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Multidirectional Progress

Computerization of the Archivo General de Indias has been a highly ambitious operation in applying new technologies to archival functions. Its achievements in several areas are noteworthy:

  • It has affected all areas of work in historical archives (management, information, consultation, and conservation), showing that it is possible, reasonable, and, ultimately, economically viable to undertake this type of integrated archival treatment system.
  • It has generated eleven million digitized pages and incorporated all existing finding aids within the automated information and reference system.
  • It has allowed experimentation at every point in the process, including functional analysis, monitoring several years of use in the Reading Room, and addressing the constant problems of obsolescence.
  • It has allowed continued experimentation in the use of new archival technologies; the project was not abandoned at the first obstacle or under the pressure of constantly changing technologies.
  • It has shown that the new technologies, properly used, offer powerful tools for attaining the Archivo’s primary goals of conservation and dissemination.

Project Costs

Today, an analysis of the project’s cost between 1986 and 1997 has undoubtedly lost some of its relevance, except as a historical footnote. In the world of new technology, prices of hardware, software, and media carriers are dropping rapidly, while prospects for new equipment are expanding. It is almost ridiculous to compare the price of a PC with a 486 processor in 1991 with that of a PC equipped with the latest generation processor in 1997. The price of hardware is halved about every 18 months.

That said, the total outlay has been high. During the project’s main phase (1986-1992), the three institutions allocated, in equal shares, one billion pesetas (more than $US 6.6 million). The following two years required another 300 million ($US 2 million). This cost covered:

  • Research, design, and development of the system
  • Archival work involved in document preparation
  • Data entry (textual databases and document digitization)
  • Hardware and software
  • Cost of storage media (particularly optical disks)

The largest item of expenditure has been personnel. The technical research and development group has always consisted of at least 10 people, and at times as many as 20. The project also required experts in the archival treatment of documents. Tens of staff archivists from the Archivo General de Indias, the Archivo Histórico Nacional, and the Archivo General de Simancas have collaborated on the project, along with various groups of contract personnel with greater specialization and experience in such work. Finally, the project required data entry staff. They were needed first for the creation of the textual or descriptive database, with a group of seven operators working in Madrid for four years and another team of five in Seville. Then they were needed for the digitization of documents, with a team of as many as 32 operators in 1991 and 1992.

The cost of hardware and software has also been high but has decreased over time, accounting for an ever-smaller share of the whole. And the cost of storage media has been considerable.

With regard to costs, the following observations can be made:

  • The important initial work of system research, design, and development drew on experience gained in other archives and in other projects. It represents a significant and, at least from the cultural standpoint, profitable “long-term investment,” applicable beyond the AGI project.
  • Since most of the archival work consisted of the usual activities in archives (organization and description of documents), it too extends beyond the digitization project per se, as does the entry of textual data.
  • The cost of document digitization, accounting for a large percentage of total expenditures, was the most controversial item. Up to 32 employees worked together on a job that, thanks to technological progress, could now be performed with far fewer operators. But AGI would have had to wait six years to begin the work, and, as of today, would have had a scant five years of digital image use in the Reading Room. Nor would the AGI have enjoyed the other advantages of the system. If the decision had been delayed, would AGI now be certain that the time had come to do the work? Might staff not have decided to wait for new advances to allow more rapid and therefore less expensive work? It should be kept in mind that, owing to the type of documents involved and their state of conservation, automatic scanner feeding cannot be considered, which means that human intervention is inevitably a significant part of the entire process.

More information on actual costs is provided in Appendix 4.

Project Results

Project results can be summarized as follows:

  • The integrated automation of all basic functions of the Archivo.
  • The development of a unified data system containing all descriptive information following the retrospective conversion of finding aids.
  • The replacement of consultation of original documents by a significant percentage of digitized documents, yielding benefits for conservation and access.
  • Almost five years of continuous use of the system by researchers in the Reading Room and by the entire staff of the Archivo.
  • Important benefits for the management and internal operation of the Archivo.
  • Finally, a system model (hardware, software, and know-how) available for use in other archives.

More specifically, and in accordance with the initial aims of the project, the project has yielded the following benefits for the AGI and for research.

Conservation Benefits

Although digitization does not solve all the problems of document conservation, it has greatly reduced the risk of deterioration for about a third of the Archivo’s original holdings. Over the past year, 31 percent of consultations at the AGI were done using the electronic document. Over the same period, paper copies made from the electronic document accounted for more than 38 percent of all paper reproductions delivered to researchers. It is reasonable, therefore, to state that, 31 percent of the risk of deterioration from document handling in the Reading Room and 38 percent of the risk from handling to make photocopies has been eliminated. Some of the original documents were at especially high risk because of their constant use. Between 1989 and 1992, some documents were consulted more than 40 times a year. Today, the most popular documents have all been digitized and are never handled. Appendix 1 provides further details.

Access Benefits

An analysis of consultation figures over the past few years shows that the researcher needs less time today to complete research thanks to the computerized system :

  • Information access is more rapid.
  • More information is available.
  • Researchers complete more consultations per work session.
  • The AGI provides more services to a broader range of users.
  • Delivery of paper copies is much more rapid.

See Appendix 2 for more information.

Benefits for Internal Operation

Nearly all functions of the AGI are benefiting from the computerized system :

  • Information service: response to the user is much more rapid and efficient for both on-site and correspondence consultations.
  • Organization and description of holdings: the work of description and indexation, and the preparation of new catalogs, inventories, and indices has been expedited.
  • Management: there have been improvements in tracking research requests, monitoring reading room use, moving documents, and preparing statistics.
  • Reproduction service: requests for copies are processed and filled much more quickly.

Final Observations

In its efforts of the past ten years, AGI has consistently aimed to be practical and has shown that new technologies can offer powerful tools for fulfilling the major goals of conservation and dissemination.

  • The AGI has converted eleven million pages and all existing descriptive data to digital format. That information is now available for the future. It may be transformed, adapted, and used in various ways, but it is there now.
  • The use of information and experience accumulated in Spanish archives over a period of centuries also offers guarantees for the future. The system was not created in a vacuum but drew upon the entire historical memory of several centuries of archival treatment.
  • Technologies change, and the system will have to be updated or replaced. But in the meantime, it will have made a significant contribution in service to a rich cultural heritage.


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