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Paper presented at European Summit on Archives. Bern, Switzerland. 14-16 May 1998; published in Archives et Bibliotheques de Belgique = Archief, en Bibliotheekwezen in Belgie. Special Edition on International Council on Archives - European Summit on Archives, Bern, Switzerland, 14-16 May 1998. Ed. by Patrick CADELL and Frank DALEMANS. LXVIX/1-4 (1998): 15-25.



Bekir Kemal Ataman[*]


Access issues in Turkish archives can be handled under four main headings. The first of these relates to geographical access and the second to political access, the third being intellectual access, and the last issue relates to obstacles to access.


As noted in the "Recommendations of the XIIIth International Congress on Archives," "grave dangers are presented to archives by armed conflicts political and economic crises, and natural and man-made disasters."[1] Some of these dangers occur during the normal course of conflict and are therefore some of the unintended results of warfare. However, some of them are deliberate attempts, on the part of the conqueror, at destroying the written history of the conquered people.

Although the general trend, at least in the western world, has tended towards preserving such heritage as a useful acquisition, by alienating them from their home country and removing them to the conqueror’s own territory, as opposed to destroying them, old habits die hard, especially in cases of civil war.[2]

The Ottomans, however, having ruled over three continents for over five centuries, do not seem to have indulged in either of these habits: they neither destroyed nor moved any records to their home land. On the contrary, they contributed by adding their own provincial records to the written heritage of the conquered people and in most cases left them in that locality. Unless destroyed by other events at later periods, the archival heritage of the ex-Ottoman countries should still be surviving, as, I am sure, colleagues in these countries will testify.

Those that survived at the center of the Ottoman State are preserved today by the State Archives of Turkey. Estimated to be around 150 million records, these constitute only 25 to 30% of what was created by the vast bureaucratic apparatus of the Ottoman Empire[3]. Of the remaining 70%, although the greatest part has not survived to our day, those that did are distributed in several places. Some of them are still in the hands of various Departments of the present day government, a small percentage is in private hands and some, of course, are in other countries.

a. Records in other countries

Over the last seven years, several attempts have been made at gathering together copies of the material left in the former Ottoman territories, and at the same time copies of documents from the Ottoman Archives relating to these countries were sent to those countries. With this aim, bilateral agreements have been signed with Macedonia, Azerbeijan, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Crimea-Tartar Republic, Russia, Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, Bosnia-Herzegovnia, Yemen, Algeria, Tunisia, Poland, Croatia, Egypt and Georgia.[4]

However, due to financial constraints, only two of these agreements proved useful for the Ottoman Archives in achieving the aforementioned aims so far: Those with Bulgaria and Macedonia. As a result of these agreements, microfilm copies of Ottoman documents in these two countries were brought to Istanbul and their catalogues were published by the State Archives.[5]

Some of the other agreements mentioned are quite new, whereas some of them have expired before either of the parties could benefit from them. Most of these agreements are under review for extension.

b. Records in other government Departments

Of the government Departments that still hold documents from the Ottoman period, most have been reluctant to transfer such material to the State Archives, despite the fact that it has been more than ten years since the latest legislation regarding these matters was passed.

The problem here is that other acts give conflicting rights to other Departments. Of these, the biggest competitor to the State Archives is the Ministry of Culture, to which all public libraries, including the National Library, are attached. Because of this, one of the recommendations of the 1st National Consultative Conference, that took place just three weeks ago, was that all such documents should be transferred to the State Archives.[6]

c. Records in private hands

Private archives are not covered by the current archives legislation. The "official archives" in private hands, however, are covered but the State Archives do not have much authoritative power in the matter, in the way that, for example, the Ministry of Culture has over other artefacts of historical importance.

For private archives, the only attempt at a survey of the material surviving to date has been made by me by means of a project entitled "Union Guide to Archival Resources in Turkey," partially funded by the Hazel E. Heughan Educational Trust in Scotland. This project is still under way and aims to publish its findings over the Internet when it is completed.


Access permission to researchers is granted in accordance to a regulation dated 1989[7] and the conditions which may cause access to be denied are listed as follows:

If the arrangement and description of material is not complete, or if the material is too fragile or damaged to be handled,

If the researcher is less than 18 years of age,

If, after receiving previous permission and having completed the research, the researcher has not sent in a copy of the publication he/she has prepared using the material from the archives.
According to this regulation, applications should be made to the State Archives, if in Turkey, or via a Turkish foreign mission, if abroad. The applications made to the State Archives are to be responded to on the same day or the next day at the latest, and those made to foreign missions within 30 days.
However, in practice this procedure takes a little longer. In cases where the application is made to the State Archives, the handling time takes three days for Turkish citizens and about a week for foreign nationals. Applications coming through a foreign mission may take longer than expected, too.

