DS has a long experience with archival records digitization that can be traced back to 2007 whose digitization efforts resulted in the digitization of over 20 million documents, and it is still ongoing. Currently, digitization is conducted after the documents have been received from the creating agency and also upon request whose payment is determined by the number of copies. KNA&DS is currently aligning its record keeping with the current administration’s digital superhighway policy. The digitization process is conducted as per the record groups of materials that are frequently requested and those that are in a state of deterioration. Archival records digitization is seen as one way to enhance records preservation, protection, access, and service delivery. To achieve this in KNA&DS and other African archival institutions these institutions must develop a digitization policy (Asongwa 2011; Senturk 2014; Balogun 2018) Such a policy would also be critical to developing a digitization plan and metadata cataloguing. Furthermore, such a plan would also specify how the digitization of the actual records will be carried out, specifying issues like archival document prioritization factors such as document value, importance, user demand, availability, and fragility of the original materials. In addition, steps to avoid digital copy duplication and the acceptable digital formats should be specified. While digitizing can maximize research efficiencies, it can also reduce the accessibility of paper records, which can cause users to pay less attention to scattered or deteriorating paper records (Daly,2017).

Challenges of my experience

During my time in the search room, I encountered several challenges. Firstly, there was an inability to locate a file or report I requested, often due to file misplacement or incorrect data input in the computer database or manual guide. Secondly, there were delays in receiving requested files. The limited number of available computers for accessing the archival database presented a challenge, especially when multiple researchers required access simultaneously. KNA&DS has attempted to address this issue by hiring more staff in different departments within the archives, including the search room, to ensure effective service delivery. However, KNA&DS should be provided with additional technical and human resources to ensure the systematic and efficient delivery of archival services.


I have gained valuable archival research experience from over a year of conducting research at the KNA&DS. Interacting with archival records and the KNA&DS staff has deepened my appreciation for the crucial role that archival records play in research. My experience at the KNA&DS has also highlighted the significant impact that culture and history have on various economic sectors.

Further, my experience was also instructive on the different roles the archives play within urban environments. The ongoing archival digitization process builds on previous efforts and has the potential of making the different valuable records accessible to a larger population. However, even as KNA&DS undertakes these initiatives, they need to implement necessary data protection precautions that will be in line with the Data Protection Act of 2019 and measures to ensure effective archival records digitization. In addition, this initiative should not be seen as undervaluing the largely labour-intensive archival work done by the archivists in retrieving, preserving, conserving, and restoring archival and library materials. I urge you to visit the KNA&DS, one of the national archives with a gallery and a significant part of our cultural heritage.


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