Feature Archive

Feature Archive: Archives départementales des Pyrénées-Atlantiques

Each month, a postgraduate student or an early career researcher shares their experiences of using a particular archive. The overall aim of this section is to create a database of the different archives available to those working on French and Francophone studies that will be of help particularly to students just starting out in research

Talitha Ilacqua is a PhD student in History at King’s College London. Her research focuses on local and national identities in the French Basque country between 1780 and 1860. Here she writes about using the Archives départmentales of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques in Bayonne.

The Archives départementales of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques are formed of two separate sites, which correspond to the two cultural halves of the département. There is one site in Pau, chef-lieu of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, which stores the archival documents of the once Gascon-speaking half of the département, the Béarn. The second site is in Bayonne, and this is the home of the Basque archives. Although I visited both sites, this piece focuses on the latter, the Archives départementales des Pyrénées-Atlantiques/Pôle de Bayonne et du Pays Basque.

The archives offer a wide range of documents from the ancien régime to today, and are subdivided into pre-1790 period, French Revolution, 1800–1940, and post-1940. In the pre-1790 section documents are divided by theme from series A to series H, series F excluded. The French Revolution part includes only the series L. The revolutionary series is unfortunately much more limited that it originally used to be, as it was largely destroyed in a fire in 1908. The big 1800–1940 section is formed of series M to X, while the post-1940 part includes the series W. The archives also offer an important collection of formerly private archives (series J), as well as a wide range of maps and photographs (series Fi) and of audio-visual material (series AV). The latter two, however, are kept in Pau. All archival documents can be photographed. Moreover, the archives have a library, which stores newspapers, bulletins and historical books. The library collection is subdivided into local interest, general historical interest, administrative bulletins and the press. Finally, the archives offer an online collection of scanned documents. This can be useful, although the selection is quite arbitrary, and the reading pace is slow, as one can access only one page at the time.

The archives have an immeasurable wealth of documents from the past history of Bayonne and the Basque country, which is unfortunately not fully appreciated in the online catalogue. In the past couple of decades, in particular, all communal and cantonal documents were transferred from local archives to the Archives départementales, and these are still listed only in printed catalogues in the archive. A visit in person is therefore recommended to discover the full extent and potential of the Basque archives. When I visited the archives for my masters and doctoral research, looking for early nineteenth-century documents on Basque identity, I was positively surprised by the wealth of material I was able to consult, and I accessed a much wider range of collections than my original online search had suggested.

The archives are fairly new and modern, looking vaguely similar to the Pierrefitte site of the National Archives in Paris, although in smaller scale. Most people who consult the archives, however, are still Basques, who mostly look for family relations and family members who migrated across the Atlantic in the late nineteenth- and twentieth centuries. Listening to their enthusiasm when they find a lost family member is fascinating, but it also means that the archivists may not be used to foreign visitors, and I would advise all researchers to let them know if you are in special need of help or in a hurry. The archives are located on the beautiful hills above the town of Bayonne. As the building closes at lunchtime, researchers are encouraged to walk back to the Bayonne town centre, which the locals call Petit Bayonne, both for food and to enjoy the picturesque atmosphere of the capital of the Basque country.

Many thanks for this very helpful post, Talitha!

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