Archiving at Academia Historica

I had a minor adventure this week when I attempted to do some archival research at Academia Historica (国史馆) in Taiwan. Since Nele Friederike Glang wrote his guide to Academia Historica , things have changed a little. I’m writing this largely as a supplement to his excellent guide; researchers visiting Academia Historica for the first time should probably read that first. Impatient readers may want to skip to “Tips for Future Research Visits” at the bottom.

My experience. I came to Academia Historica in pursuit of a very particular set of documents–ledgers of grain stipends for criminal prisoners (qiu liang 囚粮) in the Xikang Province prison system during the 1940s. My request for similar documents had already been denied in mainland China, and I thought it might be easier to get ahold of politically sensitive files like these in Taiwan.

I arrived on a Wednesday at the Ximen office of Academia Historica, where signed in and looked up the files I wanted in the online index. They weren’t digitized yet, so I had to “apply” to view them by clicking a button. That’s when the staff on duty told me that I would need to sign up for an account and then wait 15-30 days before my documents would be available. My heart sank: I only had about two weeks in Taiwan on this self-funded trip from the PRC; after that I was flying back to the US and had no plans to return to Asia before defending my dissertation. I related this dilemma to the attendant, and she was very sympathetic, but suggested that I either return to Taiwan later or put in a request to have the documents copied and mailed to the United States. The latter option sounded tempting until I looked into it–the expense would be considerable, and I would need to find a friend to make the payment in cash once the copies were ready.

In fact, the online interface seems to have no option for requesting to view original documents directly; instead users request either photocopies or digital scans, which are then presumably provided at the Ximen branch. It was difficult to even find mention of the Xindian branch, where archive originals are stored. When I asked the attendant whether I might have better luck by going straight to Xindian, she didn’t think I would.

On Thursday I came back to the Ximen office and a different staff member was on duty. I showed her my document requests and asked if there was any possibility of seeing them before I left Taiwan. She asked when exactly I was leaving, then made a call. She hung up and gave me the news: the archivists would not be copying my files; instead I could head to Xindian on Friday and handle them myself (!). I checked my account shortly afterwards, and four of my files were marked “fully available” (全部提供) while three more were marked “currently unavailable” (暫緩提供).

On Friday I made the trek out to the Xindian branch, signed in and was presented with my four available files within minutes. “Take pictures!” implored the attendant. Indeed, I’d brought my camera and was able to quickly photograph every page in high resolution, though it felt a little sinful after a year working in archives where photography was strictly prohibited.

What happened? In recent years (until 2016), researchers have been able to request documents at the Xindian branch of Academia Historica and view them on the same day, but this changed in the middle of 2016. When I raised this issue on an online forum, one researcher with recent experience noted that the institution enacted a new system for reviewing document requests around summer 2016, in order to adhere to the Personal Information Protection Act (個人資料保護法), a law that was drafted in 2010. Indeed, when applying to view non-public documents, the online system tells users to ensure that their use of the documents does not violate the privacy or rights of any individuals (第三人).

Researchers who have recently requested documents at Academia Historica have commented that names and personal information were redacted (in copies) and that a large percentage of their requests was denied. I noticed that none of the documents I received included much personal information (such as names of prisoners). I can only speculate over why three of my document requests were denied, but I suspect they may have contained personal information about prisoners or others.

Though my experience was kind of harrowing, everyone at Academia Historica was incredibly friendly and helpful. They understood that the rule changes were confusing and made things more difficult for visiting researchers like me, and were very patient in explaining how things worked.

Tips for Future Research Visits: I was lucky, but researchers visiting Academia Historica should not assume that they will be able to access requested documents within less than 30 days of placing a request. I asked staff members what they recommended that foreign researchers do if they only have a matter of days in Taiwan. Here’s what they recommended:

1) Sign up for an account online now. This is a two-step process (you fill out a form and then email your passport scan), and can itself take several days for approval. But once you have a password, you’re set for the future. Start here:

2) Put in your document viewing requests as early as possible, and at least a month before arrival. Apparently, there is no danger of making a request too early. When you apply to view a document, archivists look through the document themselves and determine whether or not there is any compromising information in the document (ostensibly they are mainly concerned with protecting the privacy of individual citizens). Once a document is approved for you, it is approved indefinitely. They are not reserving the document for you, so you are not causing inconvenience by requesting it early.

3) It is apparently also possible to arrange for copies to be mailed to you overseas without visiting the archives yourself, or to assign a local “agent” to come and photograph documents for you. I do not have any personal experience with this.

If you do find yourself in Taiwan with less time than the waiting period allows, politely explain this to the staff. They may be willing to consider expediting the process; in fact, I noticed that the date of my departure from Taiwan was written at the bottom of my request when they printed it out. However, understand that having your request expedited is not guaranteed, and also that some (potentially all) of your document requests may be denied depending on the contents.

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