Parallel Histories: Spain, the United States, and the American Frontier
A bilingual, English-Spanish website, Parallel Histories assembles approximately 250 documents relating to the history of Spanish presence in the Americas since the 15th century. The majority relates to the exploration, settlement, and early governments of Spanish territories in the New World, but site visitors can also access materials on the early history of British and French dominions, as well as documents pertaining to the American Revolution and Spanish-American War. Among the sources are manuscripts and books, ranging from personal correspondence to royal decrees, as well as travel permits, royal charters establishing trade rights, and even a number of financial accounts from the newly-established colonial governments. Map and prints round off the offerings, detailing New World geopolitical developments and demonstrating an ever-expanding understanding of American geography.
Parallel Histories is part of the Library of Congress’ Global Gateway initiative, which seeks to create digital partnerships with libraries world-wide in order to make historical documents available to a broad audience and preserve them for future generations. In this spirit, Parallel Histories taps into six major collections at the Library of Congress, the National Library of Spain, and the Biblioteca Colombina y Capitular of Seville. All of the sources have been digitized, allowing the visitor not only to access the content of each, but also to experience their weathered and aging look. In effect, Parallel Histories gets the virtual researcher as close to these materials as is possible without physically visiting the archives. The site’s sources, individually or in small sets, are the perfect foundation for focused study at any academic level, broadening our understanding of both Spanish and United States history. There is also a Classroom Connections available through the Library of Congress with discussion questions, historical analysis prompts, and related materials.
Perhaps the site’s most notable feature is the multiple ways in which its collections can be searched. The easiest way is through a series of links to five research themes: “Exploration and Early Settlement,” “Colonization and Settlement,” Meeting of Cultures,” “The American Revolution,” and “Mutual Perceptions.” Currently, only the first is up and running. However, if this first sample is any indication, the thematic approach is a quick, yet informative way of accessing the available documents. When using this method, the visitor is taken down an inverted pyramid of information, from broad to specific topics, suggesting an ever narrower and more focused set of sources to explore. To begin, the link to the theme leads to a portal where the visitor is introduced, in a short essay, to the major issues and players involved. For example, the essay in “Exploration and Early Settlement” sets Spanish contact with indigenous peoples of the Americas in the context of the centuries-long Spanish struggle with the Moors, arguing that this experience shaped Spanish approaches to all other peoples and helped Spaniards justify their struggles against others. Thus, site creators offer both direction and an argument that can then be weighted against the available sources. The short essay also lists the most prominent early explorers and some of their exploits, which can then be further explored in the documents themselves. The portal makes research of the specific theme even easier by dividing the topic into three sub-areas, “Atlantic and Gulf Coasts,” “South West,” and “Far West,” each with its own introductory essay and sub-sections. At any stage of the theme “pyramid” the visitor can access recommended sources simply by clicking on the available picture or link.
Arguably, this approach has significant limitations, in that only selected sources are made available in relation to each sub-theme. For those of a more inquisitive nature or with a more-than-basic knowledge of the subject, a better way to search the database might be either through the search engine or through the indexes to the various collections. The search engine offers two options, basic and advanced, and allows searching the collections and interpretative texts by keyword. The indexes, one for each of the collections included, offer an alphabetical list of sources, as well as links to the digitized files. Regardless of the chosen method, this site has two problematic features: that the sources remain in their original language, limiting their usefulness only to those with foreign language skills, and that all introductory and interpretative materials are presented, side by side, in both English and Spanish, necessitating significant scrolling down each page. Still, these do not detract from the ease with which the visitor can access all sources, rich and varied tools for exploring and teaching the history of Spain’s interactions with the United States from first contact to the present.