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Archives, archivistes, archivistique dans l'Europe du Nord-Ouest du Moyen Âge à nos jours

Martine Aubry
Isabelle Chave
Vincent Doom

L'évolution du métier

Cooperation is the solution

The Belgian state archives and the Ministry of Flanders

Sylvie de Smet

Texte intégral

  • 1 The project manager is Ph D Chantal Vancoppenolle, ad interim head of the State Archives at Beveren (...)
  • 2 An extensive explication about the objectives and the method of the IAVA-project can be found in J. (...)

1At the end of 2001, the Belgian State Archives started the project « Institutional Research and Records Management of the Flemish Administration ». In Dutch, this title is abbreviated to ‘IAVA’. The project is located in the State Archives at Beveren and involves five collaborators and a project manager1. Before expanding on the objectives and the method of the IAVA-project, it is necessary to sketch the recent evolution of the organization of the Belgian State and its archive legislation2.

2Due to various state reforms that commenced in 1970, Belgium today is a federal state, composed of regions and communities. The regions and communities have their own legislative and executive organs, with one exception : the institutions of the Flemish Region and the Flemish Community are merged. One Parliament and one Government exercise both the regional and the community powers. In consequence, there is also one administration, which consists of the Ministry of Flanders and the Flemish Public Institutions. The ministry was founded in 1984, the public institutions followed soon after3.

Fig. 1. The present structure of the Belgian State

Fig. 1. The present structure of the Belgian State

3One of the many consequences of the state reforms is that the regions and communities are allowed to develop their own legislation with regard to government records. When they do so, the National Archives Act of 1955 is no longer applied to them. But, to the present day, only the Walloon Region has adopted such a decree. Consequently, the National Archives Act still applies to the Ministry of Flanders and the Flemish Public Institutions. The act specifies that governments cannot destroy records without the approval of the head of the Belgian State Archives or his authorized representative. It also says that governments are obliged to deposit archives that are more than 100 years old at the State Archives.

4In the beginning, the archival supervision on the Flemish administration by the State Archives happened rather occasionally. When divisions wanted to destroy records, they sometimes asked the State Archives for permission, sometimes they did not. The same happened when divisions needed advice regarding records management. In some cases, instead of contacting the State Archives, they turned to private consulting firms. This situation was partly due to the State Archives, which had no consistent policy of archival supervision, but it must be admitted that the Flemish administration certainly took advantage of the new situation. The fact that the regions and communities were new institutions, which were not explicitly mentioned in the 1955 National Archives Act, encouraged the wrong impression that the State Archives no longer had authority over them.

5The new institutions grew step by step, due to consecutive state reforms. They were subject to many reorganizations and moves. Also, old traditions of the period of unitary Belgium, e.g. the existence of officials responsible for the classification of records, disappeared slowly but surely. In consequence, the records management within the Flemish administration can be described as inadequate. For the Ministry of Flanders, records management is no priority. One will look in vain for a service that has a central role in it. Each of the seven departments is responsible for its own records and there is no interdepartmental consultation. Two departments have a kind of archivist, but in both cases, they are mainly responsible for the logistic part of it, in other words : making sure that there is enough place to store the records in the depositories. If there is any consultation on archival problems, it is on the lower levels of the administrations and the divisions. But mostly, it is only the people who are confronted daily with archival problems that try to look for solutions. The major problems are twofold : on the one hand the problematic keeping of records in unsuitable rooms or without any finding aids and on the other hand the permanent reorganizations and moves, that often lead to the destruction of records without consulting the State Archives.

Fig. 2. A typical example of the records management in the Ministry of Flanders.

Fig. 2. A typical example of the records management in the Ministry of Flanders.

Fig. 3. Another example of the records management within the Ministry

Fig. 3. Another example of the records management within the Ministry

6The two pictures above show typical examples of archive depositories in the Ministry of Flanders. On some boxes we can read « very old correspondence». Since any dates are lacking, we can only guess how old those letters might be... We can also see that the records are stored in a rather careless way. For packing materials are used different kinds of moving boxes, box files and portfolios. Sometimes, packing materials even are lacking completely.

7The foregoing indicates why IAVA has been established. The IAVA- project wants to change the incidental approach of the archival supervision on the Flemish administration into a more consistent long-term policy. For the moment, we concentrate on the Ministry of Flanders.

8The main goal of IAVA is to produce a survey of the records that are in the Ministry of Flanders and to identify at the same time those that have enduring value. By this selection we mean the decision of the State Archives on the keeping of records in the long run : may the records be destroyed after their retention period or should they be conserved permanently ? Both the State Archives and the Ministry of Flanders benefit from it. The State Archives find out which records are produced by the ministry, whereas the ministry finds out what records may be destroyed and which must be preserved. In doing so, we want to stimulate the development of a sound long-term records management strategy within the ministry.

