Improving access

The first prerequisite for getting a grip on the estimated 50 million pages of voc archive material is to catalogue the material so that it can be searched with relative ease. Two types of finding aids can be used:

  • Primary finding aids: These are summaries of all voc objects (bundles and volumes) which the researcher can use to request the desired documents: the so-called archival inventory. Without an inventory, the voc archives are an enormous mountain of paper with which no researcher or archivist can work. A finding aid consists at minimum of a unique serial number, a title, and an indication of the period for every separate voc object. The best inventories group descriptions in such a way that the researcher can see the origin of the archival documents (for example, which department, establishment, or commission) and the structure of the organization. The contents of the documents are also described in somewhat more detail, and there are instructions on how to best search through the mass of archival material.

  • Secondary finding aids: These are not limited to the formal side of the voc object (number, title, year), but explore the contents of the archival documents. Secondary finding aids, also known as 'specific finding aids', include indexes ordered according to names of people and places. Thematic search guides can also be seen as secondary finding aids.

The TANAP programme's cluster for the preservation of culture aims at improving both forms of accessibility. The products are:

  • a general survey
  • a super inventory

The finding aids will be in English so that the barrier for international research remains as low as possible.

General survey

The general survey is a computer file in which all descriptions of all voc objects from each partner country are stored. Here researchers can immediately discover which bundles or volumes of voc material exist and where they are stored. The general survey can be made only if usable finding aids are available. In some cases these must first be created. Where usable inventories do exist, they can be processed into computer files. In this way the researcher is presented with a complete and uniform set of finding aids rather than the present search tools, which differ so greatly in terms of both quality and functionality.

  • In Jakarta the voc finding aid dates from 1882. It lacks unique numbering per object. Many archival documents are lost or have been mixed with other archives. When combined with several more modern finding aids for some of the materials, the 118-year-old inventory can be used to compile a totally new inventory.
  • In Chennai the voc finding aid dates from 1931. The archives have been ordered in British fashion, entirely chronologically. With the aid of microfilms of the voc archives and an old finding aid from 1909, it will be possible to construct the archival inventory with descriptions and a classification that can be used for other TANAP products.
  • In Colombo the voc inventory dates from 1943. There are additional finding aids from earlier or later years. Approximately four metres of voc materials must be more closely analyzed and described. A new inventory of the whole record group can then be made.
  • In Cape Town the inventories can be easily adapted for use in the general survey.
  • In The Hague the voc inventory is recent and of good quality and will be used as the basis for the general survey because of its relationship with all previously mentioned archives.

Super inventory

The super inventory is a database in which all components of the voc objects are described in detail. Many voc objects (bundles and volumes) that consist of numerous documents have been preserved in The Hague in particular. For example, the mass of archival documents sent to the Netherlands from Asia was bound into 3,000 thick volumes soon after their arrival. These are labelled by year, and are known as the Overgekomen Brieven en Papieren (OBP's) (Letters and Papers received from Asia). They are consulted many thousands of times a year, more frequently than any other source of archival materials at the National Archives of the Netherlands. The archival inventory tells us little about the actual contents of these voc objects, however. Users would benefit from more detailed descriptions of the many kinds of documents contained in a volume for a single year, which sometimes exceed a quarter of a metre.

An example:

The voc inventory states only the following for reference number 1144: '1644, FFF Second book'. Luckily, many OBPs contain an index. The lists of contents of the voc Chamber Amsterdam have been typed out. voc object 1144 consists of numerous documents received in the Netherlands from 11 countries in 1644. They originate in Batavia, Maluku, Ceylon, Goa (India), Wingurla (today Vengurla in India) Suratte (India), Siam (Thailand), Cambodia, Tonkin (Vietnam) and Attchin. They consist of diaries, letters, price lists, trade books, resolutions, memories, registers, peace treaties, invoices, certificates, instructions, and general missives. In total hundreds of different archival documents lie hidden behind the description of one voc object - '1644, FFF Second book'.

All these documents among the thousands of voc bundles and volumes will be put into one database. The same is true for the OBP's of the voc Chamber Zeeland, which are not bound by year, but randomly according to geography. The Batavia letterbooks of outgoing documents, containing copies of the letters that the Governor-General and Council at Batavia sent to all voc establishments, kings, sultans and other Asian and African authorities, are also entered. In this way all archives will be entered in the database together with information about the relationship between the voc establishments and the authorities in Asia and Africa.

Example of various documents kept together in one
archival object; Chennai (click to enlarge image)

These activities in all participating archival institutions will lead to a super inventory in which the researcher can see immediately where the desired document is stored. The voc establishments kept copies of all documents that they sent to Batavia and Batavia did the same for all documents that were sent to the Netherlands. The super database can assist in tracing documents that have disappeared in one country but may be available in another country after all.

Finally, one can trace, for each voc establishment, which documents were received there and which documents were sent by that establishment. In other words: we will get a fairly complete picture of the administration of each voc establishment. The super inventory gives rise to an imaginary reconstruction of the archives of all voc establishments in Asia and Africa.

Concretely, it provides inventories of the archives of all voc establishments. Virtually speaking, all countries in Asia and Africa will receive their voc archives back. The actual reconstruction and return by filming or scanning, and the virtual display of the archives by Internet, will take things a step further.

An added aspect of the super inventory is the knowledge that will be gained regarding the presence of copies of archive materials. The super inventory will make it easier to set priorities when decisions are made regarding the scanning or filming of original documents so as to protect them from wear and tear. Archival materials that are present at a number of locations do not need to be scanned or filmed twice, for example.

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