Monthly Archives: October 2015

Session 1: Visiting and Plundering French Archives

9 October 2015, 2-4pm
St Andrews: Buchanan Building (room 306), Union Street
Dr Julia Prest, Prof Guy Rowlands and Prof Roy Dilley

Our first session—entitled ‘Visiting and Plundering French Archives—was devoted to the practicalities of doing archival research in France and French-speaking countries (especially Senegal). An interdisciplinary team of experts in the field, drawn from the School of Modern Languages (Julia Prest), the School of History (Guy Rowlands) and the Department of Social Anthropology (Roy Dilley), gave a detailed introduction to the ‘best practices’ of planning, undertaking and making the most out of your time at the archive.

Julia set out to explain that archival research should only be carried out when you really need to. A thorough reading of the secondary literature should precede any visit to an archive and prevent you from delving into historical material that has already been exhaustively discussed, digitized and/or transcribed. Moreover, having a clear understanding of what you’re looking for helps you to conduct your research at the archive as effectively and pragmatically as possible. Depending on how much time you have, you may find it useful to search for collections rather than separate items, as you might find something that you don’t know yet. By all means, don’t go to the archive too soon, but also don’t go too late.

Guy noted that it’s important to plan ahead, not in the least because there is often a maximum to the number of items you can order. Also, don’t forget to carefully read the rules for handling archival material (laptops almost never constitute a problem; pens are often strictly forbidden). Inventories of French archives regularly give only a bare outline of their sources. In this case, you should ask the président de salle (a qualified archivist) to help you finding a more detailed inventory. S/he is often glad to answer your questions. The people who hand out the material to you are the magasiniers. Please treat them respectfully (as some other readers not always do!); they might be more likely to speed up the process for you.

Guy and Julia then shared several anecdotes about the eccentricities of some of the archivists and magasiniers they met during their archival trips in France, especially in the province—ranging from refused entry because of ‘inappropriate’ clothing to difficulties with requesting a photocopy of a four-page fold-out image. Although amusing in retrospect, they might confront you with unpleasant surprises. Make friends with the people that work at the archive! They are also well-plugged into the French university system, which comes in handy.

Julia continued to demonstrate how to search for sources on the website of the Archives nationales d’outre mer (Anom) in Aix-en-Provence, using her current research topic, theatre in Saint-Domingue, the French Caribbean colony that became Haiti in 1804, as an example. See image 1 and 2. This proved to be particularly difficult, as the archive uses twenty different classification systems—not uncommon for French archives, especially in the province. So, don’t be afraid to ask if you can’t find your way in the catalogue! Guy suggested that the sometimes confusing cataloguing standards and slow wifi at archives resulted, in part, from France’s relatively late connection to the World Wide Web.

Recherches, Archives nationales d'outre-mer
Image 1: IREL, the online research tool of the Archives nationales d’outre-mer.

Instrument de recherche, Par territoire, Archives nationales d'outre-mer
Image 2:
Searching ‘par territoire’, using the archive’s ‘instruments de recherche’.

In his excursion on working in French-language archives in Senegal (the Institut fondamental d’Afrique Noire and the Archives Nationales du Sénégal), Roy made the useful observation that archives are often moulded by institutions and individuals, especially in the case of ‘colonial archives’. In other words, they are not ‘natural’ or ‘neutral’ repositories of knowledge. Their inventories and overall organisation are informed by political decisions and institutional constraints, which frequently involves practices of ‘exclusion’. Hence, it’s important to ask yourself not only what but also for what reason particular historical sources are available in an archive.

We ended the session by fiddling around on the websites of several French archives.

Our next session on October 23 will focus on ‘The French Book World in the Renaissance’ (Graeme Kemp and Shanti Graheli, School of History).

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