9The most important means to reach this goal is the records management plan with the appraisal list as a derivate. The records management plan is a plan that contains for one creator all the relevant information regarding archival production both of the present and from the past. By creator is meant a division, because this is the level within the ministry for which records management plans usually are made. The plan gives in fact a systematic view of on the one hand the tasks and acts of the division and on the other hand the records that are produced in support of and as a result of those tasks and acts. The acts of the various divisions of the Ministry of Flanders make up the frame in which the records production is studied and analysed. After all, this frame has a much more stable character than the organization of the ministry, which has been and still is subject to regular changes.

The records management plan consists of four parts

10Firstly, a brief history of the creator, which explains who were the predecessors of the creator and what were the tasks they carried out. Since the competences of the Flemish administration used to be national, we return at least to the period before the state reforms. Those reforms took place in 1970, 1980, 1988, 1993 and 2001.

11Secondly, a description of the present records management. What conditions are the records kept in ? Have records been destroyed in the past or not ? etc.

  • 4 Example taken from : S. de Smet, Beleidsdomein Infrastructuur en Mobiliteit. Archiefbeheersplan afd (...)

12Thirdly, a survey of the assignments of the creator. In this survey, we distinguish four levels : the domain, the policy field, the task and the act. An example makes this clear : the act ‘to deal with complaints about public roads’ is a part of the task ‘construction, management and maintenance of public roads’. This task falls under the policy field ‘public roads and traffic’, which for its part belongs to the domain of ‘infrastructure and mobility’4.

13Then, fourthly, comes the most important part. For each act of the creator, the records management plan provides the date ranges of the act, the legal foundations, other sources in which a description of the act has been found and a survey of the divisions that executed the act in the past. Then, the records that result from the act are listed. For each type of records are mentioned : the date ranges, the arrangement, the finding aid, the form, the retention period and the final disposition.

Fig. 4. An example of a page in a records management plan.






behandelen van klachten in verband met de wegen








1111-1990 : Bestuur der Wegen, buitendienst Antwerpen, directie

1990-1991 : Bestuur der Wegen en van het Vervoer, buitendienst Antwerpen, directie

1991-1994 : Administratie Wegenifrastuctuur en Verkeer, buitendienst Antwerpen, directie

1995-1999 : Afdeling Wegen Antwerpen, directie

1999-9999 : Afdeling Wegen en Verkeer Antwerpen, directie




Klachtendossiers van de Wegentelefoon




materiele vorm

adm. Bewaartermijn

def. bestemming


chronologisch (de dossiers zijn genummerd vanaf 1)

digitaal : programma Wegentelefoon


5 jaar


14It is not surprising that, in giving all this information, the records management plan may contain up to 50 pages or more, which is rather impractical for the officials of the ministry. Therefore, each time an appraisal list is made, which is a more handy tool. The appraisal list contains only three elements : the archival descriptions, the retention periods and the final dispositions. It is in fact a summary of the records management plan and is therefore the ideal selection tool for the officials of the ministry. But for the State Archives, the records management plan is the most important result, because it puts the records in their historical and administrative context, which is necessary to be able to make well-founded decisions about the final disposition of the records.

15Now that we have seen what a records management plan looks like, we can examine the way it is established. The State Archives are in fact an outsider for the Ministry of Flanders, but to draw up a records management plan, we need lots of inside information. Drawing up a records management plan takes five steps.

16It all begins with an introductory study of the tasks of the Flemish administration in the past and the present. The bulk of this study was done in the first year of the IAVA-project (2002). Theoretical lists were then drawn up with the tasks and the acts of the Flemish administration per domain. The most important sources for this study were the legislation (which is for the most part available on the Internet) and the publications of the Ministry of Flanders, especially the Guides of the Flemish Government and the annual reports of the various administrations.

17The second step consists of on-site research. It starts with a preliminary conversation with the division manager, several interviews with the officials and visits to the archive depositories. During the interviews, questions are asked about the tasks of the division, the records that result from them, their features (date ranges, arrangement, finding aid) and their retention period. The visits to the archive depositories are meant to complete the information obtained from the interviews and to trace ‘forgotten’ records.

18Laying down the retention periods and the final dispositions of the registered records is the third and by far most important step. Laying down the retention periods is left to the creator of the records or to his successor. Therefore, the collaborators consult with the officials who work with the records, but also try to put the question on a higher level, to the division manager, the board of division managers or the legal department. Determining the final dispositions is, in compliance with the National Archives Act, a task for the State Archives. Nevertheless, the decision is by preference taken after a discussion, in which archivist, project collaborator and division manager participate.

