A Primer on Using Online Colonial Spanish Documentary Resources

John E. Worth

Back to Main Archival Links Page

The following guides are provided as primers for first-time users of several important online search engines with available online imagery of original documents relative to the Spanish colonial period.  Please contact me if they become out-of-date, since these sites are prone to occasional changes or updates that I may not be aware of immediately.

AGI (Seville) / AGN (Mexico City) / Google Books

Back to Main Bibliography Page

Archivo General de Indias (AGI), Seville, Spain

1. Begin with the main page of the Portal de Archivos Españoles (PARES).

2. Click on "Busqueda Avanzada" in the central menu.

3. Click on the drop-down menu under the second category heading, entitled "Filtrar por Archivo;" choose "Archivo General de Indias" and then wait for the form to re-load.  Next choose one of the following two options, under steps 4 or 5.

4. If you want to perform a simple search using keywords, follow the steps below:

Enter keywords in the top box entitled "Buscar" with spaces in-between each keyword.  HINTS: use only two or three keywords at most to get best results; for names, remove all prepositions such as "de" or "y" from the name, entering only the main first and last names separated by a space; and don't forget to try all possible spellings (modern and antiquated) for any given name or placename or item, since the index entries are often based on original spellings, which varied considerably from one document to the next, or from one time period to the next (i.e. Pensacola, Pansacola, Panzacola, etc.).

To limit the results to a specific date range, enter those dates (full years only) in the boxes below, entitled "Fecha desde:" and "hasta."  If these boxes are not filled in, the results will include all dates with those keywords.

If you wish to search the entire index created for the AGI, regardless of whether or not a particular legajo (bundle) has been digitized for online viewing, then leave the first check-box highlighted, entitled "Todos los registros."  If you wish to retrieve only those results for which document images can be seen online (this is only a fraction of the entire index), then click the second check-box, entitled "Registros digitalizados."

Once you are finished entering the above information, scroll down to the bottom of the page and click the "Buscar" button, which will bring you to the search results page (proceed to step 6).

5. If you want to search for a particular legajo (bundle) for which you already have a citation (modern numbering system), follow the steps below:

Leave the keyword and date boxes blank, and go down to the category entitled "Filtro por signatura." Click on the button entitled "Seleccionar."

Search the list below and choose the particular section of the AGI that you wish to use; click the "+" symbol to the left of the name.

After the page reloads with an expanded list of legajo numbers, presuming the appropriate legajo is not in the first part of the list below, enter the number of the legajo you wish to consult in the box entitled "Contiene" and simply hit the enter key on your keyboard.

After the page reloads again with a highlighted link for the legajo you chose (presuming that legajo was entered correctly), either click on that link directly (if there are no subordinate "Numeros" or "Ramos" or "Libros"), or click on the "+" symbol below it to open a new list of subordinate divisions.  You can follow this procedure (clicking on the "+" symbols) until you have the item you want to see, then click on the link for the item number you want to see.

Once you click on the link to the item you want to see, the next page that loads will be the original search page with all the appropriate information now filled in under the "Signatura" box.  Now scroll down to the bottom of the page and click "Buscar," which will bring you finally to the search results page (proceed to step 6).

6. If you want to search for a particular legajo (bundle) for which you only have an old-style citation number (for example, "54-2-2" instead of "Santo Domingo 124"), follow the steps below:

Enter the three-digit old-style citation in the uppermost keyword box (entitled "Buscar"), without any slashes or subsequent numbers (quotation marks not necessary around the citation), and click "Buscar" at the bottom of the page.

Follow steps 7-8 below, checking the detailed index page under the "Area de Notas" to confirm the "Signatura antigua" before proceeding (there may be several legajos which show the same old-style number, and the system was quite complex and occasionally confusing, so there is sometimes more art than science in finding antiquated citations).

7. Once the search results page opens up, you will see a list of all the different archive sections that contain results from your search (this may be multiple sections if you searched by keyword, but it will only be a single section if you searched by signatura).  Click on the section you wish to see, which will open up another page with the individual results within that section.

8. Click on whichever of the results you wish to see, and a new page will open up with detailed index information about the item.  If you see a bar entitled "Ver Imagenes," then you can click on that bar to open up the document imaging system itself.  HINT: Even if you do not see this bar, if you see a bar entitled "Contiene," it means the legajo has been digitized, and you may click on this bar and it will open up a page listing the individual digitized documents which may be accessed individually through their own detailed information page.

9. The document imaging page includes many helpful aids, but the basics of navigation and viewing are as follows:

A medium-sized image of each page is shown on the left side of the screen, and on the right side of the screen are individual thumbnails of the adjacent pages in blocks of 8 pages.  To review the entire document (some of which can be hundreds of pages), you can either click on the red "+" or "-" buttons which will tell you which group of pages you are viewing out of the total number of images, or you can click on the drop-down box entitled "Selecciona una imagen" and pick a particular image number to open.  You should note that image numbers rarely correspond directly to folio numbers, which are normally rendered as "recto" (front) or "verso" (back), such as 34R or 34V, based either on the original handwritten numeration of the pages, or on penciled-in numbering that was added in more modern times for multi-section documents or legajos.

