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A time to retell the facts

São Paulo Public Archive creates a huge website with 360,000 documents and an orientation system for professors

Work of art by Júlia Cherem with image from PSD Graphics about photographs from the state archives It is not easy to consult public archives and every researcher knows this. The main problem is the lack of time to go to the place, look for documents and stick to the opening times. Since December, however, part of this work can be done at home, in what is called “remote research.”  The Public Archive of the State of São Paulo ( has just launched a huge digital collection with over 360,000 images of documents and photos that can be downloaded in high resolution. The initiative intends to expand considerably not only the number of researchers who consult the archive, but the quality, completeness and diversity of the studies. “It’s too early to estimate, but everything will be redimensioned on a large scale,”  observes Professor Carlos de Almeida Prado Bacellar, Coordinator of the institution, enthusiastically.

Among other treasures, the new site has a complete collection of the daily newspaper Última Hora and another of the woman’s magazine A Cigarra, published between 1914 and 1956, in addition to documents from the Colonial Centers, collective farms that received the immigrants arriving in Brazil at the start of the last century. Users can access t the electronic publication Revista Histórica [Historical Revue] and the web portal Memórias Reveladas [Memories Revealed], offering an extremely rich database on the struggle against the dictatorship. There is also constantly updated news about the public archive system, teaching workshops and courses, and more. The Memória da Imprensa [Press Recollections] page presents collections of various types of publications, such as the anarchist newspaper A Lanterna, edited by Edgard Leuenroth at the beginning of the last century. Some of these publications even have full collections on the website.

Ninety of the two hundred employees of the archive are involved in the different stages of the project until the document reaches the users’ screen. The Department of Preservation and Dissemination of the Archive, observes its director, Marcelo Lopes, continues working at an fast pace to expand the site’s volume of information. Custodian of the permanent documentation deposited in the archive, he highlights among other things the Public Memory, a permanent action program whose objective is to encourage access to the documents that constitute that part of the memory of society that comes under the responsibility of the State.

In the space dedicated to the sector on the network, internet users can find details of the sophisticated restoration processes and also tips on how to preserve their own documents. A substantial part relates to microfilming and digitizing the collection, which is fundamental for the site. No fewer than 60,000 items are digitized and/or microfilmed every month. As a result of these processes, in addition to making it easier to consult the material, the Center is also helping to preserve the originals. “In principle, all documents undergo a cleaning process, are reconstituted or are packed away,”  says Lopes. According to the director, his department works with 35 restoration experts and there are other employees receiving training. The priority is also to microfilm the documents, because this is the safest way of conserving them. All the rolls of film are kept in a climate-controlled area. “We digitized all the pictures that are going on to the site and they are kept in high definition. Afterwards, we convert them for the Internet.” The documents on the Internet can be seen in two resolutions: 150 DPIs for reading, and 300 for downloading. Everything, concludes Lopes, is done very diligently so that the knowledge reaches the greatest number of  Brazilians possible.

The web portal is quite grandiose by Brazilian standards and promises to usher in a new era in Brazilian historical research, which is also going to reflect the use of the Internet in the classroom. Although postgraduate researchers are the main people interested, one of the focuses will be to extend and encourage consultation in classrooms by students at all undergraduate levels. To do so a team of teachers from the institution has created a series of activities directed at professors in order to expand the learning possibilities of their students with all that the archive offers.

These consist of exercises that may be applied directly by computer, which include searching or printing documents and photos, as well as exercises or topics for debate. “The idea was to create something pretty interactive, to let people know what we have and do in the archive, and to suggest a module with a script, because the professor is often at a loss as to how to find the means to help students retain more information,” explains Bacellar. “In the case of history in the classroom,”  he continues, “documents are little used, since teachers resort to books for guidance. With the site,” he adds, “the student will be able to see the primary source of important happenings in our country, learn how the facts unfolded in practice and how the political police acted against citizens.”  At the same time they will find out about other forms of knowledge, like the language and writing of each period. “In fact, it is a complement that goes way beyond the normal, the conventional model of this type of site.”

