Saints preserve us! As our exploration of the various archives in La Rochelle continues, we fear we have at last met our match. Dear Readers, we have survived ravaged Kampala in the immediate post-Amin years; we survived the horrors of having sublet an apartment in Athens not knowing it had previously been the workplace of a six-foot-tall Australian prostitute; we survived our own youth on the wild ride that was California in the Sixties and Seventies; we survived hitch-hiking all over the state during those same years, but we do not believe we will be able to survive the demented efforts at classification on the part of the conservateurs of La Rochelle's Municipal Archives.
We had done our homework and knew that these small archives held records about the history of the city and its people not to be found elsewhere: certain parish registers on microfilm, hospital records from the 18th century, census returns, electoral lists and more. We had researched and found the codes and so, hoped to waste no time. Folly! We wrestled our way into the archives:
There, we registered as a new user with the helpful secretary, who typed up a card for us. She then handed us a map of the streets of La Rochelle, showing us how to arrive where we already were. Growing worried, we thanked her and asked how we might find the specific records we sought, and we showed her our codes. She bustled across the tiny room to a shelf of binders and selected one.
"Oh, we don't use those codes anymore. The conservateur has reclassified the archives. This binder shows the old codes but do not use it and this binder shows the new codes. No there is no index or concordance linking old to new." We had heard this story at the Departmental Archives and our heart sank, but it had lower to go. "Really," she continued, "you need to look at this third binder, because the conservateur made a lot of changes. On this one, there are some of the first set of codes linking to the third set, but she has not yet finished these."
We studied the three different sets, the beautifully logical and clear first set, done a generation ago, and the next two, a descent into the inner mayhem of one of Bedlam's finest. There simply was no sense and no way forward. Our guide was becoming nervous, even testy. We asked if we might request an interview with the conservateur, which brought a shocked and frightened gasp.
"Oh no! The conservateur is NEVER to be disturbed!" That old trick of Parisian waiters who will never come to your table except to say not to disturb them while they are working? Or Charles Bovary after the surgery on Hippolyte's foot?
Expecting little, we selected a roll of microfilmed registers from the early seventeenth century. Most of the images were askew. Some were upside down. Clearly, the Municipal Archives' problems go back a long way.
Give this one a miss.
Archives Municipales de La Rochelle
16, place Baptiste Marcet
tel: 05 46 51 53 91
©2013 Anne Morddel