According to the local chronicles and historical records there was an officer who was in charge of the Royal (King’s) Archives. The 19th century account of Hay Macdowall’ reveals that there was an officer called “MahaMohotti”(Chief Secretary) who maintained the Kandyan Palace Archives during the 18th and the first decade of the 19th century.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans who arrived in Sri Lanka and later ruled the maritime districts of the western and south western coastline of the island between the late 16th Century and 1656 A.D. They maintained the indigenous system of record keeping in respect of the territory under their control. When the Portuguese possession in the maritime provinces was captured by the Dutch in 1640 A.D. most of the Portuguese records were destroyed by the Portuguese themselves.
However, the Systematic Archives Keeping was introduced by the Dutch who occupied the maritime districts of Sri Lanka from 1640 to 1796 A.D.In 1640 archives was housed at Galle and from 1656 to 1796 they were located in Colombo.
The British took over the island from the Dutch in 1796, improved the records and archives management system. During the early British period the Colonial Secretary was the custodian of official records. In 1803, a post of “Keeper of Dutch Records” was created.
In 1901 the post of an Archivist was created and was attached to the Chief Secretary’s Office in Colombo. In 1947, with the grant of Dominion Status and the abolition of the Chief Secretary's office it became a separate Department called the “ Department of the Government Archivist ”
The Department was re-named as the “Department of National Archives” on 1st October, 1966 and the Post of Government Archivist was re-named the Director of National Archives.
During the Second World War, the archives was shifted from Colombo to Nuwara Eliya in 1942, on safety reasons. In 1962 the department was shifted on a tempory basis to Sri Sumangala Building of the Sri Jayewardenepura University in Gangodawila Nugegoda.Subsequently between 1963 and 1983 the Department was moved into its newly constructed building at the former Havelock Race Course, Colombo. An extension to the building was declared open on 18th December, 2012.
At present the Department of National Archives is scheduled under the Ministry of Education. It serves as the repository for preserving the Memory of the Nation, a Centre for disseminating knowledge to students, researchers, the public and as an Information Centre.