BLOG: Unlocking the Nonhuman Animals in the Archivo de Bogotá by Javier González Cortés

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Are you enjoying Research Corner? Well, my pile of drafts is diminishing. I would love to have some more contributions lined up to edit for publication in the summer or fall. I’m seeking discussions of archives, libraries, or digital repositories, or musings about how to do research in general. (Past discussions have included how to write a second book and how to do transnational research. A new area we could explore would be how to successfully apply for grants). I accept drafts from scholars at any stage of your career or, for that matter, from archivists or librarians. Please email me at or fill out this Google Form to express your interest in blogging.

I am pleased to continue the “Teaching with H-Latam’s Research Corner Blog” series featuring graduate students from Rutgers University. Javier González Cortés is a Ph.D. student in History at Rutgers. He holds a Master’s degree in Bioethics and his undergraduate studies were in Biology. Before joining the Ph.D. program in History, he worked as an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Bioethics of the Javeriana University in Bogotá, Colombia. He is interested in understanding the relationships between humans and nonhuman animals in Colombia and other parts of Latin America from a historical perspective. His particular interest on the history of animal protection inspired this post.

Unlocking the Nonhuman Animals in the Archivo de Bogotá

As a trained biologist and bioethicist, it is somewhat to be expected that I have not yet stepped foot in the Archivo de Bogotá, but as an historian in training, that is about to change. The findings I made while searching for primary sources on the history of nonhuman animals through its recently launched web search engine El Cofre (the coffer) have convinced me that this depository will be central to my research. In this entry I plan to describe part of the process I followed while searching for nonhuman animals in the history of Bogotá at El Cofre.

The Archivo de Bogotá (see Figure 1) is located in the historic center of the capital city of Colombia, only a few blocks away from the Palacio Presidencial (Presidential Palace) and the Archivo General de la Nación (General Archive of the Nation). It contains eighty-eight fondos and colecciones, which include materials from the late sixteenth century until 2010 (materials from the twentieth century predominate).

Figure 1: Archivo de Bogotá. Photo credit: María Paula Corredor.

There are a number of points researchers should be aware of when navigating El Cofre. The first point I noted is that Spanish is the only language of the search engine. The second is that the option of using more filters (más filtros) for your search is available. By using those filters, you can search chronologically, thematically, and onomastically, such as the name of a mayor of Bogotá (a list of the mayors can be found here) or an institution. Finally, I observed the different kinds of digital content that the archive has, which are audio files, documents, videos, bibliographic entries, and data. Documents refer to digitalized files which are available for download, and data are references to documents not available in the Archivo de Bogotá, so you should find them somewhere else. Examples of this are newspapers clippings, which can be consulted in person in the Biblioteca Nacional. Keep in mind that El Cofre reflects about 5% of the materials in the Archivo de Bogotá. If you want to have a bigger picture of the archive, you will have to search in the Inventario Analítico Textual, which is a spreadsheet that can only be checked in person. Don’t be discouraged by this. El Cofre still offers valuable information that can save you a lot of time should you do your search properly. El Cofre was launched in November 2021, so it is likely that the search engine will improve with time, as well as the number of references it contains is expected to grow.

The first term I used for my search in El Cofre was “animal.” When you search for that word in the catalogs of medium and big size libraries, usually hundreds, even thousands of results appear. In the case of the Archivo de Bogotá, my online search retrieved only fifty results (see Figure 2). Despite being a relatively small number, the short descriptions of each “unidad” or result found suggest that a research project on the history of nonhuman animals informed by materials in the Archivo de Bogotá is feasible. They reveal telling information about the history of the relationships with nonhuman animals, such as uses, classifications, institutions, regulations, and jobs. Luckily, most of the results correspond to sources from the first half of the twentieth century, an important period in the history of organized animal protection in Latin America.

Figure 2: screenshot of the search results for the term “animal” in El Cofre

After clicking on the title of a source you want to examine, a new descriptor page will open displaying more details. This descriptor page will reveal several sections, which can vary according to the source. I found the following ones: Identification Area, Context Area, Conditions of Access and Use, Notes Area, Content and Structure, Associated Documentation Area, and Description Control Area. Each of the sections contain information useful to the researcher, but keep in mind that information is not systematically registered for every source. I’ll provide some examples using documents I’ve found.

