XXIII Congrès national de Généalogie - Archives
FGB Free Clinic - Case no. 4 - Laurent Desnoyers

XXIII Congrès national de Généalogie - The Purpose of Archives

Didn't make it to an archive

The talk that Monsieur Benoît Jullien gave so expertly seemed to be aimed at explaining the purposes and functions of archives to genealogists, many of whom may tend to see only their own requirements concerning archives. He began by explaining the administrative reasons for their initial establishment by the fledgling Republic. There had to be some place to store the originals of laws passed and judicial decisions handed down, as well as all of the debates, discussions and ministerial procedures and operations that had taken place in the running of the government at every level. Lest we forget: to those who established archives and manage them, the historical or genealogical value of their contents must come second to their administrative importance to the operation of government.

Ever so gently, politely and entertainingly chastened, we listened on as Monsieur Jullien discussed the

  • Problems of conservation, particularly as concerns those documents sent in electronic form;
  • Decisions concerning value and what to keep or not, giving an example of the date on a manuscript in the Departmental Archives of Vienne being the year 540, which would make it the oldest document there, except that it is a fake from the 11th century, (the oldest document that they have is dated 780) but now the fake is so old that it has some historical value as well;
  • Issues of organizing the information, especially after a complete restructuring of government administration in the 1980s, the first such in two hundred years, e.g. does one reorganize the archives to reflect the new structure or create ever more convoluted finding aids to guide those from the future to the past?
  • Problems of burgeoning: in 1812, the Departmental Archives of Vienne had 150 linear meters of material; in 2013, they had 27,000, which leads to...
  • Problem of location. Everyone would like the archives to be in the centre of town, within easy access, but this would be exceedingly expensive, considering the amount of space now required. Thus, throughout France, archives, as they expand, are being relocated away from city and town centres. (Seemingly by way of compensation, snazzy architects are offered up: Bruno Dumetier, Zaha Hadid, etc..)
  • Need to balance uses of and rights to the contents of the archives: the right to access vs. the new right to be forgotten, the government's memory, free speech, the right to discover and know one's origins (Interestingly for genealogists, he pointed out here that for those whose ancestors were slave on Saint Dominique, the records may not only be there, but in the property tax records of the department where the slave owner originated. Thus, the Departmental Archives of Vienne property tax records from the early nineteenth century contain lists of people held in slavery on Saint Dominique.)

Monsieur Jullien then broached the touchy subject: the right to access archives as opposed to the demand to publish, reproduce or sell them. (See our previous post.) He made the important differentiation between the form of the documentation (microfilm, paper, electronic, etc.) and the information it contains, saying that the issues being fought so furiously at the moment -- those of copyright, ownership, payment, etc. -- must apply only to the former and never to the latter, which must remain open and free to all. We believe that many who rant on this subject should reflect on that point. Lastly, he almost begged for there to be a concurrence on this subject among all archives facilities in France. "We need a solution."

After much applause, there were questions from the audience, all of which seemed to focus on the private family archives people had amassed and would like to donate, but would they be accepted. The answer was a resounding affirmative.

©2015 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

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