Despite the delay in processing, almost all applicants seem to be granted permission. The number of researchers who are granted permission within the last ten years are as follows:[8]


Turkish Citizens
Foreign Nationals
Total Researchers














As can be seen, the number of Turkish researchers have increased almost eight times and the number of foreign researchers have increased more than three times.

However, it is clear that the real sign of open or closed access to an archive is not the permissions granted but those that are denied. So, when I inquired at the State Archives specifically about the applicants who had been denied permission, I was informed of four cases within the last few years.

According to this unofficial and anecdotal information, one of these was granted permission at first but permission was later withdrawn, upon information having been received from Bilkent University Library that the person in question had been involved in some theft from the Library’s collection and was banned from using the Library at all times.

The second person was an Armenian who returned home with photocopies of some three thousand documents but during an interview on MTV, (the TV station of the Kurdish terrorist organization PKK) claimed that he had not been given any documents that would support the Armenian claims of genocide. So, the next time he applied for permission, he was denied access on the grounds that he could not possibly find evidence for an event that had not happened.

The third person was an assistant to this Armenian who was rejected on the same grounds.

The fourth case, however, is interesting, in that it involves a Greek national. I was told a Greek national was denied permission, for the first time, and the reason was because the Greek government had kept rejecting applications of Turkish scholars. So, according to the principle of reciprocity in foreign affairs, I was told, any applicant from Greece would be denied access to the Turkish archives from then on. Although I, as an archivist, have difficulty in accepting the fact that access to archival documents has become a matter of foreign policy, I also have difficulty in understanding why researchers should be denied permission in the first place solely on the grounds that they are citizens of a certain country. I was hoping, perhaps, that my colleagues from Greece could enlighten us on this matter but apparently they have not come.

Access to archival documents in the hands of other government Departments, however, is problematic for both Turkish citizens and foreign nationals. Although, in theory, they are subject to the same regulation mentioned above, getting permission for access to documents in the hands of Ministry of Culture (all libraries and museums), the Armed Forces (all documents relating to military history or warfare), the Grand National Assembly (all imperial palaces), Ministry of Customs and Excise (all tax registers) or the Directorate of Waqfs, for example, take much longer and their permission criteria are unknown to anyone outside their office.

So, having all archival heritage collected under a single authority is a mission of critical importance for Turkish archivists, as well as their patrons, be it Turkish or foreign. The reasons for this is more a question of preservation, which I will be talking about in the last part of my paper, than access.


It is not possible to talk about access to any archival holding, without having the means to access them intellectually. Thus, finding aids become one of the core subjects when one talks about access issues. Turkish archives are no exception to this rule and they have witnessed a lot of change in this regard within the last seven years.

For years, it had been the custom organize all descriptive activity at calendar level. This was, in a way, the natural outcome of the State Archives being directed by historians. However after February 1992, professional archivists were appointed as directors to the State Archives and things began to change. One of the first things the new administration introduced was description at file level. This may seem obvious to everyone present here, but for the Turkish State Archives to adopt this age-old concept, an administration knowledgeable in the field was needed.

A few of the other improvements the new administration brought in was to define the standards of description and punctuation to be used at the archives[9], and to publish the first proper Guide to the Archives ever.[10]

These improvements produced fruit in a very short period of time and documents equal in number to the amount processed in the previous fifty-nine years of the Archive’s history[11] were opened for public access.[12]

At this point one should note that most of the finding aids present at the State Archives are no more than mere handlists. To make things worse, some of these are handwritten in the old (Arabic) alphabet, which makes them unintelligible to anyone other than scholars and the description staff at the Archives. Others are present only in typewritten form.[13]

So, one of the major tasks facing the Turkish State Archivists is to renew these hand and/or typewritten lists, put them onto computer, index the records and open them up for public use in an automated form. This is not an easy task, as I am sure you would agree.

Yet, due to international pressures regarding the question of access to Ottoman documents, another project was developed recently. This project envisaged publishing Ottoman documents over the Internet and not only attracted a lot of attention but was highly praised. However although those who are involved in developing the project take it very seriously, I treat it as a joke, especially in view of the fact that 30% of all bound volumes and 70% of all loose documents are still unlisted in any form[14]. It must have been with the realization of this problem that the idea was eventually converted into publishing the finding aids only, rather than publishing the whole collection.