To see a full-sized image of each page, simply click on the medium-sized image noted above, and a new page will open with the full-sized image.  Within this page, you can leaf through the adjacent pages (forward and back) using the "double-arrow" buttons above the image.  You can also enhance the image for reading using the menu on the left of the image.  Images are viewed in JPG format.

10. A few important quirks about the system:

Once you have the search results page listing the sections of the AGI within which you have results, when you click on a section name and proceed to the results, you cannot back up in the browser and click on a different section without backing all the way up to the search page and clicking "Buscar" again.  If you try to open results within a different section of the AGI, the server will simply show you the same results from the first section you clicked (this may not be the case with all browsers, but it's definitely the case with Firefox).  Also, sometimes when using the "Back" button on your browser, you may get a message regarding "POSTDATA" having expired from the browser cache; just click "OK" and you should be able to retrieve previous pages without problem.

If you wait too long (more than 10 or 20 minutes or so), the PARES system may send you an error message saying "Su sesion ha caducado" (your session has expired).  If this happens, just click on the bar "Busqueda Avanzada" above, and you'll be able to renew your session by searching again.

If you have a particular citation for a document that you wish to see using the "Filtro por signatura" search box, and if you want to type it in directly (instead of going through the selection procedure outlined in step 5 above), make sure to use all capital letters, and make sure NOT to use any spaces between the section name, legajo, and subordinate designations.  Commas are universally used to separate these designations from each other (no spaces), and there is also no space between abbreviated section titles with periods, and the number that follows them (i.e. "Ramo 5" would appear as "R.5" and not "R. 5").  In the case of two-word section names (such as Santo Domingo), use an underline space between the two words (i.e. "SANTO_DOMINGO").

Top of Page

Archivo General de la Nación (AGN), Mexico City, Mexico

1. Begin with the main page of the Nueva Guía General.

2. Click on the yellow link entitled "Fondos, Expedientes, y Documentos" on the left side; this will open a panel immediately below this link, in which there is a link at the top and a button entitled "Buscar" at the bottom (do NOT click the button at the bottom yet).

3. Click on the uppermost link immediately below the "Fondos, Expedientes, y Documentos" link, entitled "Archivo General de la Nación;" this will open a new panel on the right side, with descriptive text about the AGN.

4. Now, finally click on the "Buscar" button at the bottom of the left side panel; this will open a new window with a search engine.

5. This search window operates in a very particular manner; each keyword or set of keywords must first be entered in the small box on the lower right side of the main box (which you cannot enter text into directly).

6. After having entered keywords,  then click on the drop-down box initially entitled "Alcance y contenido" in order to select what type of keyword you are searching for, including "Alcance y contenido" (contents), "Titulo" (title), and "Fechas" (date).  HINTS: use only two or three keywords for each entry at most to get best results; for names, remove all prepositions such as "de" or "y" from the name, entering only the main first and last names separated by a space; and don't forget to try all possible spellings (modern and antiquated) for any given name or placename or item, since the index entries are often based on original spellings, which varied considerably from one document to the next, or from one time period to the next (i.e. Pensacola, Pansacola, Panzacola, etc.).

7. Next click on the button on the bottom left entitled "Agregar" in order to insert the keyword or keywords into the main search box.

8. After having entered one keyword or set of keywords, you can add additional keywords (including those of different types) using the same process outlined in steps 5-7 (don't forget to use the button "Agregar" on the bottom left in order to insert each keyword).

9. Once you are finished entering keywords, press the button entitled "Aceptar" (second from the bottom right) to submit your search for processing; this will close the separate search window and return you to the main page, where there should be a list of results in the left side panel, and blank space on the right panel.  This list includes the Expediente number of the appropriate document, and usually the relevant section of the AGN where the expediente is found.

10. Click on any of the list of results on the left side in order to open a summary description of that document in the right side panel.  This summary will include a brief summary of the contents of the document, and all relevant location and citation information.

11. Occasionally, a button will appear on the upper right side of the right-hand panel within the document description.  This button, entitled "Ver imagen(es)," will open a new window with a document viewer allowing digital images of the document to be viewed using simple controls on the screen.  These generally appear to be documents of short length which have been scanned and placed online.  Images are viewed in Adobe Flash format.

Top of Page

Google Books

Google Books has an ever-increasing collection of historical books scanned from libraries and archives around the world, and these are all indexed digitally using OCR software and searchable via a single search engine.  Most of the colonial-era books are available fully and freely, both for online reading as well as for download in PDF format (though the downloaded versions are not searchable unless you first perform your own OCR text recognition routine on them within Adobe Acrobat).  This database is rapidly becoming an essential and invaluable resource for historical research, in part because it contains such a wide and diverse variety of poorly-known and little-consulted historical publications that might never be known to contain obscure historical references without the digital indexing capacity of Google Books.  The primer below focuses on research into the colonial era relating to Spanish Florida, but can obviously be adapted to many other research questions from many other periods.

