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Diving into 280 years of São Paulo

Archive of the State has been keeping documents since 1721

The second largest collection of historical documents in Brazil, surpassed only by the National Archive, belongs to São Paulo. It is the Archive of the State (AE in the Portuguese Acronym), which has existed since 1721, when the secretary of the government of the then captaincy of São Paulo, Gervásio Leite Rabelo, began to organize the official documents. In the course of 280 years, the archive has had six different locations. Even so, its documents have always served as a basis for important research on São Paulo.

The situation started to improve in 1997, when the Archive of the State was given a new home, on Voluntários da Pátria street, in Santana, a district in the northern region of the capital. For the first time in its history, the archive ceased to occupy improvised premises and moved into a suitable building, planned for its needs. In the following year, it began to receive funds from FAPESP’s Infrastructure Program. An investment of R$ 565,000 is helping the AE to recover and to make its collection accessible, with more technology and less improvisation.

The work is just beginning, but is showing signs of immense wealth. Officially, the archive was formed in 1891, in the building of the Department of the Government, with its core at the beginning being the material that Leite Rabelo had started to organize. It was then given the name of Department of Statistics and of the Archive of the State of the Department of the Interior. It was all that was needed to start to receive, and to pile up, all sorts of material.

There are, for example, to be found in the archive papers from the departments of the government of the state, of the courts of law, the notaries’ offices, and of municipal governments. Nor is there any shortage of documents originating in the private sector. In the course of time, the archive has been receiving donations, including material relating to the colonial times and to the Empire. This could be a gold mine for researchers, who regard the archive as a landmark in the historiography of São Paulo and of Brazil. But it is a nightmare for the archivists.

Throughout practically the whole of the archive’s history, its staff has worked with improvisation, facing up new situations as they appeared. This has even led to a few mysteries, such as the case of the cans. Until the beginning of the 50’s, the documents would be filed as bundles of paper. It was then that someone had the idea of keeping the documents in closed cans, in the belief that they would be better protected like that.

The mystery lies in the powder that was put into the cans, together with the papers. At first, it was thought to be a poison to fight moths, bookworms and fungi. But before starting to work with the powder, the archive asked the Adolfo Lutz Institute to analyze it, to be sure that it would do no harm to the members of staff. The result was that the powder was perfectly harmless not only to humans but to the bugs too – not the slightest poisonous. “After so long a time, we were no longer able to discover what the powder was made of” recounts the general coordinator of the Technical Areas of the Archive, Lauro Ávila Pereira.

One of the main points of the reform is computerization. About a third of the total invested by FAPESP, roughly R$ 200,000, has been set aside for this area. Only with the creation of a reliable system and after digitalizing the documents will it be possible to provide a good service to the researchers and to the public at large. There has already been an attempt, in 1994, but it proved to be disaster, according to Pereira. A company under contract set up an internal network with 16 points. But the programs chosen were unsuitable, and the maintenance of the equipment proved not to be up to what was needed.

With the funds from FAPESP, a system for digitalization was created. The archive was also given more computers, which even allow consultations by the public, and a server for the network. The points on the network increased from 12 to 62. The aim now is to microfilm and to digitalize the whole collection. It is quite a task. Just in the building in Santana, there are 4,000 linear meters of permanent documentation, that is to say, documents that will never be thrown away. Added to these, there is other material, like that which came from the Department of Political and Social Order (Deops), classified as intermediate, that is to say, they might be thrown away after a certain time.

As part of the program for computerization, says Pereira, the archive is creating at the moment three segments of closed modules, which means the digitalization of documents within structures that are not going to grow. The first comprises images coming from the old newspaper, Última Hora (The last Hour). There are about 2,000 images, from between 1951 and 1971, and they feature caricatures by the cartoonists Nássara, Jaguar and Lan.

This material comes from the collection of the newspaper’s founder, Samuel Wainer, which was bought from his daughter, Pinky Wainer, by the State Department of Culture, in 1989, and handed over to the Archive of the State for safekeeping. There are 170,000 prints of photographs, 800,000 negatives and 2,000 caricatures, in addition to 246 bound volumes, with the São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro editions of the paper. This material is also being published on paper, with four volumes of the series Archive in Images – Última Hora series now ready.

The second segment is made up of letters, maps and plans, and it features about one thousand photographs that report, step by step, the construction of the building of the Ipiranga Museum. The third segment gathers together material from illustrated magazines from the beginning of the 20th century, like A Cigarra (The Cricket), Revista Feminina (Women’s Magazine) and A Lua (The Moon), with some 40,000 images.