On the other hand, I see the whole idea as an excellent tactic on the State Archivists’ part to attract funding. Since the government would not be interested in funding automation projects under normal conditions, an attractive cover for the idea would help sell it. Over the years, if there is one thing that Turkish Archivists have learnt very well it is that "image sells." If they cannot get a budget for a new building or a proper conservation laboratory, they will ask the most unthinkable amounts of money for a project that will attract the attention of the whole world, no matter how surreal it may be. They will develop projects supposedly aiming to put the whole of the archival holdings onto the Internet, even if it is impossible. But in the end they will be satisfied with humble amounts just enough to automate the existing finding aids,[15] which is what, in my opinion, they had been really been aiming at all along!

If it succeeds, even that will be a great achievement.


a. Buildings

Any discussion on access to Turkish archives will be incomplete without a reference to the problems being experienced by archivists in achieving professional standards. Of these, the biggest one is buildings. The Ottoman archival heritage has been scattered throughout several depots most of which are far from being up to archival standards. Apart from slowing down the service, there the documents are subject to heat, humidity, pests, mould, light and most of the other dangers you can think of. All governments, past and present, have been slow to solve this problem. To give you an idea, I presume it is enough to mention that it took governments of the time a total of seventeen years to allow the Archives of the Republic to move to their purpose-built site in Ankara.

b. Preservation

This, of course, brings with it a severe problem of preservation: Materials keep degrading all the time.

On top of this, one should add the facts that,

the only preservation expert who is knowledgeable about the physical and chemical structure of the documents in Turkey retired a few years ago,

the conservation laboratory at the Ottoman archives is too small to process the documents of the Archives alone,

material in the hands of other government departments are subject to even worse dangers since people taking care of them have had no archival training whatsoever and no one knows how the material is treated.
Fragile or damaged documents, of course, will be the biggest obstacle to access, both from a legal and a professional point of view.

c. Political intervention

All of these, of course, are a result of how the government perceives archives and archival issues. It is with this attitude that the professionals at the top administrative levels of the State Archives were replaced with personnel totally foreign to the subject, last year. However, following the discussions taking place at the Archives and Archivists electronic mailing list, located at Miami University, I am convinced that political interventions in the way state archival institutions function are not unique to Turkey. The discussions on the list, in the last few years dwelt on the new Director of the American National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) as its subject quiet a few times and for quite long periods. So, at least I know we are not alone and my attitude regarding this matter is just to wait and see how things develop from here.

d. Decline in arrangement and description activity

Another big problem in confronting access to documents relates to the rate with which new class lists appear. The number of new lists presented to researchers as a result of the ongoing arrangement and description activity was
186 in 1995,
82 in 1996,
38 in 1997 and
just 4 in the first quarter of 1998.

This means every year has seen a reduction of more than half, compared to the previous year, in the amount of descriptive activity carried out. When I inquired about the reasons for this, my attention was drawn to the decrease in staff figures:
489 in 1990
423 in 1991
444 in 1992
393 in 1993
341 in 1994
333 in 1995
310 in 1996
302 in 1997
296 in 1998[16]

Although significant in itself, the decrease in staff figures are far from explaining the rapid fall in the amount of descriptive activity carried out. This, surely, must be the result of some policy change, unknown to me and which the State Archives administration seems reluctant to explain.

e. Personnel

However, the continuous decrease in the staff figures is a sign of another problem: staff are leaving the Archives. The policies of previous governments concerning wages have been far from satisfactory in terms of keeping the staff at the archives. Although most have gone into academic careers at the universities, thus--at least in theory--educating others in the field, the archives are losing their specialist staff and this will retard development for much longer than anticipated. This is mainly because the staff at Ottoman Archives go through a heavy in-house training scheme, on top of their formal education. This is necessary because their educational background is far from satisfactory, since in almost all cases it was in history, literature or theology, i.e. not archives administration.

On the other hand, the graduates of archives departments prefer not to work at the State Archives, because of the same reasons, and seek employment in the private sector instead.

Thus, some of the recommendations of the 1st Consultative Conference[17] were related to these issues and recommended the government to employ only graduates of archives departments and to make the necessary arrangements regarding wages.

f. Records Management

As for modern day records, the biggest obstacle to access is legal coverage. When the Archives Act was being drafted, most ministries tried to evade it and those who had more influence could succeed in excluding themselves from its provisions. So in the end the Act did not cover the most important ministries, i.e. Grand National Assembly, the Presidency, the Armed Forces, Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the National Intelligence Organization.

