The Documentary Relations of the Southwest (DRSW) is a multiphase project of the Arizona State Museum which has as its main objective the bilingual publication of documents basic to the history, ethnohistory, and cultural anthropology of the greater Southwest. The initial phase of the project involves archival research and documentary selection and has been funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. All documents reviewed are recorded in a computerized master index. As defined by the DRSW, the Southwest includes the states of Arizona, California, New Mexico, and parts of Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas in the United States; in Mexico, it encompasses the states of the two Californias, Sonora, Sinaloa, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Durango, Nuevo León, and parts of Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. The central focus of the DRSW is to record native and Spanish contact throughout the colonial period. It is possible to study contact and assimilation in the post-independence period with the same methodology and information management, but modular design and budget constraints place certain chronological and geographical limitations upon this investigation.

At the close of the second year of the grant, the DRSW master index included some 5,000 documents carefully selected from a two-year review of over 100,000 documents. Each serial entry on the master index includes categories for names, places, dates, bibliographic data, languages, ethnic groups, information categories, key terms, a précis, and miscellaneous notes. All of these serial entries have been subsequently arranged in indexes for general use, but the entire file can be rearranged according to many other general and specific designs. The master index is being prepared by research assistants who have received on-the-job training in seventeenth and eighteenth-century paleography.

The Arizona State Museum has access to several microfilm collections that were used in the initial stages of research. The most intensive work centered on the notarial archive of Hidalgo del Parral, Chihuahua, which was the capital of Nueva Vizcaya for a significant time during the colonial period. Select materials from the Archivo General de la Nación (Mexico City), the Archivo General de Indias (Seville), and the Jesuit Archives of Rome have also been utilized in the master index preparation.

From the outset, it was recognized that several universities and libraries in the United States had already amassed major collections of Spanish colonial documents. Since many collections have duplicated the work of others, a secondary goal of the DRSW master index has been the identification of documents in various collections and the creation of a modest union list of availability. The computerized indexes of the DRSW make this a possibility. A review of published archival guides indicates the general nature of some collections, but no guide has the thoroughness and specificity required by the DRSW.

The specific methodology in preparing the DRSW master index has evolved over the duration of the grant. A printed report form is supplied to each research member. The staff member who reads the documents makes a personal judgment about the relevance and overall value of each source. The chief criterion for inclusion is the ethnohistorical character of a document. The definition of ethnohistory in the project necessarily has been very broad. Hence, a great deal of purely administrative documentation is rejected, and many materials that are frequently overlooked have been included because they contain sensitive information about life and property or contact with native peoples. A cursory review of the indexes will reveal how broad the principles of selection have been.

Once the report form is filled out by the reviewer, it is passed on to the computer editors who check on the categorization, assign a serial number, standardize the key terms, and organize the forms into batches that are sent on for key punching and data processing. The development of more efficient and reliable techniques for data retrieval has been an ongoing process. The basic software for running the computer file is SELGEM, an information management system developed by the Smithsonian Institute. The University of Arizona’s Computer Center has further refined this system by devising newer programs tailored for DRSW needs. This has increased efficiency and decreased the costs of data retrieval. A more complete discussion of the computer phase of the master index preparation will follow later in this note.

To date, thousands of documents have been reviewed, and many have been selected for inclusion in the master index. Researchers have completed their investigation of the Parral archive on microfilm. They have also worked in the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection and in the Barker History Center at the University of Texas; with the Bolton Papers in the Bancroft Library; and in the Archivo Histórico de Hacienda and the Archivo General de la Nación in Mexico City. All of the material surveyed has been filed and entered in the computer bibliography. At the tune of this writing, the file contains 4,962 serials. Many of the entries refer to composite groups of documents as well as numerous lengthy works. In effect, the DRSW is about three times more extensive and measurably more specific than Charles Chapman’s guide.1

Experience with off-campus research teams has confirmed the value of several researchers working in different archives and contributing to a central information file. Even though researchers were working simultaneously in different archives, they were provided with updated indexes of all documents consulted, thus reducing the danger of duplication. The broad selection criteria has also narrowed the probability of documentary exclusion. In several test programs, a different research person has covered the same block of material; the incidence of difference has ranged from five to fifteen percent which indicates a high rate of correlation in identifying and reporting on relevant material. The user of the DRSW bibliographic file has the advantage of thousands of hours of research done in several places. Added to this is the versatility and correctability of the file which allows a later discovery of new material to be inserted not only in the master list but the updated indexes. Any misconstruction or omission can also be corrected at the serial source, thus rendering the entire file more perfectible by future refinement.

The models initially used in the processing of information have been continually revised to keep pace with new insights gained by updating and changing the categories. Although the complete procedures of the DRSW computerization have not been included in a single source, a guide to editing methods has been compiled. Some of these editing principles are found in a provisional publication written by the DRSW staff, the Documentary Relations of the Southwest Project Manual.2 The manual serves as a partial explanation to the user of the master index and as a handbook to the reader of the documents. This 161-page manual includes sections on colonial government, weights and measures, lists of colonial officials, and ethnic groups. It is considered as a provisional publication because its contents are currently under revision and expansion; other lists and chapters that will constitute a major handbook for Spanish colonial studies in the Southwest have already been prepared. The DRSW has also devised a section on paleography compiled almost totally from frontier sources.

