As la généalogie continues to increase in popularity in France, it seems that the battle lines with some of the Archives Départementales are hardening. This has a very direct and real effect on one's ability to do research. The mandate for the Departmental Archives was first written just after the Revolution. It has had regular updates in keeping with the times. However, the law has not really been able to keep up with the boom in genealogy.
The original and still the primary function of the Departmental Archives is to collect, catalogue and preserve all documentation of the departmental government, as well as to collect where possible other documents and archive relating to local history. By law, any French citizen has free and unrestricted entry to any of the nation's Departmental Archives. (Foreigners may have to justify their research credentials.) Traditionally, users were historians, government clerks and notaires.
The reading rooms rarely had more than two or three people. Now, with the genealogy boom, they can be packed. The willingness to help genealogists is crucial to those doing research from abroad, for they can access the collection only via the internet or the ordinary post. A Departmental Archives that is willing to put their holdings online and willing to answer requests makes their holdings accessible to the world, while one that is not might as well be in a cave.
The attitude of the directors of the Departmental Archives toward genealogical researchers determines the welcome genealogists will receive at those particular archives. It falls roughly into three categories:
- After recovering from the initial shock at this invasion of non-professionals, the Director has decided that he or she is running a service to the public and, if this is what the public wants, this is the service that will be provided. Probably the best example of a Departmental Archives that has worked closely with local genealogists to improve and increase the services they want is Mayenne (53). They have a glorious website with many records online and even, rumour has it, welcome the local genealogical society for tours and meetings.
- The middle of the road Director is more cautious and, while he or she may accept that genealogy is the name of the day, there is no reason to let things go too far. They may plunk for a couple of subscriptions to genealogy magazines to have in the magazine rack by the door, but they will strictly limit copies of actes, numbers of searches per day, etc. These people would really like to stem the tide without seeming to do so.
- And then there are those who just plain hate us. The Director who is a historian, maybe a paleographer, sees genealogists as incompetent arrivistes who gum up the works for the "real" historians, what with their troubles with the microfilm readers and wanting things indexed and put online, and their egocentric interest in only their own ancestors instead of the complete socio-history. The all-star of this type has to be the Department of Finistère, which refuses to set up a website at all, let alone to digitize actes to make them available. "It is not our responsibility to cater to genealogists," the current Director wrote to a French genealogist recently. While other archives will make copies of actes if the requester gives all of the information (no one will do research, of course), not Finistère. While some others will loan rolls of microfilms to other archives, not Finistère.
This last issue is of great importance. If an archives does not have their états civils online and if they refuse to participate in the exchange of microfilm rolls with other archives, then genealogists have no way of conducting their research except to travel to those archives. For most, this is a hardship. The uncooperative Directors have this to say: "you can borrow microfilm from 'Les Mormons'" whom they think have microfilmed everything (which certainly is not the case), or you can ask a local genealogist to do the research for you (which is not always possible).
We thought we would do a little survey, only about microfilm sharing, of Archives Départementales in and around Paris to see just how things are progressing in their attitudes toward genealogists.
- The Archives de Paris - are heavily used by genealogists and the staff are very helpful, but that does not extend to participating in any exchange of microfilms with other archives.
- The Archives Départementales de Hauts-de-Seine - clearly falls into the second category above, with one member of staff wanting to be very helpful but the Director not so. They do have a microfilm exchange service, but, the Director said sternly "It is for residents only. We are not required to do this; we do it as a kindness, but not for outsiders." As a compensation, we were given a bookmark with a picture of the new archives building where the auto above was incongruously displayed. (We apologize for the photo being blurred; we were laughing.)
- The Archives Départementales de Val-de-Marne - proudly advertises itself as welcoming genealogists, and it is not a false claim. We were enthusiastically greeted with "Ah! You are doing genealogy!" and given a member's card without fuss. When we asked if we could borrow microfilms from other departmental archives, a form was handed to us immediately. The archivists in the reading room were keen to show off their collection and to explain their spiffy new website. How different from the grouch at Hauts-de-Seine! We particularly liked the friendly, pre-terrorism security control: "You just walk into my office, whether I am there or not, and pass your card under the barcode reader. No need to do so on your way out. We say bonjour here but never au revoir!" Our kind of archives
- The Archives Départementales de la Seine-Saint-Denis is undergoing refurbishment and is moving part of their collection to another site. While they are sporadically open, it did not seem fair to put them to the full test during such a trying time. We telephoned and asked if the service was available and they said no.
We will continue with updates on the AD services and to regularly update the list in the panel to the left.
©2009 Anne Morddel
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