Archives and history, a necessary relationship

In a quest for supreme benefit, man's history is linked to the handling and interpretation of documents, which are gathered by a man with the purpose of preserving and preserving testimonies and disseminating them as part of the knowledge that mankind can have of itself.

Archives and history, a necessary relationship
The archives and history. Image by Joanjo Puertos Muñoz from Pixabay

The idea of this paper is not to give an exhaustive historical account of the role of archives in world societies; it is simply to illustrate with some data, the presence that archives as institutions specifically dedicated to the safekeeping and treatment of documentation, have had and still have throughout time and space.

On the other hand, it is about establishing the relationship that exists between these two disciplines - archival science and history - linked in some way with the past, through documentary sources, their processing, and interpretation to produce historical knowledge.

The importance of archives through time

We can say that archives arise with the very history of man, since as a set of documents, they are necessarily a human creation, although the document itself, as a testimonial possibility, does not have to be a product of man; it may well be something natural in which there is no human intervention, let us think, for example, of fossils or stones.

The history of man is linked to the handling and interpretation of documents which, in a desire to make the most of them, are collected by a man with the aim of conserving and preserving the testimonies and disseminating them as part of the knowledge that man can make of himself.

It is said that in Egypt and Mesopotamia there were already documentary repositories that kept records of the daily, economic, legal, and political activities of those peoples. However, it is to the Greco-Latin peoples that we owe the interest and awareness of the importance of preserving documentation for its management in the study of humanity. This importance led them to the point of creating special sections for the custody of documents in special areas of the temples.

The Visigoths, during their stay in the Iberian Peninsula, left evidence of their interest in documentation and archives. Unfortunately, the Arab invasion made all traces of the Visigothic archives disappear, while the Reconquest, for its part, was responsible for the disappearance of the vestiges of the Arab archives.

During the Middle Ages, the archive was given the importance of being the official repository of valid testimonies in territorial conflicts and defense of rights; however, the lack of specific places for the safekeeping of documents caused, in countless cases, their disappearance.

It is the Catholic Church to whom we owe the stabilization of the archives since in the monastery, conceived as a religious and cultural center, there was room for the archives, which were understood not only as evidentiary testimony but also as a possibility of knowledge, of data ready to clarify doubts about the past of humanity.

The Church is also responsible for the rescue, preservation, and diffusion of archival techniques inherited from classical antiquity. As a result of the Council of Trent, parish archives, which were responsible for recording the fundamental acts and moments of the individual, proliferated, which benefited the preservation of documents.

Following the French Revolution, archives will be considered from other perspectives: firstly, they will be opened to the public, leaving their closed nature and exclusive use by the government administration; secondly, the adoption and improvement of archiving techniques by modern states will mean the creation of national archives and the adoption by the state of the responsibility to preserve and ensure the consultation of documents.

As a result of this situation, France created its central archives in 1794; England established the New Record Office; Germany, Switzerland, and Portugal organized the consultation of documents. In 1842, also in France, Natalis de Wailly, a paleographer, developed the principle of respect for the provenance and original order of documents, which would become the basic element of archival science, conceived as a discipline independent of other disciplines such as librarianship and documentation.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, American countries created their national archives: Argentina in 1821, Mexico in 1823, Bolivia in 1825, Brazil in 1839, Cuba in 1841, Colombia in 1868, Paraguay in 1871, Costa Rica in 1881, the Dominican Republic in 1884, Nicaragua in 1896, Panama in 1912, Venezuela in 1914, Peru in 1919.

Archives in colonial Mexico

In Mexico, the production of documents dates back to pre-Hispanic times, and the figure of Tlacuilo, an artisan whose function was to record the most important events using paintings and ideographic signs used to keep the memory of those events, stands out in this task. From this, it could be deduced that the Tlacuilo, apart from being the creator of the document, was in charge of conserving and surely, preparing the documents for their opportune use.

In colonial Mexico, it was the notary who was the producer of documents and their custodian. There was not a dependency of the incipient colonial government that did not have the scribe as an important character, who, apart from keeping a record of the acts carried out, with his signature gave the guarantee that public faith grants to the documents.

In a certain way, the notary was also the secretary who, apart from giving testimony, took minutes, organized them, and watched over the fulfillment of what was established in them. Within the Catholic Church, the scribe is called a notary and his functions correspond to those of the scribe, but within the ecclesiastical sphere.

