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The Adventures and Misadventures of Archival Research.


Doubtlessly, some of the most intense emotions arising from research are experienced in the context of the archive. In this space, you can either be the victim of deep frustration at the lack of valuable information, or you can be overcome by joy at finding of some exciting material (the one that you think is going to make your planned book shine out from among the depths of even the world's most obscure library). There is of course, a wide gradation between these two emotional extremes, and a whimsical regime that regulates them. How these opposed emotions are balanced and paced, how frequently they take turns in making your life seem miserable or worthwhile living, will determine how you look back on the weeks or even months you have spent plunging into the depths of an archive: "Was it really worth it after all"? You might find yourself asking.... Do not let this put you off!

Archivo General de la Administración, Alcalá de Henares

Let me start by confessing that my experience working at archives is mainly reduced to France and Spain. Since it is the latter country that this blog entry is concerned with, I will share, in what follows, some of the emotions I have experienced while working at archives in Spain, and the reasons why I think I felt the way I did. I will mainly focus on my recent experience working at the Archivo General de la Administración (usually known as AGA), located in a small but stunning city known as Alcalá de Henares, approximately one hour south of Madrid. This archive purports to hold all bureaucratic documents produced by Spain's administration in mainland territories and in what were once Spain's colonies. This archive thus holds all "surviving" information from the administration of Spain's Protectorate in Northern Morocco (1912-1956), with which this project is concerned. I will come back to the question of "survival" in due time, but let me first sketch out a few notes about Spanish archives.

Signing of the Franco-Spanish Treatise creating the Protectorate in Morocco

A brief note on Spanish archives

If you ever speak to someone with experience of researching in different archives in Spain you will soon hit into a motif that recurs in similar conversations with other colleagues: Spain's convulse history, shaken up by internal wars and skirmishes, segmented by the many changes of regime that took place during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and shocked later by the Civil War (1936-1939), has determined the fate of most archives. Put plainly and shortly, this means two things: 1) A portion (often a significant one) of the documents and collections that archives once held or that they should hold (because those collections fall under the archive's purview), has been lost, burnt, or stolen. In other words: the materials are not there, and your research trip might have been worthless - but, mostly likely, you could not have found out in advance. 2) In the attempt to preserve the archive's collections from being lost, burnt, or stolen in the course of a revolution, war, or similarly violent episode, the materials have been transferred to another building in a rushed manner, without much time or care being invested into classifying and placing the materials into appropriate boxes, in which they could be found later. From an anthropological and historical perspective, these two scenarios have the interest of proving that the way archives are structured is, to some extent, a reflection of the societies that have produced them. From an archival researcher's point of view, however, this can mean a lot of frustration.

To type 1 belong some sections of the Madrid's Municipal Archive (Archivo de la Villa de Madrid), in particular, everything relating to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century - which is the period my past work has been concerned with. Documents of Madrid's Regional Court (Audiencia Territorial de Madrid), held at National History Archive (Archivo Histórico Nacional, Madrid) also fall under this category.

The so-called África section of the AGA, which holds all documents produced by the Protectorate in Morocco, belongs to type 2 above. As various sources (Valverde Zabaleta 1995; Ruiz Alcaín 1993) have shown, following Morocco's independence from France and Spain in 1956, the materials of the Spanish zone were rushed into Spain without due consideration of the way they should be stored and preserved for future research. Archival materials were only a small part of the many realities that the Francoist administration had to contend with when leaving Morocco to get hold of the reins of its own future. As historians, we may understand that there can be priorities other than the preservation of archival documents during a process of decolonisation such as the one triggered in 1956. This does not mean, however, that we will not feel frustrated at the consequences of this rushed manoeuvre.

