In the Archives nationales in Paris (le CARAN), there are three floors for the researcher:
- the room on the top floor holds a bank of microfilm readers, some cabinets of film, and a desk of staff who issue pre-ordered rolls of film;
- the room on the second floor is high-security, for there, one may request and view original documents;
- the room on the first floor is filled with shelves of volumes that are finding aids, e.g. lists and lists of groups of documents and their codes.
One spends more time trawling through the finding aids, looking in all the many, many possible subjects that might pertain to one's research, noting codes, and then requesting the documents, than one actually spends reading the documents. Many of them will not really be what one wants, as the finding aids do not always go into great detail.
In the room of finding aids -- the Salle des Inventaires -- is an ordinary-looking chest of drawers that is in truth a magic box created to rescue the suicidal researcher from that last moment of despair. It is full of large index cards on which some blessed archivists noted all of the codes for documents relating to certain subjects. This is a life-saving treasure!
We give here two examples of these wondrous cards (click on the images to enlarge them). One, on all that the Archives nationales hold on the subject of cotton:
Well and good, you say. That may be fine for the researcher on textile history, but how does it help the genealogist? It is of great help, for there are also many cards on individuals, such as this one on Admiral Duquesne, an important fellow in Canadian history:
As always with such treasures, the value of this card index - fichier -- is not only in the information it does give but in what it does not give. It tells what the archives hold on the subject and, if something is not on the list, that tells what they do not have.
The fichier is not filmed or online, even internally to the archives. Neither is it particularly protected. It is an old thing, put together in the 1960s and 1970s and can be viewed only in person. Twenty drawers containing thousands of cards that can save the genealogist many, many hours of work and frustration. If you are lucky, and are researching in Paris, the fichier could have a card on your ancestor.
©2011 Anne Morddel