The Departmental Archives of Morbihan
03 December 2019
We have been attempting to visit the Departmental Archives of Morbihan for some years. Let us explain why it has been so difficult, aside from the usual obstacles to travel that the wing-clipping poltergeists of life sprinkle in our path. France is approximately the size of Texas, with a lot more coastline. We like to travel by train. All major train lines historically were separate companies that linked the cities and regions of France to Paris. Apparently, the cities and regions of France never wanted to be linked with one another. Imagine Paris as the hub of a wheel and the train lines to Marseilles or Lyon or Brest or Nancy as the spokes. What one really wants is not a structure comparable to a wheel but one comparable to a classic spider's web, with dozens of lines connecting the spokes. This, but for a couple of rare exceptions, France does not have. Our journey from La Rochelle to Vannes was a tad contorted and took far more time than it would have done had the spider's web model been followed, but we did arrive and, at long last walked through the grand doors of the Salle de Lecture of the Departmental Archives of Morbihan.
The archives are in a very modern, clean, spacious, well-lit, poorly heated building far from the centre of town. Unlike at the Departmental Archives of Charente-Maritime, there is no wifi for the users. The number of requests one may make is limited to three at a time and twenty per day. Not to worry, the service for retrieving the requested cartons is so slow that it would be impossible to have twenty requests be dealt with in a day. We encountered a system for these requests that we had never seen before. Requests are made through an internal network and the screen is clear and easy to use. Somewhere behind the scenes, small tickets are printed for each request and each put in a fashionable faux leather sleeve. These sleeves are then elegantly arranged on a display stand (see the top photo). Each user then strolls by the display stand like a shopper to see if there be a sleeve containing a ticket with his or her name upon it. Once discovered, the ticket is removed from the sleeve, signed, put back in the sleeve and presented to one of the retrieval staff who scan the bar code on the ticket and fetch the item. A rather laborious system, we thought, but it worked well enough in that we never received an incorrect carton.
The archivists were most professional and helpful, and had an impressive knowledge of their holdings. We had prepared a long list of codes to request, hoping to find a single file about an obscure case. On the suggestion of the archivist, we requested a different item first. Lo and behold, there, on the top of the first file that we opened, was the very case we sought. We were humbled by the archivist's expertise and had a very successful morning. Then the archivists all went away, to lunch or a meeting, perhaps. The room was abandoned to the retrieval staff, who pretty much abandoned us, the users. Personal telephones were used for obviously personal conversations, while users waited; long, gossipy conversations were had amongst staff near the request desk, their backs firmly presented to the room. Users were ignored with energetic disdain. The service slowed considerably. The remaining users were getting very annoyed. Sighs were heaved, eyes were rolled, feet were tapped.
For weeks now, a major strike of transport workers and their sympathizers has been planned for the 5th of December. (There are two "strike seasons" in France. Strikes usually take place just before the December festival days or during the August holidays, giving the strikers the opportunity to extend their own holidays while disrupting those of the non-striking public). We wondered if this were the norm or if it were perhaps a work-to-rule afternoon in preparation for the big day? There was a musical hint that the latter could be the case. One does not expect to hear whistling in the Reading Room, ever. Yet, at the Departmental Archives of Charente-Maritime, workers were softly whistling Colonel Bogey March which may, thanks to a film, have connotations of workers and sabotage. Here, the staff were in the back room, loudly whistling the key melody from the 1812 Overture, not a piece of which the French are particularly fond, escalating our associations from sabotage by the oppressed to the burning of Moscow and the destruction of the French Army. Before this, we had been wondering if archives staff around France would be joining the strike. We now suspect that some will do so.
©2019 Anne Morddel