Gone are the days when one could mosey to the Diplomatic Archives in Paris for a morning's research and then spend the afternoon gazing at the works of the Impressionists at the nearby Musée d'Orsay. The archives have been moved to a brand new, not quite finished site in La Courneuve, a suburb to the north of Paris and perhaps not the place to make this timid little archives-loving mouse feel safe. (Then again, there are those who feel the same about the wisdom of placing a NARA facility on the San Andreas fault).
Nevertheless, we chose a sunny day and off we went, taking the RER B to La Courneuve - Aubervilliers, wandering around under dark and gloomy railway flyovers a bit lost for a while, and finally stumbling down an unfinished pavement to our goal. Understandably, the security is rather like that at an airport. At the entry gate, one's bags pass though an X-ray machine and one's self passes blushingly through a scanner. Across a courtyard is the entrance to the building and we were directed to the Salle d'Inscription, where new users register and receive a little plastic, reader's card. Photo identification is required but registration is free.
From there, one moves to the usual type of locker room for storing all excess luggage, as only papers, cameras and pencils are permitted within the readers' rooms. Keep out your passport. The lockers are also free, a first in our experience. Then, there is yet another desk, where one must hand over the passport or identity card, the reader's card is scanned and a visitor's pass is issued. Finally, there is another security passage -- a turnstile -- with guard, that opens with the visitor's pass. From leaving home to this point took us two hours and we were ready for a cup of tea but there was none.
Why bother? Well, the Archives Diplomatiques are probably of interest most to those researching French ancestors who worked in the Ministère des Affaires étrangères, for here one can find their complete personnel files. Here also are the civil registrations, the actes d'état civil, for French citizens born, married or died outside of France who registered these events with the embassy or consulate, and some passport files. These are particularly useful for those researching any of the French families that moved to the Middle East after the Revolution but kept their French nationality. (See our post on nationality.) All consular correspondence can also be found here, if one is researching an ancestor who would have had extensive contact with the diplomatic corps.
The facilities within are deliciously new. Spacious, clean, very attractive, the rooms for readers encircle the first floor. The sense of air and space is, indeed, a luscious change form the stuffy, cramped, 19th century rooms that look like a Sherlock Holmes film set which -- for that very reason -- we so adore. The procedure is to go to the room of finding aids and look up the correct code for a document on the internal index system.
The code will reveal whether it is to be the original document or microfilm. Much is microfilmed. Then, take the code and go to the Salle des Microfilms, and here things do not go so well. One must present oneself to the président de la salle, a sort of room monitor, and hand over one's reader card and be assigned to a microfilm reader. A bank of cabinets along the wall contains the rolls of film. There are thirty microfilm readers, one third of which are purely manual and reflect onto an aluminum plate. Two readers have printers.
We were unlucky. Eight microfilm readers were not working, including the two that could print copies, and a very desperate repairman was doing his best to mend them. As the room was full to capacity and the repairman looked set to have a breakdown, we knew that there was to be no research success for us that day. We surrendered and went to look at the books for sale. It took thirty minutes to buy one book because the price list could not be found and the computers all froze. We went back out through all of the security gates, back down the unfinished road, back into that spooky passage and took the long ride home for that cup of tea we by then quite frantically needed.
These are teething problems. The Archives Diplomatiques opened just last September. The library of over 430,000 works on many, many aspects of diplomacy and international relations opens today. It is clear that more machines are on order and all these minor problems will be solved. The staff were intelligent, the service was unusually pleasant, even friendly. Some speak English. The subject matter here may not apply to many of those researching French ancestors but for some, these archives will bring the odd Eureka! moment, to be sure.
©2010 Anne Morddel