ARQUIVO DO ESTADOThe archive hold images (group of Oriental children) as well as old documentsARQUIVO DO ESTADO

Bacellar believes that in the era of the Internet it is necessary to think about more pleasant ways of attracting students and these are not the ways the universities use. “It’s one thing to talk about slavery through books, and quite another to see an ad for the sale of slaves or about the search for those who escaped.”  The coordinator observes that it is not just professors from inner-state São Paulo who will have access to a huge source of information, but from the entire country, since many important facts in the history of  Brazil were more relevant here, like immigration or repression during the military regime. He explains that the complete reformulation of the site was based on two concepts. First, making access to the institution’s collection democratic. Then, the contextualization of what the archive has been storing, dealing with and publishing all this time –  before the reformulation, 85,000 documents and photos were on the network. Now the number has leapt to 360,000 and should pass the 2 million mark by the end of the year.

The web portal also has other educational activities, like temporary exhibitions, similar to those put on in any physical museum. The first celebrates the 30th anniversary of the political amnesty that took place during the military dictatorship; the five year struggle until this became a reality, in both images and documentary records. To facilitate research everything was organized in the form of topical sites. Initially there are three: Press Recollections, Daily Life in São Paulo and Immigration, with an electronic guide to browse through all this content. In this way researchers can discover unknown material for their work or use it as a starting point for the study of a particular period or historical theme.

The director of the Research Dissemination and Support Center, Haike Roselaine Kleber, says that it is impossible to put a dimension on the increase in academic work since the archive started making its collections available on the Internet. However, she believes that the growth in both physical and virtual search is very significant. According to Ms Kleber, on another front, the institution has tried to build a strong relationship with schools and teachers, by showing the value of accessing primary sources and teaching them how to use the material from the collection in the classroom. “The theme sites are not closed and will be updated constantly; in addition, new ones will be added next year. The flagship of the model will always be the work in the classroom.”  This does not mean that conventional services will be abandoned. On the contrary; the editorial department for printed works is being reactivated and a new team put together. Also in 2009, two titles will be launched and there will be five more at the beginning of next year. “Our focus is on exploring all the collection’s possibilities,”  she points out.

Precious items
The Iconographic and Cartographic Center of the Public Archive has some 1.5 million images, including negatives, photographic copies, postcards, cartoons, illustrations, maps and plans. This wealth is reflected on the site also, as Bacellar points out. By means of the collection’s guide – a search instrument that is on all pages – the researcher can, for example, look at all the material of the Permanent Collection Center, which includes seven kilometers of public and private documents. It also houses the so-called Deops Fund, with historic photos taken from the archives of the repression – this is one of the attractions of the site, in fact, which exhibit everything from the identification index card of communist Olga Benário (handed over to the Nazis by Getúlio Vargas) to a photo of integralist Plínio Salgado, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the AIB (Brazilian Integralist Action [Right-wing Brazilian Movement, similar to Fascism]). Also on the page of the Deops Fund there is a series of instructions for carrying out research in the repression archives, or for recovering a file relating to the person consulting the archive or someone from his family.

At present, there are 5,000 images available on-line and by June 2010 a further 82,500 photos will be up-loaded. Part of the site should offer a “genealogy” of the most important São Paulo municipalities, beginning, of course, with the oldest: São Vicente, founded in 1532. There is also a documentary series of the São Paulo government official correspondence between 1822 and 1919, containing fundamental information for anyone who wants to understand Brazilian administrative history. Lauro Ávila Pereira, director of the Archive Preservation and Dissemination Department, observes that until now, the archive had followed a certain archival rationale, but that it was not very practical for most users who were not archivists. “Now, we have enhanced the concept of public memory, in order to go beyond researchers and reach out to undergraduates and high school teachers.”  Pereira reminds us that the new site started being discussed in July and by August it was already beginning to take shape. “As we assembled it we established other tools to reinforce the educational action that always guided us.”

Since 1994, FAPESP has maintained partnering agreements with the Public Archive for assembling and expanding various parts of the infrastructure. The first, for example, was fundamental for creating the institution’s first IT network. The following year, funds from the Foundation were used to buy equipment for microfilming and conserving the photographed material. In 2000, R$497,000 was earmarked to set up the photographic laboratory and the installation of climate control equipment for the documents, in addition to updating the microfilming sector. In this phase, 40,000 documents were digitized – researchers could copy them onto diskettes or CDs and continue their research at home. “All this enabled us to take over the entire building (alongside the Tietê subway station),”  observes Lauro Pereira.

For Carlos Bacellar, because of the Foundation’s tradition, formalization of the cooperation agreement was fundamental for maintaining and extending the work. “We’re improving and discovering new needs all the time and we hope that we can continue counting on FAPESP support, because we’re a center for preserving public memory and a multiplying agent for research in São Paulo and Brazil,”   Lauro Pereira adds.