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Fascinating archives

Historian Heloísa Bellotto helped modernize document management in Brazil

Bellotto during a seminar in November 2007, with specialists in the field of archival science

Fundação Pres. F. H. Cardoso Collection

There is a high chance that anyone working with archives in Brazil has crossed paths with historian Heloísa Liberalli Bellotto, whether as a student, colleague, or reader. Bellotto, who died in São Paulo on March 1 aged 88, created courses, taught in several states in Brazil, in addition to Portugal and Spain, and wrote renowned works on archival science in Brazil.

Her main theoretical legacy was the development of a document-identification process based on the concepts of species and type, says Ana Maria Camargo, a historian from the School of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences at the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP) and coauthor of Dicionário de terminologia arquivística (Dictionary of archival terminology; Brazilian Secretary of Culture, 1996) with Bellotto. The species designates the structure of a document according to its functions. Contracts and reports, for example, are different document species. Types describe how a document of a given species is used: a lease or an employment contract, a research or audit report.

“This was an important development for archival science, something that had not even been done in Spain, which is very advanced in this field and is where she studied her specialization,” points out Camargo. “Heloísa was able to incorporate the most important aspects of archiving documents: their functionality and the indissoluble relationship between the documents and the activities that led to their creation.”

According to historian Thiago Nicodemo, head of the São Paulo State Public Archive, Bellotto’s work led to a significant advance in document management. “She helped to show that the archive is not just a place where old papers are stored, but the brain of an operation that allows you to know where things are, to prevent losses,” he summarizes.

Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1935, Heloísa Bellotto moved to São Paulo at the age of 9. She earned a degree in librarianship from the São Paulo School of Sociology and Politics (1956), another in history from USP (1959), and a PhD in history from USP (1976), for which her thesis was titled “The government of Morgado de Mateus: The beginnings of the restoration of the Captaincy of São Paulo (1765–1775).” She studied a specialist qualification in archival science at the School of Documentation in Madrid, Spain, in 1977. She also studied courses at the National Archives in Paris, in 1979, and the US National Archives and Records Administration in Washington DC, in 1987.

In 1969, she became a researcher at USP’s Institute of Brazilian Studies (IEB). Despite retiring in 1990, she continued to supervise graduate students at FFLCH. In 1986, she designed a specialization course in archival science at the IEB, one of the main educational centers in the field in São Paulo. Over the following two decades, more than 600 students from all over Brazil, Latin America, and Africa took the course. “Bellotto helped make archiving a professional career path. In São Paulo, the archives were dependent on the IEB course for a long time,” says Nicodemo.

Bellotto also founded the undergraduate course in archival science at the University of Brasília (UnB) in 1991. She spoke about the course in an interview with the university’s website last year, highlighting that she was able to put her key ideas about archivist training into practice: she reduced the amount of time spent on history and library science and increased the time devoted to law and management. She also taught at the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro (UNIRIO) and the International University of Andalusia, in Huelva, Spain, as well as other schools.

Bellotto designed the specialization course in archival science at the Institute of Brazilian Studies

Between 1998 and 2011, she was a consultant for the Resgate (Rescue) project, an ambitious initiative set up to digitize the documents of the Portuguese Empire’s Overseas Council, the institution responsible for administering Portugal’s colonies. The physical documents are preserved in the Overseas Historical Archive in Lisbon. Bellotto led the effort to recover papers relating to the Captaincy of São Paulo, in addition to preparing the researchers technically for the work. She stated that the team was able to microfilm and catalog around 300,000 documents.

According to historian Ana Canas Delgado Martins, director of the Overseas Historical Archive (AHU) and a researcher at the History Center of the University of Lisbon, Bellotto also “influenced more than one generation of archivists” on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. In 1989, she was a professor on the documentary sciences course at the School of Language and Literature of the University of Lisbon. She published two articles in Cadernos de Biblioteconomia, Arquivística e Documentação that year. “The articles awakened and accentuated the need to reflect on various facets of archivist practice and sharpened the desire to update and produce knowledge, coinciding with a period of archive renovation and archivist training in Portugal,” says the AHU director.

Canas, who met Bellotto in 2006, describes how much the USP researcher cared about other people. “Especially young people from Brazil who were part of the Resgate project and who may have felt less supported during periods such as Christmas. The house where she lived in Lisbon, in the Campo de Ourique neighbourhood, was also their house, in a way,” he says.

Bellotto was a member of the Mário de Andrade Library’s advisory board between 2013 and 2016, during the management of Luiz Armando Bagolin, now a professor at IEB. “When I told her that I needed her help because I had no experience in archives and libraries, she was happy to help. Although she did comment that I wouldn’t need much, since I was so young and fearless,” recalls Bagolin. To deal with the practical problems faced by the library, Bellotto suggested that the most important change would be to breathe life into the space, “to get people coming in and make them feel good.” Bagolin only has one regret about the period. “She asked me to try to create an archival course, with participation open to young people from low-income backgrounds. I was not able to achieve that goal,” he says.

Her theories on document typology and diplomatics (studying the formal structure of the document, its legal nature, and the context of its production) were explained in books such as Arquivos permanentes: Tratamento documental (Permanent archives: Document processing; TA Queiroz, 1991), Diplomática e tipologia documental em arquivos (Diplomatics and document typology in archives; Briquet de Lemos, 2008), and Arquivo: Estudos e reflexões (Archives: Studies and reflections; UFMG, 2014). According to Camargo, the latter contains the most complete expression of her thoughts on document species and types. The former is widely referenced in university courses and entrance exams in Brazil.

One of the projects she left unfinished was to publish a commented edition of the government diaries of Luís António de Sousa Botelho Mourão (1722–1798), who was colonial governor of the Captaincy of São Paulo in the eighteenth century and the subject of her doctorate and the books Autoridade e conflito no Brasil colonial (Authority and conflict in colonial Brazil; Brazilian Secretary of Culture, 2007) and Nem o tempo nem a distância: Correspondência entre o Morgado de Mateus e sua mulher (Neither time nor distance: Correspondence between the Morgado de Mateus and his wife; Aletheia, 2007). “It was a lifelong interest for her. She had been really dedicated to this monumental work,” says Camargo. “Now we plan to publish a posthumous edition as a tribute to her.”

Heloísa Bellotto was married to fellow historian Manoel Lello Bellotto, who died in 2011. Camargo says her vast personal library will be donated to USP’s general archive, which she helped to systematize. “It is an extremely specialized library, in addition to her personal archives and unfinished work,” summarizes Camargo.

In the UnB interview, Bellotto summarized her view of archival science, saying the fascinating thing about the profession is “being able to organize the information contained in documents in a way that makes it accessible to those who need it.” And she pointed out that “nobody goes looking for a document for pleasure—they do it because they need it for professional or private reasons…. Well-organized archives are therefore vital for people, society, and countries.”