a (short) week in the archive

Totals for the archive this week:

Total pics = 4,512
Total manuscript pages = probably @8,400+
Criminales boxes processed = 31
Years covered = 1757-1764, 1775-1782

The Archivo Nacional has produced a number of guides for various series of the archive, some of which are now also available as pdf files on CD. I’m going to talk to them about making the finders guides available online in pdf format as well. The guides are invaluable- as they include some form of metadata on every folder in the series, including date, place, number of folios, and a description of the contents of the piece. With that information and a culling together of pdfs for (eventually) all of the series, investigators will have a really powerful means to search the archive prior to going. More importantly, it will be possible to see clusters of types of litigation, or in topics of royal decrees, and the like in specific epochs. Granted, the pdf is not the most useful format for doing digital text analysis– but the files come pdf+text ready. Conversion to plain text would be a fairly simple task, and easy grist for the text mining mill.

What interests me most about this is the potential ability to cross reference trends in very different sections of the archive – Gobierno, Indigenas, Criminales, Cedulas, Real Ordenes, Estancos, etc., etc. With DEVONthink, it will be easy to track names, making a dent in the sometimes maddening practice of prosopography. (Of course, this is only the case if an individual shows up as a primary target/litigant in a document.) The work of the archive staff in accomplishing these guides is very impressive, and will continue pending funding. That is always the catch, especially in a country like Ecuador where $$ is tight in the best of years. 

For now, I’m just concentrating on working through boxes. The guides are helpful, in that I can more quickly plan my attack for picture taking. Why so many photos, anyway? Well, the combination of digital photography, database programs like DEVONthink, and QDA applications like TAMS Analyzer or NVIVO open up wholly new possibilities for research. OK, well not wholly new– people for years have been utilizing this same documentary record to write histories of Quito and the Andes. What changes, though, is the scale of information and the time required for collection. Digital photographs are of such high quality that they are superior to microfilm, 35mm pics, photocopies, etc., and they are also imminently more portable. I can carry back to the states 10s of 1000s of manuscript pages based on short stays (which helps when one has a family, or when research monies are hard to come by). What is more, while processing these thousands of images through transcription and analysis still takes a very long time– the ability to wade through large numbers of documents changes one’s impression of what the documents contain in a much shorter time frame than if it all had to be done in the archive.

When simply working transcribing in the archive, I used to find myself only noting the info that I thought was important at that stage of the investigation. I missed things that eventually I would come to deem central to a project. With the digital images, I’m not limited to the bits of transcription that seemed important in the early stages of research. I can go back, if need be, to docs because I have them– stored in as many places as possible.

The archive workflow looks like this now– I’m cataloguing criminal cases that deal with insults, sexual improprieties, and murders. OK, so I also include the occasional pedestrian assault case just for good measure.


 I will look at the index of a box, chose cases based on their descriptions, pull those cases and photograph them. I’m using a Canon PowerShot SX10IS, which is 10mp and has a 20x optical zoom and 8gb SD card. The camera is mounted on a tripod on a desk closest to the window in the Sala de Investigadores. In a moleskine, I mark by hand the folder number, date, and photo file #s for the run of the case. I like to have hard copies of these photo logs, just incase something were to happen to my laptop. One also needs rechargeable batteries.

After a day of shooting, I download the camera onto my laptop HD as well as an external HD. I also back up to a separate TimeMachine external drive after downloading.  The arduous work then comes in reproducing the archive’s file structure on my hard drive — moving pics into folders named after the boxes and folders in the archive. Click on the random example to see what an image looks like (warning- it’s a fairly large image!). I read and transcribe the documents using one of a number of different photo apps that allow manipulating aspects of the photo. It’s just good, old fashioned document transcription at that point. Luckily, the paleography requirements of the 18th century are pretty minimal. With a 10mp camera, the image size is 3648×2736, and on the superfine setting, I can get something like 1700 images on a 8gb SD card. The use of a tripod is essential, because for the health of the manuscripts one must avoid using a flash. With images that large, there is virtually no need to zoom when transcribing, which is very nice.


Associate Professor of Early Latin America Department of History University of Tennessee-Knoxville

Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Apps for Research, Digital History, Latin American History, Processes, Research and Writing
One comment on “a (short) week in the archive
  1. […] I’ve written about on a number of other occasions (here and here), I love using a digital camera for archival research. I’m an evangelist with graduate students, […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


Hacer juicio ú dictamen acerca de alguna cosa... significando que el objeto excita el juicio ú dictamen en la persona que le hace.

Deducir ante el Juez la accion ú derecho que se tiene, ó las excepciones que excluyen la accion contrária.

RAE 1737 Academia autoridades
Buy my book!

Chad Black

I, your humble contributor, am Chad Black. You can also find me on the web here.
%d bloggers like this: