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New Prospects: Long-Distance Access

During the years when the Archivo General de Indias’ computerized system was devised and developed, no priority was assigned to long-distance access. Instead, the emphasis was on development of a system for integral management of the AGI. But some prospects for use of long-distance access solutions were analyzed from the start, even though the explosive growth of Internet use was still far in the future.39

The initial designs called for an AGI opening abroad through the Data Processing Center of the Ministry of Culture-specifically, through the Cultural Information Points (PIC), the first publicly accessible cultural network. The network was accessed through the Packet Switching Data Network (PSDN), which has X.25 lines, and the basic telephone network. The PIC network disappeared with the arrival of the Internet, and the information originally mounted on PIC was moved to the Web site of the Ministry of Culture ( Today, this site includes the Censo Guía de Archivos, which offers a database with general information on more than 30,000 archival centers, and the Bibliografía de Archivos, where one can consult the professional bibliography for archives.

In 1992, a six-month experiment in long-distance transmission was conducted by installing at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, California, a workstation linked to the AGI that provided access to its descriptive database. This workstation was supplemented by an optical disk unit located at Huntington headquarters that provided access to the digital image of certain selected documents. Thus, the descriptive information could be obtained across the Atlantic, while access to the digital image remained local.

Other possibilities for remote connections were studied, such as through the Spanish academic network (Red Iris). Another experiment was conducted to provide access through the Integrated Services Digital Network; the necessary interfaces were developed, and isolated experiments were done. For example, at the III Jornadas de Administración Pública y Nuevas Tecnologías, held in Palma de Mallorca in May 1995, the AGI documents could be consulted directly following installation of a workstation at workshop headquarters that was connected to the AGI network. But these experiments were not followed up.

The massive emergence of the Internet prompted new thinking about the possibilities for long-distance access, although the communication networks’ capacity did not then seem well suited for sending good quality images of the digitized documents. A document consisting of 25 pages (the usual average at the Archivo), for example, could require 8 MB. Today, such technological problems are being solved rapidly, making it possible for the AGI to join the “Global Village,” offering its holdings through the Internet. But some problems must first be resolved, and certain important decisions made.

Technical Problems

The most important technical problems to be considered are the following:

  • Finalizing work to provide more open systems or prepare suitable interfaces.
  • A decision about the distribution or use through the networks of the specific tools developed for image treatment or enhancement.
  • An assessment of the impact of prospective clients and adaptation of equipment to new needs.
  • The essential use of broad-band networks if it is decided to provide remote service, not only for textual and descriptive information but also for digital images of documents. Otherwise, initial distribution of poorer quality images must be accepted.
  • The search for another means of image service, bypassing human intervention to avoid initial loss of time, if images are consulted remotely. Solutions may include the use of jukebox or, even better, large-capacity magnetic disk sets to provide authentic online use of images. This would require another migration of images to a new carrier medium, which would be costly in terms of equipment and supplies and would require considerable time to complete.

Security Problems

Opening the Archivo’s computerized system to remote consultation would require a strategy for addressing security problems, which have not been a source of concern so far. Much experience has been accumulated in the area of security, especially in important economic sectors such as banks, long-distance trading, industrial research, and in the military.

Problems of Intellectual Property and Document Ownership

The finding aids represent an intellectual creation that is the property of the state through the Ministry of Education and Culture. Distribution of this information, contained in the information and reference system, poses problems of intellectual property that are similar in principle to those for any other information, whether or not fees are charged.

Furthermore, the document images themselves form part of a Spanish documentary heritage, the distribution of which requires careful decision making. Should free access be permitted? Limited access? Who is entitled to access?

There are several alternatives for distribution. Access may be free or a fee may be charged. A fee may initially be imposed, with subsequent access free of charge. Users may be free to further disseminate the information, or its use may be restricted to the authorized client. Use may be granted only to cultural institutions or individuals, or it may be extended to for-profit institutions.

The usual practice in Spanish archives has been to provide copies of documents on microfilm or paper to institutions and individuals. But complete series of documents are almost never provided, and in the exceptional cases when they are, a special agreement is required obligating the recipient to refrain from distributing copies of the documents. Should this practice be continued? Or should dissemination be expanded? Further restricted?

Regarding these questions, the experience of other centers is still limited. There is no record yet of a historical archive putting such a large volume of documents on the network. Whatever is done will affect future operation of the AGI and other archives. The decision should be carefully considered, ideally with the participation of all interested parties.

Management Problems

Certain management problems have already been noted. Still, the user-management system should be expanded to cover the following:

  • New types of system access control
  • New types of statistical data retrieval
  • Accounting and billing systems, where applicable

There are other problems as well (minor, perhaps, but important in the practical operation of institutions), such as staffing and work schedules.

As in other aspects of society today, the “long-distance” or “virtual” reading room may soon become reality in archives, producing the long-distance researcher. The Archivo General de Indias could continue to progress in that direction and make a significant contribution.


39 Pedro González, “Databases and Long Distance Communication. A Spanish Experience.” Proceedings of the Third European Conference on Archives. Vienna, 1993. Published in Mitteilungen des Österreichischen Staatsarchives (Sonderband 2, 1996), 319-72.

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