The parishes sometimes had people who, without having specific training, performed the functions of secretary and clerk, and more often than not, it was the parish priest who gave testimony of the religious acts and organized this testimony for its use within the community.

In Mexico, archives go back to colonial times. The first viceroy, Don Antonio de Mendoza, ordered that the documentation originating in the course of his administration, and that of the other administrations that preceded and succeeded him, be concentrated. In 1624 and 1692, serious fires destroyed part of this documentation.

Some later viceroys (Casa Fuerte, 1722-1734; Revillagigedo, 1746-1755, Amarillas, 1755-1760; Croix, 1766-1771 and Bucareh, 1771- 1779) were concerned that in their administrations, the documents that originated and served as testimony of transcendent acts, were organized and guarded in the best possible way. The second Viceroy of Revillagigedo (1789- 1794) formulated a project for the General Archive in 1790 and a regulation for it in 1793, which was hardly put into practice and only achieved an incipient organization. In 1825, Lucas Alamán, then-Secretary of Interior and Foreign Relations, formulated a project to make the General Archive public.

During the unstable situation of Independent Mexico, the archives were no strangers to this situation, which manifested itself in the loss of documents, surely of great value for the knowledge of the society of that time and previous societies. In 1843, José María Lafragua promoted the activity of documentary safekeeping, through a regulation that remained in force until 1913. In 1915 the General Archive became part of the General Directorate of Fine Arts of the Ministry of Public Education (SEP) and currently depends on the Executive Power through the Ministry of the Interior.

Documentary sources and their use in historical production

In this regard, it should be noted that due to their testimonial capacity, the use of documents is generally subjective, since they can be imbued with negative or positive evaluations, depending on the case.

It is common to see, even if it still causes us some surprise, how the studies carried out by different historians, sometimes based on the same documents, on the same sources, turn out to be very dissimilar in their conclusions and sometimes extremely contradictory to each other, that is when we are forced to reflect on the role of historical sources: of documents, of data, in short, of everything that allows us to approach that great master that is our past, to history in all its consequences, to life throughout time.

It is precisely based on documents that we can weave together the threads of this great skein, of this very difficult web of historical interpretation. Documentary sources, as primary sources, offer the social researcher an incalculable richness in terms of data contribution, development of the predominant thought and ideologies, as well as in the relation of both daily and transcendental events.

Of course, the historical task involves activities that go beyond the reproduction of documents without analysis or criticism of them, since always, in each document, no matter how impartial it may seem, there is a particular vision of reality that sometimes, unintentionally or without knowledge of the cause, is printed. The works produced by man necessarily carry a certain commitment, a product of the relationships that are created around the individual insofar as, for every human being, life is a constant responsibility with certain attitudes or with defined ways of acting or thinking.

The past seen through the eyes of the present requires a specific treatment that gives coherence to the themes developed with the methods used to synthesize, in an interpretation, the concrete facts with the abstract relations they produce, but always taking into account the moment and the conditions that led to the creation of a human attitude and its consequent fixation for posterity.

All this is related to the importance that documents have for historical knowledge, which in turn implies a strong responsibility for the historian who must have, as a fundamental goal, the search for objectivity which, although it is a way, a form of doing, is the line that divides history thought of as a science from history thought of as a craft activity. And this is not said in a pejorative way, but to differentiate two conceptions that have traditionally been discussed by the theoreticians of scientific knowledge.

Documents, although they provide data that enrich knowledge, are not everything in terms of the scientific analysis of the past, since they do not contain enough elements by themselves to give value to the historical task. Thus, although we have certainly heard various versions of a given historical event, the analysis, the conclusions, and the interpretations have certainly been different and sometimes even contradictory. And this happens - as mentioned above - even when the elements that have supported the research are the same.

How is it possible, one might ask, that despite the fact that the same documents are used in one or more investigations, the results are so different?

This is nothing more than the attitude one assumes towards the data contained in the document, the position one has within society, the relationships that, as mentioned before, are created around the individual who analyzes the document and interprets it as a past human creation sifted by the present. Thus, the information contained in the documents is a relative truth, since its reading is a part of the globality of the historical task, it is only a piece of information that needs an interpretation that is usually, in turn, the product of human relations, of the language that the historian has learned throughout his life and of the position he occupies within society.