1. Begin with the Advanced Book Search page of Google Books.

2. Set the following settings:

Search: Select "Full View Only"

Content: Select "All Content"

Language: Select the "Return pages written in" drop-down menu with "Spanish" (or whatever other language is desired; Latin volumes seem to show up best using the Spanish setting, since there is no designated Latin language setting)

Publication Date: Fill in the "Return content published between" boxes with a pair of framing dates, starting with a year as early as you would like to search, and ending with a year after which you won't need to see results (don't forget that many books with earlier information were published considerably later, and that the earliest and rarest editions of books might have been followed by subsequent reprints or editions that Google Books may be more likely to have found and scanned).

Results: Select "100 results" in the drop-down box to the left of the "Google Search" button.

3. Insert search keywords or phrases in the desired language inside one or more of the four boxes at the top of the search page, and then press the "Google Search" button, or simply hit "Enter" on your keyboard.  Below are a few helpful observations:

The search engine searches the entire digitized text of each book, including titles, authors, full text, indices, tables of contents, etc., meaning there is generally no need to use those more specific search boxes below (Title, Author, Publisher, Subject), since those categories seem to be based on information created by Google employees while digitizing volumes, and are thus subject to possible errors or standardizations of spelling, etc.

I have found it most useful to use one or more pivotal terms in the top box ("with all of the words"), omitting any articles or conjunctions, unless it is important to narrow the search down to only those sources which contain multiple words in a specific order (including articles or conjunctions).  In this latter case, the sequence of words should be entered in the second box from the top ("with the exact phrase"), or simply in the top box with quotation marks around the entire phrase.  Since many of the historical texts have two columns, however, the Google search engine sometimes mixes up the order of a particular phrase that may appear on two successive lines in just one column (inserting the contents of the second column in-between), so it is generally safer to use the individual keywords in the top box.

The search engine will commonly present results that are variations on your original search term, such as plurals or different verb tenses, but entering those same variations as the original search term often produces slightly different results, meaning it is sometimes useful to use several different variations of your search term(s) in order to produce additional results.

Don't forget that colonial-era spelling was often inconsistent, even within the same document, and in any case commonly different from modern spellings, and therefore using several different possible spelling variations on your primary search terms may be useful.

Accents and other diacritical marks are sometimes picked up by OCR character recognition software, and sometimes missed, and thus searching both with and without diacriticals can produce more results.

4. Click on any results that seem relevant, which will bring up the searchable full text of an individual scanned book, usually on the exact page where the keywords were found.  The keywords on the page that correspond to your original search are normally highlighted in yellow, but sometimes this is not the case, so you may have to scan the text yourself to find the words that led the search engine to this particular page.  From this page you can perform many additional tasks, as follows:

The light yellow bar above the digitized book text will show how many results were actually found within the entire volume (there are commonly more than just one).  To see all of them, either click "Previous" or "Next", or simply click "View All" in order to see snippets showing all of the results.  To examine each result individually from this menu, just click on the snippet, or when this does not work, use the page reference on the snippet to find the proper page yourself using the scroll bar to the right of the scanned book.

When multiple keywords were used in the original search, only those pages that have all of the search terms will appear as results.  In order to find more appearances of each individual keyword, use the search box to the left of the scanned book in order to re-search just this individual volume.  You can also search the volume with different keywords using this internal search box.

To jump to the front cover of the volume, click on the digital image just above the title over the search box on the left hand side of the screen, and you can scroll down to the original title page and publication information using the scroll bar on the right.  This will not work when using the "View All" option on the yellow search results bar above the text, so either click on one of the results to bring up the full book view, or click on the "x" next to the "Clear Search" option on the far right of the search results bar to view the full document.

There are also several options on buttons above the book text to the left, including zoom in and out, double-page view, and multi-page view.

A warning: if you use the Google Books search box that appears on the screen above each individual digitized book, none of your original search parameters or settings will be used, and your results will include all dates, languages, and formats, including more recent books for which only previews or snippets are available.  In order to go back and conduct more targeted searches using new terms, just click "Back" on your browser until you can search either from the original Advanced Book Search page, or from one of the subsequent search results pages that still shows the proper date range and settings.

5. In order to see bibliographic citation information about the digitized book, click on the "About this book" link just below the internal search box on the left hand side.  In addition to providing summary information about the volume (date, author, full title, etc.), there should be a number of "Related Books" pictured below which can also be opened by clicking on their image, and these books are generally related by content to the book you have just been viewing.  Many times, different volumes of a multi-volume set are shown here, or different editions of the same volume, can be accessed most easily using the "Related Books" feature.

6. If a PDF copy of the scannned book is desired, simply click on the drop-down menu with the gear symbol, located to the upper right of the page, and then click on the "Download PDF" option.  This will open up a new page with an image of a security word that you must type in before the download begins.  Remember, however, that these downloaded PDF files are very large, and not searchable unless you have OCR capability in your PDF reader.  In addition, the occasional colored scan pages shown on the online versions of some books will not appear in the downloaded PDF, which will be in black-and-white format.

Top of Page