Books - Documents on the Jewish Community of 18th Century Paris
French Jewish Genealogy - La Revue des Etudes Juives

Pierrefitte - the New Branch of the Archives Nationales



We have been writing in previous posts about the impending further bust-up of the archives collections held in the Marais. For some years now, the trend has been to build gigantic new archives facilities far from the centre of Paris, where they were once all near one another in a genealogy researcher's paradise. To make it just about impossible to gather together all the pieces of a puzzle, in the past twenty years or so:

  • Archives départementales de Paris have been moved to the far, eastern edge of Paris
  • Archives nationales d'outre-mer have been moved to Aix-en-Provence
  • Archives diplomatiques have gone to the Paris suburbs of La Courneuve
  • Modern archives, electronic and digital archives and architectural plans that form part of the Archives nationales are now in Fontainebleau
  • Archives of the nineteenth century have been shipped out to Pierrefitte-sur-Seine

We do understand. As the archives collections grow, there are only two choices: start throwing things out (as was done some years ago with passport applications, to every French genealogist's grief) or move to a bigger building. Still, we do wish they had requisitioned the empty Samaritaine building instead.

A couple of weeks ago, with the usual sort of fanfare that the French government does so well, the site at Pierrefitte was opened to the public, with another performance by the National Archives' favourite slam poet, Ami Karim. We promptly booked the cartons we needed, that had been unavailable or in transit for months, waited for the theatricals to subside and, with a sad sigh, boarded Line 13 of the Métro headed for the end of the line, Saint-Denis Université (as we were directed to do by Mme. Guichard-Spica in a comment here).

Actually, it was not so bad, much better than the frightening voyage to La Courneuve. It was not too long a ride and there is the advantage that Line 13 also goes to the Bibliothèque nationale at Tolbiac. The train was clean enough, the station had been spruced up (no escalators, but new lifts, which always become urinoirs, we are sad to have to note), and it is only a five minute walk to the archives. Within the station, there are no maps or signs, but just outside one follows a trail of monster-sized grow-bags with flapping, paper arrows pointing the way. We presume this is temporary and that sturdier signage is in preparation.

The entrance is wide and lavishly landscaped. The building is a rectangle, festooned with protruding bits of concrete and metal (see photo above) such as to bring shudders to one who spent her childhood on the San Andreas Fault. There is the air of Third World development to the exterior, for for this grand new structure is surrounded by what in Brazil is called a favela

Parisian favela


On entering, we were accosted by a number of cheery welcomers, ready to answer any question. We learned that we had to surrender our old user's card for a new one -- at no charge -- that would be accepted at all three Archives nationales facilities: Paris, Pierrefitte and Fontainbleau. The welcomers began to usher us into the Salle de Lecture, the Reading Room, but we balked at such effusion and opted to take the tour.

All, of course, is state of the art. We saw many meters of new, mobile shelving:

Mobile shelving

We saw some of the conservation workrooms:

Archives Conservation

We saw more archival cartons arriving:

Relocating archives

We saw many, many long, white corridors, very cold, which we did not photograph for you. We saw so many because our guide got lost and took us up and down most of them, then waited helplessly for rescue. As we shivered and waited, we studied the white paint and fell to wondering about the pitiable lives of 1950s psychiatric patients. 

The tour ended with the Salle de Lecture, which can seat 160 readers, and where we delightedly shook hands with staff we recognized from the Paris branch:

Reading Room


Of course, the real question, which, if answered negatively, could make all the grand expense a waste, is : DOES IT WORK FOR THE USER?  Can an ordinary person wanting to do a bit of genealogy research find the code for and see documents easily?

In the Reading Room, there are three desks: Desk no. 1 is a long, low one, with many people at it, ready to jump and get for you the carton you have reserved. Next to this is a smaller, slightly higher desk, Desk no. 2, with one lady and a computer, ready to hand you a file that may have had to be extracted from a carton for you. Desk no. 3 is quite high (signifying authority in the world of bureaux) with one person, a computer, and many forms to sign.

Thus, though we had reserved our file the week before and had received both an e-mail and telephone confirmation (which we found extravagantly kind), when we went to Desk no. 1, it was not there. "Ah!" our friends said. "It is an extrait. You must go to that desk," and they pointed to Desk no. 2. At that desk, the lady and her computer could not find the file we had booked. We had a print of the confirmation of the booking, which was of no help. The person who had sent the confirmation was telephoned but had gone to lunch.  Much discussion, more searches and voilà! It was found.

But we could not have it. It was passed to Desk no. 3 (this could be done without anyone standing up, mind you) where it was examined and we, stepping to our right to be at that desk, signed a paper of responsibility for it. Then, it was passed back to Desk no. 2 to have its number scanned, along with our card, and we finally could go sit down with the accursed file! It took thirty minutes, but everyone was very friendly. Are these the usual problems of early days or is this a new, very high tech space marred by antiquated bureaucratic thinking? We are keen to hear of your experiences, Our Dear Readers.

There is only one truly stupid aspect to report: the lockers. There are four bays of sixty each. There are no combination locks and no keys. For each bay there is just one electronic control box across which one must swipe one's user's card and tap a series of screens, after which the locker springs open. The fool who thought up this system has never used the archives and then gone to the lockers at the end of the day at the same time as all of the other users. In four long queues, there will be 240 very annoyed people. Simple combination locks would have been so much more efficient.

All in all, we find the facility at Pierrefitte to be pretty good and we do recommend that you go. If your genealogy research has to do with nineteenth century France, you do not have much choice. 

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy