Over the past decade, the large-scale digital reformatting project of the Archivo General de Indias (AGI) in Seville has received considerable attention for its application of computer technologies to historical archives. In 1991, Hans Rütimann and Stuart Lynn prepared a report on the project for the Commission on Preservation and Access. The report analyzed advantages and problems and concluded that the AGI project was a useful model for other projects: “There is much to learn for other applications.”1 Jean-Paul Oddos published a later report on the project in the Bulletin de la Bibliothèque de France in 1994. It contains a positive assessment in conclusions entitled “Un démarche exemplaire.”2 In a UNESCO RAMP report, Christopher Kitching commented on the profession’s interest in the project’s outcome: “Its results will be eagerly awaited by the archival world.”3 At the official opening of the system, presided over by the King and Queen of Spain, Charles Kesckeméti, Secretary General of the International Council on Archives, began his remarks as follows: “This is a fantastic day in the history of archives.”
These are just a few statements from the many professionals who have visited Seville to study the project. UNESCO itself supported the organization of two information workshops on the project for Latin American professionals. The International Council on Archives, backed by the Council of Europe, has promoted the Seville model in computerizing the Komintern archives in Moscow.
Lessons of a Ten-Year Experience
It has been 11 years since the project was launched by an agreement between the Ministry of Culture (under which the AGI operates), the Ramón Areces Foundation, and IBM España. This is a very long stretch in the changing world of new technologies, where everything quickly becomes dated and obsolete. It is enough time for us to assess, with some perspective, a project that has been the most important ongoing effort in applying new digital technologies to the treatment of historical archives.4 There is an additional advantage in undertaking this analysis: because of its continuity, all phases of the project can be analyzed, from conception to operation and consolidation. Over those nearly 11 years, the system was designed, developed, and installed at the AGI. Today, the system is a fundamental part of AGI’s operations and its use has been established among researchers and staff. In addition, many steps have been taken to update the system and solve the problems posed by rapid technological obsolescence.
Range of Achievements
The AGI computerization project has made several advances in the application of new technologies to archives. No historical archive in the world today can claim a greater variety of achievements:
- Eleven million pages are available for direct on-screen consultation, supported by a spectacular combination of image-enhancing tools.
- More than 30 percent of consultations at the AGI are done electronically.
- All descriptive information is available electronically, forming a unified data system into which all traditional finding aids have been integrated following their retrospective conversion.
- This entire integrated system is in daily operation in the Reading Room.
Initiation of the project required identification, discussion, and analysis of the many problems and the possibilities offered by new technologies. Only then was it possible to develop a complete system for managing historical archives, with special emphasis on the latest aspects of image treatment. But the most remarkable aspect of the project is that the system has been functioning for almost five years. During this time, staff have had to address the day-to-day practical problems of operation, including staff training, aging equipment, and, above all, obsolescence of hardware, software, and data media. The AGI is a laboratory where an integrated computerized system responsible for most of the functions of a historical archive can be observed operating in real time.
To understand the project’s aims, methodology, and results, it is worth noting the circumstances leading to its inception. Why was such an ambitious and massive project undertaken? Why is this project, unique in the often-neglected field of treatment of historical documentation, being carried out in Spain?
The main impetus for the project was Spain’s celebration of the fifth centenary of the discovery of America, which culminated in the World’s Fair in Seville in 1992. For several years before the celebration, cultural, entrepreneurial, and political agencies had been encouraged to consider ways to take advantage of the possibilities offered by such a significant public event.
The Archivo General de Indias offered an excellent stage for activities relating to the commemoration. For more than a century, researchers from all over the world have been drawn by its stacks of documents of basic interest for studying the discovery and the history of the Americas. Accordingly, in 1986, three organizations agreed to carry out the computerization project at the Archivo. The organizations included a public institution (the Ministry of Culture, under which the AGI operates), a nonprofit private cultural institution (Ramón Areces Foundation), and a computer technology company (IBM España). This public-private partnership was critical for securing the heavy investments needed by the project and gave all participants increased visibility for their support of an important cultural activity.
- The project was designed to apply the latest computer technologies, especially digital imaging, to the treatment of historical archives in support of the AGI’s goals of preservation and access.
- The project set specific dates for completion and the reporting of results, requiring that by 1992 a system be installed and operating. Thus, the system already incorporated a large volume of data when it opened, rather than appearing as an empty container to be filled.
- The project was aided by the participants’ commitment to support cultural activities. This meant that financial resources were allocated for project development and that staff from the three institutions would collaborate closely over several years.
- The project was intended to serve as the pilot project for the eventual computerization of all Spanish national historical archives.
- The work involved the use of new, developing technology, especially in image treatment and information medium. Challenges included the rapidity of technical developments, lack of standards, high cost, and risk of obsolescence.
- The AGI had no experience in the use of the new imaging technologies.
- The project required large investments because of the high cost of new technologies. (The costs did, however, decrease considerably over time.)
- Certain technological decisions had to be put off as long as possible to present a state-of-the-art system in 1992.
- The project had to progress simultaneously in system design and development and in massive data entry, so that by 1992 the project would be operating at the AGI and a large volume of digital information would already be available.
- The project had to remain within the scope of what was practical, given the available resources.
Importance of Results for Conservation and Access
AGI now provides more than 30 percent of document consultation service through digital images, eliminating handling of the original and offering significant advantages for both access and conservation. The average time that researchers need to conduct their work is much less than before. There are more researchers, but they complete their work sooner, and therefore need to spend fewer days working in the Archivo.
The Archivo General de Indias and the “Global Village”
The future incorporation of digital holdings into communication networks (which also requires careful analysis) could make the Archivo General de Indias the first historical archive in the world to offer the researcher such a large collection of material by remote access. The emerging “global village” makes this desirable, but its impact on small institutions should be carefully studied to ensure appropriate aims, means, and results.
1 Hans Rütimann and Stuart Lynn, Computerization Project of the Archivo General de Indias, Seville, Spain. A Report to the Commission on Preservation and Access (Washington, DC: Commission on Preservation and Access, 1992).
2 Jean-Paul Oddos, “La Numérisation des Archives Générales des Indes à Seville” [Digitization of the Archivo General de Indias in Seville], Bulletin de la Bibliothèque de France 39(4) (1994): 82-86.
3 Christopher Kitching, The Impact of Computerization on Archival Finding Aids: A RAMP Study (Paris, UNESCO, 1991).
4 The agreement establishing the AGI computerization project was signed in 1986, effective to December 1992. Textual data entry began in 1988 and digitization of documents in 1989. The first version of the user-management module was installed in mid-1988. The complete system was installed on a trial basis in 1991 and officially inaugurated on October 6, 1992. At the conclusion of the initial project, a new agreement was signed covering 1993 and 1994.