A little past midnight on May 28, 2018, relentless fire razed the Land Management Bureau in Binondo and reached the adjacent Juan Luna building, along with a few other structures. The smoke could be seen as far as Taguig.
One of the most notable tenants of the Juan Luna building is the administration office of the National Archives of the Philippines, which occupied the third floor. The Binondo office is where the agency conducts preservation of digitization of Spanish documents.
People held their breath by midmorning when the fire hit the fourth, fifth, and sixth floors. Where there documents being digitized? Was there anything important in the office? Concern and conspiracy theorists were all over the Internet. Some netizens likened the fire to the country's history being erased. Others claimed that the burning was not an accident.
However, despite some injuries, nothing major was destroyed. The NAP's repositories of documents are actually safe and sound in the other offices. NAP employees said that whatever they had in the Juan Luna building were saved and are now being taken elsewhere. The damage to the 95-year-old recently restored structure is probably the worst loss from the fire.
The blaze, however, shed some light on the historic structure which survived the 1945 Battle of Manila, as well as the National Archives. Yes, we do have some historic documents in preservation. So what is actually archived in the National Archives?
According to their official website, the government agency’s history can be traced back to the Treaty of Paris (December 10, 1898) which dictated the establishment of an Office of Archives whose sole purpose is the relinquishment or cession of documents from Spanish to American authorities. The preservation of these documents was also stipulated in the agreement.
Over a century and several Republic Acts and Executive Orders later, the National Archives of the Philippines was formally established. Its goal is to strengthen the system of management and administration of archival records. Currently, they have different divisions which serve different purposes such as Archival Collection and Access, Archives Preservation Division, Records Center Division, and more.
Its repositories currently house over 60 million documents from the 16th to 21st centuries, 13 million of which are Spanish documents. They also have Japanese war crimes documents, as well as civil records such as birth, marriage, and death certificates from the Spanish era until the early 1900s.
Aside from those, they also have notarial documents from various provinces in the Philippines, including a list of taxpayers from the town of Cabugao in Ilocos Sur dated from 1883. Another one shows a certain Captain Don Basanta handing over some of his properties to a Don Augustin Ambrocio.
The agency also has old maps of pueblos. The original city plan usually includes everything – from the streets, to the plaza, to government and civic buildings, and more.
Examples in the Gallery section of their website include a letter to Governor General Don Rafael Maña de Aguilar about the Ilocos towns and population of each. Another one shows the topographic map of a part of the province of Ilocos Sur, indicating where the military districts of Tinguianes and Igorrotes are located.
Drawings of old bridges and floor plans of churches can also be found in the archives, such as the plan of connecting the towns of San Ildefonso and Bantay in Ilocos Sur via the Isabel II bridge and the plan for the Archbishop’s Palace of Nueva Segovia, also known as the Archdiocese of Vigan.
There are also documents related to the Katipunan, as well as laws executed by Kings of Spain and Governor Generals.
While all these may be fascinating to be studied and looked at, they must be preserved carefully and systematically. Archives are precious simply because irreplaceable. While books and journals have several printed copies, its main difference with archives is that these documents usually have just one copy and therefore can never be replaced.
This is something that motivates the people working for the National Archives of the Philippines. Since what they have in the archives are irreplaceable, it is important to keep them in suitable conditions, because once these documents are lost or destroyed, evidence of the past is also gone forever.