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.