BLOG: Researching In-Person at the Archivo General de Indias by R. Grant Kleiser

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Today I’m pausing the “Teaching with H-Latam’s Research Corner” series featuring Rutgers University graduate students. Instead, I am happy to present R. Grant Kleiser, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at Columbia University in New York City. Grant specializes in the early-modern Atlantic world, especially political economy and commerce in the Spanish, French, and British empires. He is working on a dissertation that studies the development of so-called “free ports” in the eighteenth-century Caribbean, places where foreign merchants could enter and conduct business under low customs duties. He has conducted extensive research at the Archivo General de Indias, studying Spanish motivations for, and the various effects of, opening the port of Monte Cristi (in the north of Santo Domingo) to foreign trade in the 1750s and 1760s.

As summer comes to an end, but before the rush of fall begins, please consider writing a blog post or two on the research you’ve done this summer. Did you use digital archives? Did you take a trip and use physical archives, libraries, or other repositories? Do you have advice about how do transnational research, how to secure images for publications, or other helpful “how to” topics? Please contact me, Gretchen Pierce, at gkpierce@ship.edu or fill out this Google Form.

Researching In-Person at the Archivo General de Indias

Walking to the Archivo General de Indias (AGI), one cannot escape a feeling of wonder. Setting out in the early morning light, you pass by three stunning UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Royal Alcázar, the Cathedral of Seville, and the old Archivo General de Indias (which now serves mainly as a museum; see Figure 1). Coming from the north, the Giralda of the Cathedral of Seville welcomes you with the word: Fortíssima, seemingly endowing all travelers with the strength to carry on (see Figure 2). Equal parts wonder and strength are what first-time researchers require to successfully work in this archive. This post will outline the basic steps such investigators will have to undertake to navigate the AGI in person.

Figure 1: a view of the Real Alcázar (left), the old Archivo General de Indias (right), and the current building (center) from the top of the Giralda. Photograph by author.

Figure 2: the Giralda, nearby the AGI, with the word “Fortíssima” on the northern façade. Photograph by author.

The first step, of course, is to locate the sources one wants to view in the AGI. This post will not delve into that process, focusing instead on tips for researching in the archive once you arrive in Seville. However, several other online posts (here, here, and here) have highlighted strategies for using the resource PARES to find documents. Important note: researchers cannot order documents in advance, so you should make a list of call numbers you find on PARES to request upon arrival. Once you have a general sense of your source base, the next step is to email the archivists (agi2@cultura.gob.es) to let them know when you intend to arrive and to plan a meeting with the Departamento de Referencias (more on this later). Once you land in Seville, the first trick is actually getting to the archive. Google maps will probably lead you to the old Archivo General de Indias, but the reading room (Edificio de la Cilla, Antigua Cilla del Cabildo) is located across the street on the south side of Calle Santo Tomás (#5; see Image 3).

Figure 3: The research room for the Archivo General de Indias is actually located just south of the “Archivo de Indias” in a building labeled “Antigua Cilla del Cabildo.” Courtesy of Google Maps.

Upon arrival, go through security, tell them you have a meeting with the Departamento de Referencias, and show a piece of identification. A formal letter of introduction is not needed. Make sure to wear a mask, but gloves are discouraged for paper document use. You will proceed upstairs to the Departamento de Referencias where you will have a brief interview with one of the archivists. Be prepared to talk about your project and research questions. The archivist will approve your status as a researcher, give you an official researcher document with your username and password for use on the archives’ computers, and perhaps suggest a few additional sources.

You will then proceed up the stairs to the reading room, where you will be assigned a desk for the day. Your desk will be large enough to fit your documents, your laptop/note cards, and sometimes a desktop computer as well. If you are lucky enough to sit at a desk with a computer, you can go ahead and request your first documents (two at a time) with the username and password that the Departamento de Referencias provided for you. If you do not get a desk with a computer, you can write a call number on a slip of paper and hand it to one of the archivists in the reading room. The wait should be no longer than 30 minutes or so, after which you should go to the desk at the front of the reading room to ask for and pick up your document.

The “document” you will receive most likely will be a “Legajo” (bundle), filled with dozens if not hundreds of various letters, petitions, decrees, copies of laws, court cases, tax revenues, shipping information, etc. PARES often contains very little information on the exact contents of each Legajo, so you will have to use the general description and date ranges on PARES to make informed guesses as to where specific records might be located. Flip through the Legajo to find what you are looking for, return the Legajo to the front desk (tying up the bundle as tightly as you found it), pick up the other one you ordered, return to your desk, order another Legajo, and start the process all over again.

Some issues, of course, may arise. It may be impossible to order a Legajo for a few reasons that the computer or archivist will alert you to: 1) it is already digitized and online (hurrah! You can view it from anywhere in the world); 2) it is in the process of being digitized (with the only solution being to wait); 3) it is undergoing conservation (which also means that you cannot see it at the time);  or 4) it is on microfilm. The last possibility actually means that you will have to view the Legajo on a computer in the archive (the same desk computer as before). On each desk computer there is a guide for translating the Legajo number to the corresponding microfilm number, so you can find and view the documents saved on the computer. Ask the archivist for help if you cannot find the microfilm you are searching for.

Another important note to mention: researchers cannot take photographs, which explains the dearth of photos I have included in this post. One can ask the archivist at the desk for a form to request reproductions of specific documents, as well as a form to request publication-quality photos, but I have heard that this process takes months. It is probably best to take as many in-depth notes when you are there (on your laptop or via pencil, not pen). Additionally, there is no wifi in the reading room (so if Spanish is not your first language, I recommend downloading a Spanish-English dictionary), although you can access PARES through the desk computers.

The archive was generally open in August from 8:00 am-2:30 pm Monday-Friday, and in all other months from 8:00 am-6:00 pm, Monday-Thursday (Friday closed at 2:30 pm), although apparently that schedule has recently changed from 8:00 am to 3:00 pm daily. Contact the archive for up-to-date hours given lingering COVID protocols. I highly recommend that you arrive at the archive every day at least 15 minutes before 8:00 am. This is important for two reasons: 1) you have a higher likelihood of getting a desk with a computer if you are early (and thus access any “microfilm” documents and PARES online); 2) you can talk to other researchers while you all are waiting for the archive to open. These are all wonderful, intelligent, helpful scholars who are going through similar challenges and have their own tips for navigating the archive. Drink coffee with them during the day, get tapas and/or drinks after the archive closes, and see parts of Sevilla on the weekends. I can assure you that you will not regret it.

While this process might be intimidating for some, navigating and researching in the immense Archivo General de Indias is essential for anyone whose work even briefly touches on the Spanish Empire. To write histories that incorporate the vast breadth of the early-modern world, that tell stories from many perspectives, and that seek to compare and connect phenomena across time and space, researchers will need a little bit of wonder, and a little bit of strength, before diving into the AGI.

 

 

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