According to Ketelaar (1992:5) "archives - well preserved and accessible to the people - are as essential in a free democracy as government of the people by the people, for the people. Because archives are not only tools of the government, not only sources for historical research, access to public archives gives the people the possibility to exercise their rights and to control their governments, its successes, its failures." The Dictionary of Archival Terminology defines access as "the availability of records or archives for consultation as a result of legal authorization and the existence of finding aids". The same Dictionary defines privacy as "the right to be secure from unauthorized disclosure of information contained in records /archives relating to personal or private matters." McCauseland (1993) on the other hand defines access to include "the terms and conditions of availability of records or information maintained by archives for examination and consultation by researchers". As can be seen from the above definitions, access to records and archives is usually determined by laws, policies and procedures that are established by governments. Such laws would usually regulate the right to access to public records, ensure the protection of privacy rights of its citizens from intrusion by researchers and other information seekers and provide protection to copyright holders.
Access to records and archives may be viewed from three different perspectives - physical, bibliographic and intellectual. Physical access to records and archives may be affected by factors such as opening hours and the availability of materials for consultation. The existence or non-existence of policies, rules and regulations may also impact on the physical access to records and archives. Bibliographic access is very much dependent on the levels at which the holdings have been described in the form of finding aids or retrieval tools. Bibliographic access is key to identifying needed records. Whereas some finding aids may describe records in detail, others do not provide sufficient details on the records. Intellectual access which is really the ability to understand the records can hinder access. For instance, language barriers can be a major hindrance to gaining access to information contained in the records. Within the Kenyan context, it is only the first two areas that are applicable.
Access to records and archives is a very important aspect of society. Access to government held records enables citizens to hold their government accountable for its decisions. Democracy only thrives where governments are accountable to the electorate, and there is no way governments can be held accountable for decisions and actions if records that document those activities are not available for public scrutiny. No wonder Gray (1984) opines that accountability is the rendering of an account, which is the disclosure of information and the submission of the account to external verification. This suggests some form of auditing by or on behalf of those to whom the organization and its management is accountable. Being accountable is also closely linked to being transparent. Transparency requires the disclosure of information in one way or other. For governments to be seen as accountable to the public, they must be transparent in their dealings, and this really demands that access to government held information is maintained. It is for this reason that Mwakyembe (2002) argues that "without transparency, there can be no accountability".
Even though many governments have embraced good governance to include aspects of public accountability and transparency, nonetheless many governments are still unable to grant access to government held records and information. Hugh McCullum (1998), a well known Canadian journalist, once observed that:
Information is power from whatever perspective you hold. Those who disseminate information, especially in the age of information revolution and the technology, which makes it possible, have enormous powerpower for good or evil. …