The historian and the archivist, two professions, one goal

In the production of historical knowledge, factors such as the object of study, the sources that are available to reach it, and the particular characteristics of the person who constructs it, that is to say, the place that the historian occupies in society, are involved. Thus, we would say that although history requires its sources without which there would be no scientific support, the sources in turn, by themselves, cannot be considered as history since they require an analysis based on a method in which, among other elements, the historian's place in society necessarily intervenes, which imprints a load of subjectivity on the knowledge produced.

For their part, the archivist, the archival profession, has the important mission of giving coherence to these documentary sources, of establishing the structural relationships that give rise to these documents, of reconstructing the past of the institutions through the set of these testimonial sources and finally, as a natural consequence, of seeking the possibility of socializing the informative content of each of the pieces that make up the archives.

It is therefore understandable, the relationship between the historian and the archivist, between the one who is in charge of preserving and putting in order the sources, of giving them the necessary coherence for their integral understanding and the one who, applying a determined methodology, seeks, based on those sources, the objective interpretation of the historical knowledge, of the relevant human past through those testimonial sources, generally written, that make up the archives.

The archive and history, a symbiotic relationship that touches both ends of knowledge. How can we doubt the importance of the archive for historical knowledge? Of course, there are sources other than archival sources, there are loose, special documents of a different type than textual ones with a great capacity for data retention, but, generally, these are sources that complement historical studies, that illustrate rather than develop, that often speak for themselves and not for a set of activities that are generally captured in the documents and that, in their beginnings, have nothing to do with history and everything to do with administration, but that, over time, as they leave aside their administrative value, acquire a second value, scientific, for history, for the knowledge of the human past through relevant past activities.

The historian, when taking the sources of an archive, must always have the idea that the documents that make it up to have gone through a process of evaluation and selection during which a large number of them may have been lost due to purging, and that at one time they may have been relevant for the interpretation of a specific event. The existence or lack of documents can be, if the archive is correctly organized, an element to be considered in historical analysis, since the evidence of human actions becomes, over time, valid testimonies for analysis, while the lack of them, in itself, implies questions also worthy of consideration.

Archivists, in turn, to recreate that coherence that documents acquire from their creation, that set of abstract relationships that make it possible to understand the archive as a whole as a human creation ready to bear witness to the activities of a given institution, require the historical method to achieve these objectives.

The principle that has governed archival methodology since 1842, the year of its pronouncement, is called respect for provenance and original order, and it is precisely on this basis that the archive can be organized in such a way as to give a true account of the organizational and functional structure of the institution that created or compiled the documents that comprise it.

Thus, the archivist necessarily enters the area of institutional history, trying to reconstruct in the best possible way the history of the archives themselves, how the documents have been related, the causes that produce them, their formal or diplomatic characterization, the technical development through the different supports that make up the documents, etc.

History and archives are thus elements that interrelate, that are needed to be able to achieve the objectives that characterize these activities, to better contribute to the knowledge of human societies.

Thus, historians and archivists, each in their own role within historical knowledge, represent the possibility of a much broader knowledge of human development through time, of human capacities to create, to transform, and, of course, to leave a testimony of those capacities. Perhaps for this very reason, it is common to observe in the field of archives, historians who are in charge, often in the face of the little archival professionalization that exists, of the task of organizing historical documents, of giving the archives an order following the characteristics of those who created them.

However, despite the importance of archives for the knowledge of the human past, we conclude that although there are many historical archives in our country, very few resources can be devoted to their proper organization and operation. It is worrying to think that countless documents have been lost due to a lack of resources or disinterest of the authorities in charge of the preservation and conservation of the historical documents that are part of this great historical documentary heritage.

How many fragments of history have been lost due to the apathy of those involved in the archives at different levels, how many interpretations have been aborted for lack of the data contained in the documentary units that made up these valuable collections that have been irretrievably lost, how many moments of history have been lost forever, carrying in the documents a knowledge that will never be recovered?

It is impressive to think, despite the difficult conditions, of the number of archives that are preserved in Mexico and that are there, good or bad, providing an invaluable service to scientific knowledge. Interesting archives that preserve testimonies of Mexico's history in different stages and specific topics.

Archives of government agencies, state and municipal archives, ecclesiastical and parochial, notarial, university, etc., a world of documents and information that nevertheless, perhaps because of their great number, it has been impossible to organize and make them available to scholars who would make important contributions to the knowledge of our past.

By Gustavo Villanueva Bazán