Map of the Spanish Protectorate in Morocco, 1912-1956

AGA: The "África" section

The AGA's África section is full of promises, and every researcher willing to venture into its vast, almost unexplored territory, should know that the benefits can be extremely rewarding. The materials held in this section branch out into many aspects of politics, culture and society in colonial Morocco. They were produced, compiled and organised by the Spanish colonial administration and thus show, more than anything else, the administration's -- sometimes desperate -- attempts to keep Moroccan society under control. They also reveal fundamental aspects of life organisation in Morocco, and contain fascinating accounts of the everyday life and political structures of the turuq or so-called Muslim brotherhoods in rural Morocco.

Before going to the archive, I recommend reading published research that uses sources gathered from the AGA's África section, as well as texts dealing with the history and organisation of this archive (Valverde Zabaleta 1995; Ruiz Alcaín 1993). This helps to get a sense of the types of materials, and, to some of extent, of the way in which they are organised. As it is well known by scholars working on the Spanish zone of the protectorate, most academic production on colonial Morocco is focused on the French zone, which was the largest, and where Morocco's then and current capital, Rabat, was located. The undisputed source to find your way around the AGA's África section is Josep Lluis Mateo Dieste's groundbreaking and thorough study La 'hermandad' hispano-marroquí: política y religión bajo el Protectorado español en Marruecos, 1912-1956 (Bellaterra, 2003). Unfortunately, since this study came to light, the África section has undergone a complete restructuring. While not taking any steps towards improving its internal organisation, this has altered all catalogue numbers for the boxes in the África section in order to bring them in line with all other sections of the AGA. It is still possible to consult a particular box under the catalogue number cited by Mateo Dieste and earlier research, but this involves requesting from the archivist that they check the equivalence between the old and new listings of catalogue numbers. Research published in future years will show this discrepancy in catalogue numbers, unless the equivalences are listed in the publications.

There are many areas to explore at the África section other than the boxes cited in Mateo Dieste's and other studies. After some time working at the AGA, getting to grips with its peculiarities, routines, and rhythms - marked, in part, by its rather peculiar opening hours (8.30am to 2.30pm) - it will be necessary to consult the domestic paper catalogues. These catalogues can also be consulted on .pdf format, but, unfortunately, only at the AGA's premises. This means that no time can be saved from the valuable, if meagre, six-hour daily opening time (5 and a half hours, to be realistic) by preparing at home a list of documents to request at the archive. The .pdfs are scans of the - mostly handwritten - pages from the paper catalogue, and are not OCRed. Therefore, the catalogue cannot be searched by either fields or keywords, and you will be forced to scroll down and fine-tune your eye-browsing skills. The staff are very kind and helpful, but the AGA should definitely think about how to smooth out the many bumps that currently stand on the researcher's way.

The paper catalogues are not grouped according to uniform criteria. On a more positive note, however, materials are cross-listed under different sections, and thus the chances of finding a particular piece of information are multiplied. Information on cafés in Tetouan can thus be found under the "Tetouan" files, or under "drinking establishments." The many files on Muslim brotherhoods (aka turuq) can be found under multiple headings, depending on what exactly is the nature of the information being sought.

In sum, finding sources at the AGA requires that you navigate a dense web of difficulties, and that you learn to cope with your different emotions, especially those of anger and frustration. I have not come across yet a situation in which celebrating a good or unexpected finding jeopardises the research, so reward yourself when this happens!

Bab el Ucla, Tetouan

Samuel Llano, University of Manchester


Mateo Dieste, Josep Lluis. 2003. La 'hermandad' hispano-marroquí: política y religión bajo el Protectorado español en Marruecos, 1912-1956. Barcelona: Bellaterra.

Ruiz Alcaín, Ignacio. 1993. "Fuentes de la Presidencia del Gobierno, para la historia de la presencia española en Africa del Norte, custodiadas en el Archivo General de la Administración del Estado en Alcalá de Henares." Aldaba, 22: 255-291,

Valverde Zabaleta, María del Carmen. 1995. "Fondos documentales para el estudio de la presencia española en el continente africano conservados en el Archivo General de la Administración." Aldaba 25: 159-206.



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