Archives and Records Management in the Netherlands

By Stephens, David O. | Information Management, October 1999 | Go to article overview

Archives and Records Management in the Netherlands


Stephens, David O., Information Management


The Netherlands, a nation with about 16 million people, is famous for its canals, windmills, dikes, tulips, and some of the world's greatest art. It is also a modern industrial nation that is home to Royal Dutch Shell, Unilever, Philips Electronics, Heineken, and many others.

What do the Dutch have to say about information management? What contributions have they made to professional practices in archives and records management that are worthy of global emulation? This article explores various aspects of information management as practiced in the Netherlands.

Historical Background

The Dutch have made significant contributions to archival theory and practice for more than a century. The archival principle of provenance that records should be arranged according to their origins in an organic body or an organic function or activity - was first given theoretical justification in a Dutch manual of archival practice, Handleiding voor het Ordenen en Beschroven van Archiveven (Manual for the Arrangement and Description of Archives), written by Dutch archivists S. Muller, J.A Feith, and R. Fruin, and published in 1898. T. R. Schellenberg, generally regarded as the doyen of archival science in the United States, referred to this manual as the "most important one of its time."

Dutch archivist Arnold J. Van Laer brought the provenance concept to the United States when he became head of the manuscript division of the New York State Library. The principle of provenance became generally known to the American archival community during the 1920s and is now universally practiced by archival institutions throughout the world.

During the early 1980s, another Dutch archivist, Evert Van Laar, acting under the auspices of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), conducted the first survey of archives and records management programs in Africa. The report of his findings, published in 1985, contained survey data on 27 African countries. During the ensuing years, this survey proved invaluable in efforts to upgrade the quality of archives and records management in developing countries throughout Africa.

Dutch archivists continue to articulate new archival methods and practices. But what of records management? Dutch contributions to global practice are less well-known in the United States, but Dutch records managers have developed some professional practices that are worthy of global attention, if not adoption.

The Netherlands Enters the Records Business

The government of the Netherlands has had a State Archives Service since 1881. This department comprises the General State Archives (now known as the National Archives) in The Hague, and the provincial records offices located in the 12 provinces of the Netherlands. The department has operated as part of the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Sciences and is headed by a keeper of national records.

The earliest records archives laws in the Netherlands were enacted in 1918. Public records legislation dates from 1962, with the enactment of the Public Records Act relating to all current and noncurrent public administration records. In 1968, enabling regulations detailing the requirements of this law were enacted and, in turn, superceded by new laws in 1995.

In 1980, the Civil Service General Secretariat Affairs Decree was issued. This document prescribed highly detailed, binding rules and regulations concerning how ministries of the Dutch government should register and store their records. The decree's primary objective was to provide recordkeeping standards for government records and assure uniformity.

Practice in the 1980s

As in the United States, professional practice in archives and records management in the Netherlands involved physical records, at least through the 1980s. The 1985 report Destruction of Public Records in the Netherlands, prepared by the Dutch inspector of public records for a Europe-wide conference on archives and records management in Budapest, reflects this. …

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