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date: 19 September 2017

Digital Resources: Spanish Sources for Latin American History

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. Please check back later for the full article.

The essential online digital collections for Latin American history in Spain are the Ministerio de Educación, Cultura y Deportes (MECD)’s Portal de Archivos Españoles, the Biblioteca Nacional de España’s online catalogue, and the Biblioteca of the Real Academia de la Historia’s finding aids. Collectively these three collections, as well as a few additional provincial and municipal archives, offer a meaningful access point to the growing body of digital records pertaining to Latin American history. While digitized images of all manuscripts, maps, drawings, and art are not fully accessible through these online portals, their finding aids and catalogues are quite robust and provide sufficient guidance to researchers so that they can either electronically request copies or prepare for an efficient, onsite review of documents.

Access to these resources on Latin American history has largely been funded directly by Spanish governmental entities, but also through generous subventions provided by the private sector. In particular, the banking industry has been a significant contributor to the preservation and dissemination of documents pertaining to the Spanish and Spanish-American patrimony. Unfortunately, this trend has subsided since the worldwide financial crisis of 2008, but Spanish institutions are rapidly remedying the effects of this lingering situation.

By crafting collaborative programmatic initiatives, such as the Revealing Cooperation and Conflict Project (RCCP), Spain continues to make additional collections available via the Internet. For example, this endeavor, supported by the city of Plasencia, the diocese of Plasencia, the Centro Sefarad Israel (Madrid), MECD, and eight universities, is generating transcriptions of cathedral and municipal records from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries for communities such as Plasencia, Spain. This city, as well as the province of Extremadura, is particularly important to Latin American history as large numbers of Spanish conquistadors, explorers, and settler families in Latin America hailed from this region, and they created a two-way transatlantic bridge of peoples and documents during the colonial era.

Equally important to locating these digital collections is the researcher’s use of specialized search techniques for each of these online sources. As one might imagine, simple and advanced search tools offered via the Portal de Archivos Españoles, also known as PARES, will not generate accurate or complete listings of available documents. Rather, it is critical that researchers understand how archives such as the Archivo General de Indias (Sevilla) have arranged their collections and to adjust their search techniques to locate more resources. One specific limitation of PARES, at this moment, is that often it will report a “signatura” for a specific document (for example, “CHARCAS,415,L.1,F.143V(1)”), but will also erroneously indicate that a digital copy is not available. That is, the original document is available only for physical viewing at the AGI-Sevilla or by ordering a reproduction. Scholars might believe that many of the documents they are searching for and locating using PARES are not digitized — but in actuality they do exist in electronic format. Thus, researchers must modify their search methods to find hidden pathways to electronic copies. For example, digital images of sixteenth-century colonial governance records for present-day Peru and Bolivia can be located by performing a search for an entire book of the Audiencia de Charcas (i.e., “CHARCAS, 415, L.1”).

The world of Latin American digital manuscripts, art collections, maps, and other paraphernalia is rapidly expanding during this second decade of the twenty-first century.