The situation with the others, as I have noted under Geographical Access above, can be defined as an incredible reluctance to hand over their material. They do everything to evade transfer of records to archives. So far, the government departments from which the Archives could get hold of records were the Prime Ministry, to which the State Archives are attached, and the Ministries of National Education, Farming and Energy.

This issue, too, took its place among the recommendations of the 1st Consultative Conference.[18]


The Turkish archival world has made a lot of progress within the last decade, in increasing access to archives in all geographical, political and intellectual senses of the term, as well as increasing professional standards. However, most of the bigger problems like buildings, preservation and description are still waiting to be solved and there has been extremely little progress made in this direction. When I wrote my article for Janus [19] five years ago, I was optimistic. Now, I am not. Unfortunately, I can no longer see the light at the end of the tunnel.

[*] Marmara University, Archives Department, Istanbul, Turkey
[1]"Recommendations of the XIIIth International Congress on Archives," Archivum, v. XLIII: p. 369
[2]For recent examples of the way in which the newly independent states of South-eastern Europe destroyed their Ottoman heritage (libraries, mosques, archives, etc.) see Justin McCARTHY, Death and Exile, Princeton: Darwin Press.
[3]Haci Haldun SAHIN, "Turkiye Cumhuriyeti Basbakanlik Devlet Arsivleri Genel Mudurlugu ile Dis Ulke Arsivleri Arasinda Yapilan Isbirligi Protokolleri," (Cooperation Protocols Signed Between Foreign Archives and the General Directorate of State Archives) paper presented at 1. Milli Arsiv Surasi (1st National Consultative Conference), Ankara IV.1998: p. 1.
[5]Bulgaristan’daki Osmanli Evragi (Ottoman Documents in Bulgaria), Ankara 1994 and Makedonya’daki Osmanli Evragi (Ottoman Documents in Macedonia), Ankara 1996.
[6]"1. Milli Arsiv Surasi Genel Kurul Kararlari" (Recommendations of the 1st National Consultative Conference on Archives), 1. Milli Arsiv Surasi, Ankara, IV.1998.
[7]"Devlet Arsivlerinde Arastirma veya Inceleme Yapmak Isteyen Turk veya Yabanci Uyruklu Gercek veya Tuzel Kisilerin Tabi Olacaklari Esaslar" (Conditions Governing Turkish or Foreign Persons or Legal Entities Wishing to Carry Out Research in the State Archives), Resmi Gazete 20286 (18.9.1989).
[8]"Osmanli Arsivi Fizibilite Raporu (Mevcut Durum)" (Feasibility Report on Ottoman Archives--Present Condition), Unpublished In-House Report, Istanbul: T.C. Basbakanlik Devlet Arsivleri Genel Mudurlugu, Osmanli Arsivi Daire Baskanligi, 1998.
[9]Basbakanlik Osmanli Arsivi Tasnif Talimatnamesi (Directive on Arrangement to be Carried Out at the Prime Ministry Ottoman Archives), Ankara 1992 and Basbakanlik Osmanli Arsivi Daire Baskanliginda Uygulanacak Imla Usul ve Esaslari (Punctuation Rules to be Followed at the Prime Ministry Ottoman Archives), Ankara 1992. To this should be added: Yer Isimleri Kilavuzu (Guide to Place Names), Istanbul 1991.
[10]Basbakanlik Osmanli Arsivi Rehberi (Guide to the Prime Ministry Ottoman Archives), Ankara 1992.
[11]The history of the Turkish archives goes back to the middle ages and the first archival institution in the Ottoman Empire in the modern sense was formed in 1840s. The date mentioned here refers to the time, the principle of provenance was introduced into the Turkish archives for the first time by the prominent Hungarian archivist Lajos Fekete.
[12]For details of other improvements introduced by the new administration, see my article: "Activity Boom in the Turkish Archival World: The Difference of Professionalism," Janus 1993.2 (1993); 67-72.
[13]For a list of all available class lists, see Basbakanlik Osmanli Arsivi Kataloglari Rehberi (Guide to Prime Ministry Ottoman Archives Catalogues), Ankara 1995.
[14]See f.n. 8 above.
[15]"Osmanli Arsivi Otomasyon Raporu (Uygulama)" (Prime Ministry Ottoman Archives Automation Report--Realization), Unpublished In-House Report, Istanbul: T.C. Basbakanlik Devlet Arsivleri Genel Mudurlugu, Osmanli Arsivi Daire Baskanligi, 1998.
[17]See f.n. 6 above.
[18]As above.
[19]See f.n. 11 above.

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