One useful section is the “Área de Notas" (Notes Area). The first result that appeared in my animal search was entitled “Protección animal.” This one corresponds to a recorte de prensa (newspaper clipping) from 1997 in the national newspaper El Tiempo. Looking at the section Notes Area (see Figure 3), under the subsection “temáticos” I noticed the word “Dama,” which is the acronym for Departamento Técnico Administrativo del Medio Ambiente (Environmental Technical Administrative Department), the institution that between 1990 and 2007 oversaw the environmental policies of the city. This connection is a reminder that it is convenient to have some knowledge of the public institutions that are related to your research subject; otherwise, the researcher may have assumed the term “Dama” meant “dame.” Dama also appears quasi-encrypted in the information under the subsection “recurso digital” (digital resource), as it has a long URL that I could not access from my computer. I talked to an employee of the Archivo de Bogotá and she told me that information serves no practical purpose as it does not lead anywhere. As I could not find in El Cofre a DAMA fondo, I also asked her about it. She told me that the fondo exists but is not yet reflected in El Cofre nor in the Inventario Analítico Textual.

Figure 3: screenshot of the details that are associated with the data result “Protección animal.” Note the five different subsections that make up the section Notes Area (Área de Notas).

From my initial search with the term “animal,” I also discovered a decree that created the Sociedad Protectora de Animales (Society for the Protection of Animals) in 1917 (see Figure 4). This regulation reveals that the history of animal protection in the city and in the country is older than normally thought, i.e. it is not something of the twenty-first century. This document attests to the official history of the concern for the treatment of animals in Bogotá, a city that only in the mid-2010s created its public policy for the protection and welfare of animals, as well as its Instituto Distrital de Protección y Bienestar Animal (District Institute for the Protection and Welfare of Animals). The Society for the Protection of Animals no longer exists in Bogotá, and no one that I know has knowledge of it. Undoubtedly, interesting historical questions can be formulated by considering the contents of the Decreto 20 de 1917 (Decree 20 of 1917).

Figure 4: Decreto No. 20 de 1917. This decree created the Animal Protection Society in Bogotá.

Another useful section is “Contenido y Estructura” (Content and Structure). On the descriptor page of the Decree 20 of 1917, I noticed the terms “Bienestar Animal” (animal welfare) and “Juntas y asociaciones” (Organizations and Associations) under the temáticos subsection (see Figure 5). Following this lead, I went back to the search engine. I activated the option for more filters and entered the term “bienestar animal” in the temáticos field. This time El Cofre showed me seventeen treasures. All of them were downloadable decrees that reveal an interesting variety of the relationships that different administrations sustained with nonhuman animals in the city.

Figure 5: screenshot of the section Contenido y Estructura associated with Decree 20 of 1917.

I realized it might be useful to start building a list of key terms for future searches. Under the subsection temáticos, I found the following terms associated with the seventeen decrees: festividades civiles, juntas y asociaciones, espectáculos, obras públicas, entidades públicas, and sanidad pública. Those terms not only disclose information about the content of the sources before reading them, they also reveal something about how to engage with the archive. All the results under the theme bienestar animal were catalogued during 2020 and 2021, and most of them were done by the same archivist. Knowing that the cataloguing was done recently meant that, with some luck, I could talk to that person and ask for their advice on finding sources about animal protection. I already did that and he told me that I would find more interesting information in the fondos Secretaría General, EDIS (Empresa Distrital de Servicios Públicos), and Cuerpo de Bomberos.

The descriptor page also displays the section “Área Identificación” (Identification Area). This section is useful as it gives you the most basic information associated with the source that you are interested in revisiting. As in the case of another interesting regulation I found, the Decreto 43 de 1903, which is about the mistreatment and handling of certain animals in the city, you can see a Código de Referencia (reference code) and a Signatura Topográfica Archivo de Bogotá (topographic signature) (see Figure 6). The Signatura Topográfica is the number that is important for researchers as you can use it to ask for specific materials that you want to see while in the archive. There are also the Fechas extremas, telling when was the decree enacted, and the Volumen de la unidad de descripción, which indicate how many sheets of paper (folios) the document is, a key piece of information as you can partially infer how much time will it take you to read a specific document.

Figure 6: screenshot of the section Área Identificación associated with Decree 43 of 1903.

My experience with El Cofre was satisfying as I found information that is highly valuable to my research and personal interests, but I would also like to remind the readers that the information in the subsections of the data for every source is not systematic. El Cofre, then, can be opened with different keys. Here I have just shown you one way of doing that, which led me to unlock some documents that attest to different relationships between humans and other animals during the first half of the twentieth century in Bogotá. The documentation at the Archivo de Bogotá constitutes a valuable resource to address a rich variety of historical questions concerning the relationships of humans with other animals, a topic that remains underexplored in Colombian and Latin American scholarship.





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