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Pitfalls in Paris for the Genealogical Tourist

Travail or grève

Genealogy tourism is on the rise. If one's ancestors had the good sense to come from someplace lovely, visiting it in order to research them and breathe the same air they once did could be a delightful way to spend a holiday. Then again, if they had the even better sense to get out of some rat hole, best then to go to the beach and leave a local genealogist in the rat hole to do the research and send the results in the post. France, and especially Paris, has to be close to the top of the list for beautiful holiday destinations and one can praise one's ancestors for any genealogical link to the City of Light or curse them for having left it. Yet, before booking that flight to come to Paris  -- or Aix, or La Rochelle -- for research, please be aware of just what it may entail and how it may go wrong.

The Card

Every archives and library facility requires a user to have a card, which is produced on the spot. In some places the card is for French nationals only, as in certain of the Archives départementales. In some, foreigners can get a day pass to use the facility, as in the Bibliothèque nationale. In some places, the card is free of charge, as in the Archives départmentales, in some, there is a charge, as in the Archives nationales and the Bibliothèque nationale. All require a valid identity card or passport. Some require that a form be completed, as does the Service Historique de la Défense (the military archives at Vincennes, referred to as SHD), some need nothing, some require proof of address that is not older than three months and a letter from a publisher or academic institution confirming your research and its subject and proof of your professional standing, as does the Bibliothèque nationale. If all the paperwork is in order and the person at the desk likes your face, getting the card usually takes about half an hour.

Reserving the Documents

In all of the Archives départementales, the civil and parish registers are almost all scanned and available for searching on an internal computer system, so no reservation is necessary. Any other document, such as the military registrations or land records, will need to be requested, usually with delivery in about 45 minutes. In the Archives nationales and the SHD, documents and files need to be requested up to three days in advance. Sometimes, this can be done online, for both have the entire list of their holdings, with the codes, on their websites. However, sometimes, large collections do not have a fully automated index and it is necessary to go to the facility, look something up in the index books, order it, and go back again three days later to view it, as in the case of officers' files at SHD. The Bibliothèque nationale seems to require both the reservation in advance by internet and then requesting the same documents again on arrival.

However the documents may be requested,  it is important to arrive well before 11.00 in the morning. Any time from 11.30 to 14.30 (2.30 p.m.) can be lunch time for the staff and no documents will be supplied during lunch time, even though they may have been reserved and even though the facility remains open for the researchers.

If your research cannot be completed in one day, it is usually possible to request that the documents be held for another day, as in some Archives départementales,  for three days, as in the Archives nationales. Some places, such as SHD, will not hold the documents. They send them back to storage  to be requested all over again.

En grève

Finally, having done all of the homework, all of the preparation to get the card and reserve the documents, you may arrive at the archives or library and discover that it is shut down because the staff are en grève, on strike, which happens quite a lot, especially during the holiday shopping season (no one likes to use their sick days to go shopping) and just before the summer holidays (we are not sure if this is general padding or an effort to get a pay rise that will come in to effect just as the bills for the summer holiday come in.) 

Our brother in Oregon likes to say that "all French are commies", which is rather an exaggeration. In truth, we have some admiration for the way the French government handles its workers', especially the civil servants',  love of going on strike. All strikes must be booked in advance and the route of any manifestation -- demonstration -- submitted to the authorities. If not, it is an illegal strike or demonstration and will not be permitted. The public is notified in advance of the strike and told to make alternative plans. Notices are posted in the metro stations and at bus shelters informing the passengers of the marchers' route and of how the buses will travel by different streets. In this way, the strikes cause almost no real disruption. They rarely last more than two days, so no one really suffers. The whole purpose of striking in France seems to be a sort of collective letting off of steam. People get their chance to shout at television reporters and then see themselves on the evening news. They chant their impossibly long, didactic and completely unrhythmic slogans, (which take some of the marchers half the day to learn; very entertaining.) Yet if they happen to shut the archives or library for the very two or three days that the genealogical tourist had planned to use it, this can be most disappointing.

Prepare yourself!

Be warned: check the websites and the news, have the telephone numbers, and verify that the facility will be open and the trains will be running the very morning that you plan to go. Even then, be prepared to arrive to locked gates and a little troupe with signs and slogans. Always have a zen attitude and a backup plan.

©2010 Anne Morddel

French genealogy