This post was written by Benjamin James, King’s College London. It is part of a series of posts on researchers’ experiences in libraries and archives.
In the campus of the Universidade de Lisboa stands the National Archive of Portugal, a contemporary ziggurat of concrete and granite bordered by eucalyptus and palm trees. More commonly it is called the Torre do Tombo, the Tower of the Tome, in reference to its medieval past and previous home in the Castelo de São Jorge that overlooks the city.
Entrance and security registration are refreshingly uncomplicated and require only a single piece of formal identification; from there it is simply a matter of locking away items not permitted in the reading rooms (the usual suspects of water, food, ink pens, bags, etc.) before ascending a wide staircase to where you can access the digitised catalogue and a team of archivists are ready to help you fathom the collection. Everything is transacted online: document and microfilm requests as well as digitisation. As with any online database it has its quirks but overall it is a straightforward and powerful tool. Archival catalogues, the world over, require a certain amount of time before one feels truly confident and here it is no different – my advice, always ask for help!
Every single member of staff that I have encountered in this building, from the doorman who has greeted me with a cheery Bom dia Benjamim every morning to the multilingual ladies at the information desk, has not only been helpful but also welcoming, charming and unfaltering in their kindness. The atmosphere is so welcoming that even in those dark moments of research when you feel lost in a quagmire of manuscripts and impenetrable palaeography, you still feel supported.
Archival research is undeniably thrilling – you never know what might be uncovered from the margin notes of a bone dry account book, or the swirling script of royal chancelleries, or the passive aggressive tone in the letters of cloistered noblewomen – and I can’t think of a better place than the Torre do Tombo.
I am researching the financial power and the extent of wealth in female convents and of their inhabitants in early modern Lisbon (1640-1750). I have been using convent account books, loan agreements, dowry contracts and wills. Furthermore, I have been exploring additional legal and quasi-legal documentation from the convents, aristocratic archives, personal letters and royal chancelleries.
(The Digital Archive is available)