Skip to main content

Project Description


EAP 627: Digitising endangered seventeenth to nineteenth century secular and ecclesiastical sources in São João do Carirí e João Pessoa, Paraíba, Brazil

Project Director: Dr. Courtney J. Campbell, University of Birmingham, England

digitThis British Library Endangered Archives Programme project (EAP 627) digitized the oldest historical documents in the state of Paraíba in Brazil. The documents come from the semi-arid hinterlands and the coastal capital city of João Pessoa, and date from the mid-seventeenth to late nineteenth centuries.

The ability to study the history of African and Indian descendants in Paraíba depends on these documents, yet they were dangerously close to disappearing. The ecclesiastical sources provide evidence on the lives and origins of enslaved Africans, marriage practices, miscegenation, and extensions of kinship through god-parentage. The land grants and official documents are fundamental to understanding how the Brazilian territory ceased to be land and became property in the initial centuries of colonization. These documents provide a wide source base for historical study, reflecting the participation of several sectors of the population in colonial and imperial Brazil.

The ecclesiastical documents were precariously stacked upon each other in a small wooden cabinet held together by a bungee cord, in a room with no climate control, with the oldest books wrapped only in plastic grocery bags for protection. The oldest books were faded and suffered from insect damage. The oldest of the secular documents are no longer made available to researchers. The ink has eaten through the pages, water and insect damage have left holes, and the pages are extremely thin and fragile.


The ecclesiastical records date from 1752 to 1931 and the secular records date from 1660 to 1888 – the year in which slavery in Brazil became illegal. The records were triply threatened: they were abandoned by the state, which did not invest in their preservation; they were condemned to loss by well-intentioned but untrained staff, and; while on the coast they were left to heat, humidity and mold, in the hinterlands they were left to heat, dust, and insects. These documents were in urgent need of digitizing and safeguarding.

The project was jointly carried out with faculty and graduate students from the Department of History of Vanderbilt University, the Núcleo de Estudos e Pesquisas Afrobrasileiros e Indígenas (NEABI) of the Universidade Federal da Paraíba (UFPB), and the Núcleo de Documentação e Informação Histórica Regional (NDIHR) of the UFPB.

workshopTraining, promoting the project, and sharing research generated from the digitized documents were also key activities within this project. Historians and professionals in arquivologia – or the study, maintenance, creation, and development of archives, as it is known in Portuguese –  worked in key leadership positions of the project, sharing their knowledge and skills with students and archive professionals. At the beginning of the project, professors, archive staff, and graduate students from partner institutions and local archives participated in a three-day orientation, including workshops on paleography, digitization, and conservation of historical documents. At the close of the project, professors and graduate students from Vanderbilt and the UFPB took part in mini-conferences describing and promoting research in João Pessoa.

Students and archivists received basic training in document preservation and archival organization. At the end of the project, in addition to creating a digital archive of the oldest documents from the state of Paraíba, the project team left copies of the digitized documents, a basic catalog of the digitized archival holdings (currently lacking in two locations), and documents organized in acid-free folders and boxes in each archive. Further, students created meta-data and transcriptions for key collections, taking advantage of handwritten transcriptions found in archives when available.

boxA digital archive was created containing the oldest and most endangered records of the state of Paraíba in Brazil. The archive contains over 80,000 images and their corresponding listing metadata. These images are redundantly stored in external hard drives and network servers at Vanderbilt University. Each of the following institutions received at least three complete copies of the archive: the Núcleo de Estudos e Pesquisas Afrobrasileiros e Indígenas (NEABI) da Universidade Federal da Paraíba (UFPB) in João Pessoa, Paríba, Brazil; the Núcleo de Documentação e Informação Histórica Regional (NDIHR) da UFPB also in João Pessoa, and; the Jean and Alexander Heard Library, at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, USA. In addition, the project provided the following institutions with copies of their respective digitized documents: the Paróquia de Nossa Senhora dos Milagres do São João do Carirí in São João de Carirí, Paraíba; the Instituto Histórico e Geográfico Paraibano (IHGP) in João Pessoa, and; the Arquivo Histórico Waldemar Bispo Duarte, also in João Pessoa. A complete copy of the archive in the form of two external hard drives was also sent for archival storage at the British Library. The complete archive is available for researchers worldwide here, on the Slave Societies Digital Archive (SSDA).

In addition to creating a digital archive of documents from Paraíba, this project generated a group of skilled students, professors, librarians, and archivists who possess both the experience and equipment necessary to be leaders in the digitization of historical documents in the Brazilian Northeast.