19Two evaluations make up steps 4 and 5. The concept of each records management plan is discussed within the IAVA-team, a necessity when one wants to come to uniform end results. After this discussion, the plan goes to the division manager for final evaluation.

20The IAVA-project has led to a constructive cooperation between the State Archives and the Ministry of Flanders. Within the ministry, there is a great need for archival directions and appraisal lists. « Which records may we destroy ? » is the most frequently asked question. The records management plans certainly meet a demand, which is proven by the effective execution of the plans. In fact, most divisions that are provided with a records management plan undertake actions to execute selection decisions. Mostly, they make the execution of the plan part of the job description of a staff member. He or she can follow up the plan passively, i.e. keep it in expectation of a move or a reorganization, or he can execute it actively, i.e. proceed to selection.

21During our contacts with the officials, we try to make them conscious of the existence of the National Archives Act and the specific stipulations about government records. In some cases, we actually give training to a group of officials.

22Several divisions have already deposited historically important records at the State Archives, where they are made accessible to the public. In doing so, those records are preserved from future destruction. At the same time, these examples may inspire other divisions not to destroy records without contacting the State Archives first.

But Iava also meets bottlenecks

23Imposing retention periods is often a problem. We are forced to consult with the officials, though this is no ideal situation. Often, they do not dare answering the question or they choose - for reasons of safety - a very long or even permanent retention period. It also happens that different officials propose different terms for the same series. So, this phase usually takes a lot of time and energy.

24IAVA has no solution for the masses of forgotten records that are kept in external depositories around Brussels. In most cases, the records are left unattended and without finding aid. The conditions are often detrimental to their preservation. The most reasonable solution for this problem seems to be an agreement between the State Archives and the ministry, so that historically important series can be saved and stored in a better way.

25For the moment, the IAVA-project is temporary : it finishes at the end of 2005. Nevertheless, an extension is possible. In any case, it is important that the State Archives observe the execution of the records management plans. The archivists should keep in contact with the divisions that are provided with a records management plan.

26The drawing up of a records management plan takes a lot of time, usually two to three months. This means that collaborators cannot always meet the demands of the ministry, e.g. in case a service moves to another location. We try to stimulate the drawing up of records management plans by the ministry itself. For this reason, we made a brief manual. In any case, there is not enough time to complete the bulk of the various departments of the ministry by the end of 2005.

27Having still one year to go, IAVA will try to handle as many divisions as possible. Moreover, we will make strong efforts to convince the ministry of the necessity of a better records management. It is important that the Flemish Community takes responsibility for its own public records. In the first place this means the safe conservation of the records and secondly it means the careful selection of the records.

28This can happen by means of a more intense cooperation between the Ministry of Flanders and the Belgian State Archives. But even better would be an official agreement between the government and the State Archives or a decree of the Flemish Government regarding public records. The IAVA-team certainly hopes that some initiatives will be taken, because this is the only way to guarantee the safe conservation of the archival heritage of the Flemish Government.


1 The project manager is Ph D Chantal Vancoppenolle, ad interim head of the State Archives at Beveren. The project collaborators are/were : Joachim Derwael (till 01/01/2004), Sylvie De Smet, Paul Drossens, Tom Haeck (since 01/12/2004), Geert Leloup, Bart Sas (till 01/06/ 2004), Veerle Soens (till 01/12/2004) and Dries Vandaele (since 01/06/2004).

2 An extensive explication about the objectives and the method of the IAVA-project can be found in J. Derwael, S. de Smet, P. Drossens, G. Leloup, B. Sas, V. Soens, C. Vancoppenolle en L. Verachten, Een uitgelezen selectie... Theorie en praktijk van het project Instellingenstudie en Archiefbeheer Vlaamse Administratie (IAVA), Brussel, Algemeen Rijksarchief en Rijksarchief in de Provinciën, 2003 (Archiefbeheersplannen en selectielijsten, Ministerie van de Vlaamse Gemeenschap, 1).

3 The website of the Flemish Government :

4 Example taken from : S. de Smet, Beleidsdomein Infrastructuur en Mobiliteit. Archiefbeheersplan afdeling Wegen en Verkeer Antwerpen, directie en bijhorende raden en commissies, Brussel, 2004 (Archiefbeheersplannen en selectielijsten, Ministerie van de Vlaamse Gemeenschap, 6).

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1. The present structure of the Belgian State
Fichier image/png, 13k
Titre Fig. 2. A typical example of the records management in the Ministry of Flanders.
Fichier image/jpeg, 232k
Titre Fig. 3. Another example of the records management within the Ministry
Fichier image/jpeg, 252k

© Publications de l’Institut de recherches historiques du Septentrion, 2007

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