The DRSW master index is a versatile tool. It includes all names of persons and places encountered in the selected documents. Previously obscure, unheralded figures of southwestern history are recorded in over 17,000 name entries. Geographical place names take up 323 pages of the current index, recording some 17,800 references. The recording of ethnic name groups fills 107 pages; general subject headings, 242 pages; and key terms, 53 pages. The indexing of key terms and archival references has just been reviewed and will comprise approximately 100 pages.

The master index makes possible preparation of specialized bibliographies and indexes by multiple sorting procedures. For general reference, the full file is best. Researchers who require specialized bibliographies can order them from the DRSW at the Arizona State Museum for a reasonable cost—perhaps twenty or thirty dollars depending on the complexity of the sortings and special page arrangements. The entire master index is available either as a computer printout or in microfiche; the cost for these services has not been calculated as yet, but present estimates indicate a probable fee of seventy-five dollars.

The problem of terminology utilized in the DRSW master index has also been addressed. What one staff researcher saw in a document and recorded on the report form may not be the same word classification in the mind of a user of the file. Spanish documents, for example, frequently speak of ganado mayor y menor. One person may define this as “cows, sheep, and goats.” Others may define it as including horses, oxen, mules, and donkeys. Still others may lump the concept together as “livestock.” Accordingly, a substantial amount of time has gone into the compilation of a thesaurus-dictionary that can be consulted by staff members or users of the master index. Presently, this consists of a 100-page computer print-out giving the key terms as used in the file and comments on broad terms, narrow terms, related terms, and “scope notes.” In itself, the thesaurus is a creation that recognizes both the versatility and limitations of any machine-indexed file.

Primary document research is a specialized kind of investigation. The initial temptation of an untrained investigator is to correct misspellings and modernize the orthography. However, the DRSW rule has been to write down the names of persons and places as spelled in the document. This procedure obviously complicates the search for a given entry in an alphabetical index; variations can cause a user to overlook a given reference. In order to preserve the integrity of original spelling and to overcome the problem of orthographical variants, the computer editors have devised a corollary name file. For persons, this is called Biofile. Names were taken from scores of major works on the Southwest and entered into the Biofile. Whenever vital statistics were available, these have also been entered. This file has given the project the capability to verify the names found in the primary documents against already standardized spellings. Thus, the project has begun a rudimentary biographical dictionary for the Southwest.

The DRSW personal name index has been merged with the Biofile entries so that editorial inspection can determine the proper orthography of a given individual’s name. The particular design of Biofile has made it possible to create a complete reference guide to all information available on a given person. The Biofile itself can be indexed in a variety of useful ways. Of special interest is the Biofile title index that lists all the titles of the persons in the file; the title is given together with the person’s name and the Biofile serial number. For the person researching Spanish colonial documents, nothing can be more frustrating than encountering a title instead of a name. With this corollary file the DRSW is now able to speed up the identification of persons. Ultimately Biofile will be able to be published as a separate biographical dictionary.

The orthographical problem of primary documents extends also to place names. In one sense this is a genuine nightmare because of the variation in the Spanish spelling of Indian names and the citation of saints’ names for places. The problem of geographical place names is more critical than that of personal names because historical information is more frequently sought on a basis of location rather than personal presence. Fortunately in this day and age, highly reliable topographical maps have become available for the entire southwestern region. Using U.S. Army topographical maps drawn from aerial photographs, the DRSW has created another corollary computer file for place names. The Geofile makes it possible to accurately pinpoint geographical locations through a system of map locator numbers. As Geofile defines the location of places, the DRSW master index builds the capacity for total geographical retrieval and distribution studies. Computer maps which show distribution of documentation, distribution of subject matter for the whole colonial period or for specific periods, and the concentration by geographic distribution of the holdings of distinct archives can be printed.

Geofile also forms the base for historical geography. Once the entire area is gridded according to accurate topography, other map-file information can be added to the basic entries so that discrepancies in earlier maps can be processed to reveal sequential discoveries, frontier developments, and movement of populations. The master index can be utilized to solve geographical problems of almost any order. Furthermore, since the maps are consistent with aerial photography and since the documentary information is accessible through a grid system, aerial photographs can be examined for locations of historic sites previously unknown or unsuspected. The complexities of handling the geographic information should not be underestimated. Even at this point with about seventy percent of the greater Southwest entered into Geofile, there are well over 24,000 discrete place names in the index. The final Geofile master list will comprise about 40,000 names prior to the inclusion of any historic data. The sheer bulk of this kind of information can only be handled with computer technology.

The DRSW master index project has been developed for the broad range of southwestern studies in the Spanish colonial period. Time and space are reflected in the ordering principles of the computer bibliography. In no way has the design of the information file been made on a behavioral model. Quantification of history may be a valid technique for certain studies, but the thrust of this project has been solely to utilize the management capabilities of the computer for an otherwise overwhelming mass of data. The potential of the computer has been held subservient to man’s ability to analyze, abstract, and categorize. This has been done partially because of the conviction that only the human use of computer technology will be able to produce humanistically useful information.


Charles E. Chapman, Catalogue of Materials in the Archivo General de Indias for the History of the Pacific Coast and the American Southwest (Berkeley, 1919).


Charles W. Polzer, S.J., et al., Documentary Relations of the Southwest Project Manual (Tucson, 1977).

Author notes


The author is Ethnohistorian, Arizona State Museum, University of Arizona and Project Director of the Documentary Relations of the Southwest.