This has to be one of the saddest and most neglected of all the archives facilities we ever have visited. It is clear that municipal archives have not yet landed on France’s golden list of improvement projects. A dozen cities or more now have fabulous tram systems. Nearly all of the Departmental Archives have received new buildings, many of them close to one of those luxurious tram stops. Public spending is something in which France glories and we really do wish that they would spend on municipal archives.
The sad municipal archives of Epinal are housed, literally, in a garage. It is the city’s garage for its service vehicles, so there was a great, stinking rubbish truck next to the entry when we arrived. At the sight of it, we suddenly understood why our efforts by e-mail to make an appointment to visit the archives had been brusquely rebuffed.
The archives website said it was open but could be visited by appointment only. We wrote and asked for an appointment. No, we were told. We wrote again asking to see those documents pertaining to religious history in the town. No, we were told, and it was suggested that we try the Departmental Archives of Vosges. We tried one more time, asking for a series that is almost always in municipal archives and not others, the passports issued by towns during the Terror in 1793 and 1794. No, again.
We went for a walk. We looked at the town. As we walked, that unwarranted rejection niggled, so we strolled up to the garage, braved the smell and opened the door marked archives. Grim stairs were to be climbed. We arrived in a tiny, electric purple entry that was also the reading room. One desk, one chair and shocking purple walls constituted the most remarkable reading room we have yet tried.
Stunned at our arrival, the assistant rushed to our aid, while her superior bellowed orders from her office but did not come round the corner to see us. In this tiny space, it seemed ludicrous. Yet, when she overheard that we were asking about a specific series, she came bounding out with unexpected enthusiasm and was most helpful. We were able to book to see the cartons that afternoon.
When we returned after the lunch break, there were smiles all around. The cartons were ready, the extremely helpful assistant had gone online and printed off numerous pages related to and most helpful for our research. Her boss had retreated around the corner and was again shouting comments without coming out.
The research was not entirely without result. We took some photos and asked permission to put them here to show to you, Dear Readers, as nice nineteenth century examples of passports issued by French consulates. For the first time ever, permission was refused.
“Ask at the town hall,” came the bitter shout. The assistant smiled apologetically. We thanked her and left, carrying with us the impression not that this was wilful obstruction, but that we had that day witnessed an extreme case of professional despair, one most warranted, at that.
Dear Readers, should you ever find yourselves in Epinal, do two things:
1) Visit and use the Municipal Archives, and
2) Visit the town hall (a five minutes’ walk away) and leave a written complaint at the bad treatment and housing of the archives, while praising the archivists.
Perhaps we can help to bring about an improvement.
©2018 Anne Morddel