Collective Catalog of Colombian Archives

A platform of archival description for everyone.

The Catálogo Colectivo de Archivos Colombianos seeks to create a collective catalog of the historical documents held in archives, libraries, and other institutions across Colombia — an open, collaborative, free, and sustainable multirepository of archival descriptions and metadata. Our CCAC project is made up of two parts: a technological foundation and technical support.

The technology

First, we’re making freely available to archives, institutions and collectives in Colombia a sophisticated digital platform for managing catalogs and archival descriptions based on international standards. We use the open source web application AtoM (“Access to Memory”), which is built around the description standards of the International Council of Archives: ISAD(G) for documents, ISAAR(CFP) for authority records and ISDIAH for archival institutions themselves. These are the same standards that the Archivo General de la Nación de Colombia uses, and that have been adopted identically (IDT) by the Instituto Colombiano de Normas Técnicas y Certificación (ICONTEC).

Our system allows each participant to maintain and manage its own catalogs and metadata independently. They can incorporate their own catalogs, descriptions, and existing records, and create new ones directly in the platform. In this way, researchers and other users who wish to explore each set of catalogscan do so directly in the platform before going to consult the materials, without needing to use paper catalogs, download Excel sheets, or worry about whether the catalogs they have found are up to date. It is possible to perform complex searches, filter material by dates, categories, and themes, and to find new ways of accessing historical documents. At the same time, each participant can decide the level of access that it wants to grant external users, for example restricting access to drafts or records in the process of being updated by its members and staff. We believe that this has an enormous potential to facilitate the work of archivists, researchers, professors, and students around Colombia.

That said, one of the main advantages of the Collective Catalog is that it brings together catalogs that would otherwise be consulted separately. By being part of the same platform, the catalogs and records of different institutions can be constructed, explored, and consulted as though they were one. In this way, a researcher could follow the tracks of a single person who appears in materials kept in different institutions, even if these are separated by long distances, or see a list of all the wills dating to the 1630s that mention mantas or textiles held in archives all over the country, without needing to consult the catalogs of individual archives one by one in their physical or digital formats. It also means that an archivist can refer to a standard taxonomy of document typologies, description elements, access points (keywords, subjects, etc.), and authorities when creating a new record. In Neogranadina we strongly believe that we can do more together: that the total is greater than the sum of its parts. We thus want to invite every institution that looks after historical documents in Colombia to participate in this project and create a collective “multirepository” for everyone.

The human element

As well as technological tools, we offer assistance and technical support to institutions and groups who want to participate in the project, building on our trajectory as leaders in the mass digitization and systematization of archival collections in Colombia, our collective experience as researchers and academics, and the help of our allies and collaborators in the archives and libraries around the world. Moreover, we want to use this project to create new ways to connect Colombia’s archivists and librarians, so that we can all help each other.

In practical terms, we help participating institutions transfer their existing catalogs to digital formats (including digitizing paper catalogs) structured according to the international standards ISAD(G) and ISAAR(CFP). We also train their members and employees to use these standards and digital platforms so that they can get the most out of them.

Finally, we also offer support to archives that need it to develop their own catalogs. One of the projects that has gained international recognition for Neogranadina is Catalogación Colaborativa, a project that connects researchers and students with uncataloged archival collections. Students and researchers can read archival materials that are not easily accessed and gain experience in paleography and cataloging and, in doing so, help to describe the material they consult. We have a growing community of volunteers in Colombia and abroad, composed of professional archivists, researchers, professors, students, and the general public, who contribute their time and effort to improve the descriptions included in the platform.

We are starting the CCAC with one of the archives that we have worked with for a number of years: the Archivo Histórico Regional de Boyacá in Tunja. In order to incorporate its materials into CCAC, we are transferring and systematizing a wide variety of existing catalogs — from paper records made in the 1920s (such as that in the image above) to digital catalogs created more recently — and creating new records for materials that have not been cataloged until now.

A free and open platform

We are making our platform available to participants and to users entirely for free. We will never charge the institutions who use our platform to manage their catalogs, or users of the platform for consulting it. There are absolutely no subscriptions, membership charges, or fees.

This has been one of the foundational principles of Neogranadina, a non-profit organization whose mission is precisely to help safeguard and publicize the historical patrimony of Colombia using new technologies. In order to fulfill this mission we have had the good fortune of obtaining the technical and financial support of various universities and institutions, including the University of California, Santa Barbara, on whose servers the CCAC platform is hosted.

At the same time, we are respectful and careful with intellectual property. We carefully register the origin of all data integrated into the platform, and always give full credit to the authors and editors of the data it contains. All rights remain with their authors. Equally, the data can always be exported from the platform in a wide variety of open formats — from databases and spreadsheets to print versions in PDF format. Our intention is to make a platform that is free in every sense.

What does this have to do with digitization?

Neogranadina’s flagship project is the mass digitization of archival materials and their publication in our digital archive. This project and that one are connected in part, but they are independent from each other.

In order to be able to carry out the digitization in an efficient and systematic way, it is very useful to systematize and normalize catalogs and archival descriptions, and this is something that is absolutely essential to publishing digital surrogates in our digital archive — which is accessed through the CCAC. We have also carried out the digitization of different paper catalogs, both manuscript and printed, to facilitate the extraction of this information and incorporate it into our system.

However, it is not necessary to digitize the holdings of the archives and institutions whose catalogs and registers we include in the Collective Catalog or to publish them in our digital archive. We want to open the CCAC to all institutions who look after historical documents in Colombia, not only those whose materials we help to digitize.

To sum up, our catalog is collective because it collects information about different archives in Colombia, because it is completely public and free, and because it is built in a collaborative way.

We invite any archives and repositories who are interested in working with use to get in contact.

We will soon make the beta version of the CCAC available with the first entries. In the meantime, you can also see the development version (alpha) of our system.


University of California Humanities Research Institute

This project was supported in part by the University of California Office of the President MRPI funding MR-15-328710.