Problems in Tropic – 2

In general high tropical temperatures (and relative humidity) play a major role in accelerating the rate of chemical and biological eradiation as well as providing a vital atmosphere for the multiplication of tropical insects. According to the director of the National Preservation Office of the Australian National Library, there are several factors that make archival life very difficult in the Asia / Pacific region but they are applicable to most developing countries as well in:

• Tropical climates;

• Political unrest/war;

• The lack of acknowledgement of the need to preserve by the government;

• Selling of valuable heritage material to fulfill basic needs of the local population;

• Physical isolation;

• Differences in language and literacy skills.

Governments must acknowledge the importance of libraries and archives and the need to preserve a nation’s documentary heritage before truly effective preservation programs can be developed. Funding of library activities, including preservation, is critically linked to the political system in operation. Governments in most developing countries allocate a very low priority to libraries. Library and archive budgets are often so low that there are insufficient funds to acquire adequate supplies of library materials, to provide suitable housing for the collections or to operate normal library or archive services, preservation is seen as a luxury. Even in developed countries budgets for libraries and archives are shrinking and preservation activities frequently are drastically cut. In these respect preservation problems in Latin America is, in fact, often not that different from North American. However, the scale of some problems in Central and South America can appear more daunting as the human and material resources available are often extremely limited. Yet, lack of funds is surely not the only problem although it is often put forward as an excuse for a policy of ‘laissez-faire’.

The deterioration process in the tropics is very complex, and it is difficult to determine whether there is one culprit at work at a time, or whether several forces are simultaneously active. These destructive forces can be classified into three groups – the physical (heat, sunlight, dust, sand), the chemical (moisture, gases, pollutants), and the biological (fungi, bacteria, insects, rodents). The constant year-round heat speeds up the rate of deterioration. The rule of thumb is that every 10 /C rise in temperature halves the life of a book. Additionally, ultraviolet radiation and other energy elements of light, combined with high temperature, result in an acceleration of oxidation and hydrolysis. The effects of chemical contamination are greatest when air is at its saturation point and condensation occurs. In itself high moisture content has already a great corrosive effect on organic materials. When constant high relative humidity combines with high temperature and is left uncontrolled, deterioration is extremely fast. The same fatal combination of heat and moisture creates a suitable environment for biological agents. Fungi remain dormant in low relative humidity, but when it reaches seventy percent they thrive and multiply. Insect pests are silent destroyers. Often nocturnal, they can do irreplaceable damage quickly and secretly. In addition to these relatively gradual deterioration agents, the tropics are subject to sudden and violent natural disasters.

The tropics are, in fact, about as far as one could get from any vision of an ideal library or museum environment. The majority of the countries in tropical climate zones were at one time or another under colonial rule. The impact of colonialism on preservation and conservation in the newly formed states is still noticeable today. Research into the establishment of information services in Africa has shown that the colonial administrations had little regard for the establishment of national institutions to cater for archives and libraries. On the eve of their independence many an African country had nothing they could refer to as a national archive and/or library. Even long after independence some countries still do not have these institutions. It has been argued that the failure by some colonial administrations to lay some form of foundation for the establishment of information services has contributed greatly to the lack or weak preservation and conservation programs in Africa. Ahmed Huq notices that western observers, particularly the former rulers, of course, view this differently. In other countries, according to Plumbe, libraries have resulted from the mildly beneficial administration of colonial powers. Unfortunately, it appears that the lack of proper recognition of the need for conservation is also omnipresent outside the African continent.

Archives, Libraries and Museums

The title might suggest that this survey is about archives only. This is not entirely true. Many other institutions face the same or similar problems, in particular libraries and museums. Archives, together with libraries and museums, all take on the onerous task protecting and preserving a particular part of our common cultural heritage. They are both specific yet complementary institutions. Each approaches preservation differently. It is not so much the physical characteristics of the objects preserve d as the method of preservation of their informational content which distinguishes archives, libraries and museums. One specific reason for the development and preservation of archives, as formulated in modern development terminology, is its contribution to good governance as sound record keeping. This is essential to an effective and efficient system of public administration.

The holdings of museums in developing countries also have particular characteristics as some art historians assume the absence of a willingness to control or prevent the physical deterioration of cultural property in non-western societies. Still, there are ample examples where the opposite holds good. It is also recognized that museums, especially in the developing world, play an essential role in educating the people. As for the libraries, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) had already realized by the 1960s that the development of a global literacy campaign would fail if the development of national and regional library networks was left behind. It was imperative that attention be given to the preparation of reading materials, especially vernacular literature, for the newly literate adults. One way or another archives, libraries and museums are the sine qua non for the enhancement of the national and cultural identity of a nation. The identity, as well as economic recovery, is seen in many ways to be linked with the survival of the cultural heritage. Clearly they all confront the same basic difficulties in safeguarding their holdings under severe climatic conditions. That is why the preservation literature of library and museum organizations has been considered as well, although the main concern of this bibliography remains with the preservation of archives.

Country and Regional Reports

Many country reports are published that reflect the state of art in terms of conservation. They can be useful for those who w ant more insight into a particular region or country. However, many reports only allow a superficial insight. For the museum world in Africa the bibliography by Gerhard is of particular interest. The results of numerous ICA expert missions appear in the biennial ICA journal Janus, revue archivistique, see for instance the 1996 special issue, and also in their journal Archivum, international review of archives. Multilateral organizations, in particular UNESCO, also undertake different mission is to map conservation needs, to evaluate conservation projects, etc. UNESCO mainly published these results in the RAMP (Records and Archives Management Program) study series. A selection of these reports can be found in the section Preservation and Conservation – preservation in developing countries – literature.


Due to the heat and moisture high quantities of gases, pollutants, sunlight, dust, sand, fungi, bacteria, insects, and rodents also pose threats. It has been argued that every 10-degree Celsius rise in temperature cuts the life of a book in half. However, these are not the only problems encountered in tropical areas, which are situated mostly in so-called developing countries. In most cases there is also political instability, unrest, or even war; preservation and conservation of the cultural heritage are not placed high on the government’s priority list; technical facilities are limited; and the necessary training opportunities are not always available. Problems in the tropics abound and are varied. Indeed, it is necessary to set apart the issue of preservation in the tropics by devoting a specific study to it.


  • Sundararaj, M; A Manual of Archival System and the World of Archives; Siva Publication; Chennai; 1999.
  • Bobade, Ramrao, Bhujang; Museums and Archives: A Guide for Preservation and Fumigation; B. R. Publication; New Delhi; 2017.
  • Cox, J, Richard. O’Toole, M, James; Understanding Archives and Manuscripts; Colorado; 2006.