Kitchen blender
FAPESP’s investments, however, are not limited to the area of information technology. A good deal was applied in refurbishing the archive’s laboratory for preservation. “I feel as if I were leaving a shack and going into a beautiful apartment”, says Maria Amélia Arraes de Alencar Pinheiro de Castro, who is in charge of preservation in the archive. To deal with the AE’s documents, many of which are so deteriorated that they break apart at the slightest touch, Maria Amélia used to have just gloves, a mask, a table, a sharp knife and glue. This methyl-cellulose glue, used in the restoration of documents, used to be prepared in an ordinary kitchen blender.

Now the archive can count on equipment like the Paper Filling Machine, used to restore the fibers of the paper. Paper is made of fibers that are broken down when attacked by bookworms and other kinds of insect, for example. The Filling Machine reconstitutes the fibers and plugs with cellulose the holes made by the insects.

Another example is the biological security cabin, used to prevent the restorer from coming into contact with toxic products, both those used to remove the residue of glue or adhesive tape or the poisons that used to be put on the paper to fight insects or microorganisms. A novelty is the suction cabin, used in cleaning documents. “Before the arrival of this cabin, we would work with booths improvised from cardboard that we would make ourselves ” says Maria Amélia.

Maria Amélia comments that the quality of the paper used today is much inferior to that of the older documents. In the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, paper would be made, in the main, from rags, particularly linen. “From 1928 onwards, pulp from wood started to be used, and quality worsened” she comments. At any rate, the preservation staff are thinking of the future. The methyl-cellulose glue, for example, made in the laboratory itself, is made in such a way as to make it easily removable in future restorations.

The AE’s laboratory is so respected that is used to being sought out by public or private institutions looking for advice on how to preserve old documents. The Esporte Clube Pinheiros, for example, recently went to the laboratory to find out how to preserve its collection of photographs, some of which are over a hundred years old. “Preservation means preventing deterioration and prolonging the life of the document” Maria Amélia points out. “The document should have as little intervention as possible, and any interventions that are inevitable should be apparent. Whereas restoration uses techniques that repair the damaged material” she adds.

In all, the Archive of the State safeguards over 500 tons of documents. They include 50,000 books, 12,000 copies of newspapers, 1 million images, and hundreds of thousands of other papers, both official and private. The oldest existing document in the archive is the inventory of a shoemaker, Damião Simões, from 1578. It is part of a module, or sector, called Inventories and Wills, which runs from 1578 to 1801, and is very important for studying São Paulo in the colonial period.

On the period of the Empire, all the correspondence with the governors of the province, sent and received, has been safeguarded, as well as records of acts of the government. The correspondence between the chief of police and the governor, and the records of police action, dealing, for example, with runaway slaves, makes interesting reading. The material is not, however, limited to official acts. Important people in politics left their personal documents to the AE, including Washington Luís, Júlio Prestes and Armando Salles Oliveira.

In recent times, however, it is the module from Deops that has been attracting most attention from the visitors. It covers the period from 1924 to 1983, but the era that is most consulted is the one that refers to the last stage of the military regime (Brazil was run by the military from 1964 to 1985). In all, explains Pedreira, the coordinator, the Deops module contains 1.1 million nominal cards and 9,000 files with dossiers. The dossiers are thematic, and sometimes a document of just one page is cross-referenced to over 150 cards. To take an example, the document on the congress of the National Union of Students (UNE) in Ibinuna leads to the cards of the majority of the students who were arrested at the event.

It is not just for their historical interest that this module is searched. “Relatives of people killed in the years of political repression or who were in any other way affected by the regime, or who need documents for their retirement, carry out research in our archives”, the coordinator comments. A certificate issued by the Archive of the State is recognized as proof in cases of requests for indemnity or of justification for forced inactivity.

Thanks to a partnership with the Official Press of the State, the AE’s work is not limited to safeguarding the documents. It has already published several studies on the history of the state and guides to its collection. A series similar to the one made with the files of Última Hora is being prepared with material from Diários Associados (a chain of newspapers), which has almost been incorporated by the AE. It also publishes a magazine, called Histórica (Historical), with articles by researchers, and it has a series, Como Fazer (How to Do), which deals with the work of preventive conservation in archives and libraries.

Another of the AE’s activities is the preparation of kits with educational material, for history teachers and the guided visits of primary and secondary school pupils to get to know the collection. An agreement was recently reached with the campus of São Paulo State University (Unesp), in Assis, for students from the university to undergo training and internship with the installations in São Paulo. The Archive of the State does not limit itself to complying competently with the task of safeguarding a major part of the memory of São Paulo. It also makes it possible for knowledge to reach those interested, with greater ease.