Our last day in Nancy was dedicated to the Departmental Archives of Meurthe and Moselle. The rumour is that the facility is preparing for a move. The staff are busing organising all for the transfer and so, the archives are open only two days per week. On the day that we visited, it seemed as if the entire staff were all there in the tiny reading room, keen to be of service.
Before we were allowed into the reading room, we had to register, as is usual, and it was free, also usual. What was unusual was the somewhat crazed and obsessive amount of procedures to get in the door:
- Entry is free but the door is kept locked and one must ring to enter.
- Free lockers were provided, but we had to sign a log book, giving our name, the hour that we entered, the number of our locker; then we had to sign an oath that we would take care of the key.
- We were presented with a leaflet of five pages (A5 size) of rules and regulations for anyone wishing to be admitted to the archives and to use them.
- We had to sign another document in order to receive our user's card.
- When we went for lunch, we had to hand in our locker key and sign the locker register with the time of going out and that of coming back in and again when leaving at the end of the day.
All of this, mind you, in a space of about nine square meters and most of that filled by a huge desk behind which sat a person who observed quite closely -- nay, intimately -- all registers, lockers and doors. We persevered and were graciously granted entry to the tiny library and reading room, all lovely old wooden shelves, warmth and cramped, crowded closeness. Sadly, for we love the charm of a curved wooden staircase, we had to admit that the proposed move was probably necessary, even urgent.
The limit of items one could view in a day was ten, and the staff were so speedy and efficient, sweeping in and out of doorways in flowing lab coats, that we reached our limit by mid-afternoon. The archivist at the main desk within the reading room very kindly allowed us to view a couple more sets of records, beyond the limit.
Some of what we were researching involved hunting in military records from between the two World Wars. These may be viewed once they are fifty years old (or, if they contain medical details, one hundred twenty years old)*. Yet, here we hit something of a roadblock, in the person of a very self-important junior archivist, who insisted that we could not view more than one person's military dossier, and then only if we could prove to her that we already knew what was in it. She held each file clutched tightly against her chest and peered into a corner. Then she quizzed us:
"When was he born?"
"That is one of the things to learn from the file," we attempted to explain.
"Non! If you do not know his date of birth, you have no right to view his file." Down went the file into the "Returns" basket. She picked up the next one and asked. "Where was he posted?"
"Non! Mexico!" Down went another file, just out of our reach. As our ability to guess the contents of the files was abysmal, we were not allowed to view a single one.
What to do?
We went for a mug of hot, spiced apple juice, a specialty of Nancy, then packed our bags and returned home in time for the holidays.
We wish you all may be home with your loved ones during the holidays.
©2016 Anne Morddel
*Heiser, Sandrine and Mollet, Vincent, Vos Ancêtres à travers les archives militaires, Service Historique de la Défense, 2013, p111.