Using Spanish Archives – A Review and Survival Guide

After being so used to the archives I used for years for my PhD, getting to know a new archive, let alone one abroad, was always going to be a bit of a challenge. Archive catalogues often reflect the structure of the government who donated them, which changes with time, so when starting at a new archive in a different country, a depressing quantity of prior preparation is needed to know this to avoid the ‘lucky dip’ approach to research. However, the ‘5 Ps’ policy can only get you so far, when you discover two factors. 1) a catalogue may lists documents from 1715 to 1783, but it might only contain those dated from 1740 to 1743 because ‘that’s the way it is’ (I quote – translated of course – the archivist) and 2) while The National Archives catalogues down to the individual document, the Spanish archives stop once they reach the pile, so potentially 100s of documents have exactly the same reference, making using references from others’ work a bit of a long shot!

Similarly, in Spain following the ‘5 Ps’ can put you at a disadvantage. My recce trip in June informed me of all the usual archive rules (pencils only, no food or drink, no phones) but also a few new ones, the most annoying being no paper allowed, especially none bound together in a pad or book – all paper was to be supplied by the archive and of an A5 size and you weren’t allowed to take it into the reading room the following day. This also meant no dictionaries – understandable but not helpful when you’re confronted by the Spanish word for ‘frigate’, ‘galley’, ‘specie’ etc, which had somehow never come up in my Spanish classes! I also noticed that the usual air-conditioning was replaced by an open window and gloried in the idea of being warm in an archive! Sadly, on my arrival at the start of August, I found I was the only one actually obeying the rules. I have seen at least three people using pens; everyone brings in their paper – sometimes of A4 size! Gasp! – Several people’s mobiles have gone off and been answered and no-one bothers much about the need to be quiet – least of all the staff! Worst of all, the lack of air-conditioning seems to have been a blip, as now they open windows to let the heat in – I have a wardrobe of summer clothing and spend my research time freezing while outside there are temperatures of 25 to 39oC!!

On the positive side, both archives I’ve been to have recently been re-furbished and have excellently equipped reading and cloakrooms (complete with coffee machine with 16 varieties of coffee!), are very safe (all government archives are in government buildings so you have to show your passport to the police guard every time you enter the building), and both have attentive and friendly staff (so different from the blue jacketed happiness police at the TNA!) who generally understand my Spanish and are very quick at retrieving documents. Photographing documents isn’t allowed, which makes life slower than the TNA, but photocopying and digital copying services are speedy and cheaper than Britain.

On the negative side, I am constantly wincing at the document handling. Personally I feel the TNA is going a bit far with its new online tutorial and quiz, but after spending three weeks in a Spanish archive I’m beginning to see that the TNA might have the right idea. Documents here don’t always arrive in folders and boxes, most are simply bound with tape or rope like an enormous parcel, some 18 or 20 inches high. The combined effect of tightening the rope or tape directly onto the documents and the (classic newsreader style) shuffling needed to get these skyscrapers back into straight piles means that the desks are covered in tiny bits of paper at the end of each day. I’m dreading the moment one of my orders turns out to be one of the big piles, because I really doubt my ability to carry it. On the occasions my neighbours get one, I find myself worrying what would happen if they collapsed on me! Many documents are bound together by string through holes cut into the middle of the document, like giant treasury tags. Though the holes are contemporary, I doubt the TNA would allow the strings to still be used as they are here. Worse still is that one attendant in particular knows nothing about preservation; he told one researcher to fold a document back on itself so the researcher would have more desk space, when the researcher protested about the age and fragility of the paper, the attendant dismissed him and not only folded it against its natural bend by also ran his fingers down the new fold to ensure it would stay open. On another occasion he noticed one of my documents had humidity damage and returned with acid-free archival tissue paper to put it in, but as the tissue paper was too large for the pile of documents, he began to cut around the edge – with the document still inside!

The practicalities of using an archive in another language are also interesting; you might think you know the word for ‘box’ and ‘folder’ but you have to learn the established phrase (‘legajos’). Similarly, while being shown how to use the online ordering system, the staff click at lightning speed through several options with names you barely register but then slowly explains to you that you need to press ‘ir’ (to go) to send your request – probably one of the first verbs anyone learns when taking Spanish classes! I failed to get any instruction on how and when to collect my ‘legajos’, so watched others. This tactic failed abysmally, as some people were brought their documents, while others helped themselves from the shelf they were left on but only some people got told off for this. On my third day at the archive I’m currently using, someone finally told me I was meant to tell someone which seat I was at, so they could keep track of where the documents were – well I’d noticed people talking to the staff (everyone is very friendly here and talks continuously!) but as it’s impossible to eavesdrop in another language until you’re really good at it, I’d missed that they weren’t talking about the weather or latest economic worries but were reporting in their table numbers!

Lastly, my final bit of advice is to be aware that Spanish archives are also subject to the whimsical Spanish holiday system. All of August is a holiday for the majority of the population, the region here has holidays in the first week of September and then there are the many random national and regional holidays, when opening hours and bus services can change or cease, often with no announcements. Only a lucky use of ‘hasta mañana’ (until tomorrow) instead of ‘hasta luego’ (until later) hinted to an attendant that I didn’t know the following day was a local saint’s day and saved me from getting up at 6.30am for a 7.00 bus to an archive that wasn’t open!

Still, the Spanish archives, like the British archives and, I hope, most archives across the world, has one chief attraction I hadn’t noticed much in Britain but which has become very important to me here in Spain – it, like trains and buses, is one of the few places you can guarantee in Spain that no-one will be smoking!!

By Dr Victoria Henshaw

(This is the first in a series of posts detailing experiences at various archives both in Britain and abroad)

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