Feature Archive: Centre de Documentation Historique sur l’Algérie (CDHA)

Each month, a 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.

Claire Eldridge is an Associate Professor in Modern European History at the University of Leeds. Here she talks about the Centre de Documentation Historique sur l’Algérie in Aix-en-Provence.

Many French historians, especially those working on histories of empire, are likely already to be familiar with Aix-en-Provence as a research site due to the presence of the Archives Nationales d’Outre Mer and the Archives municipales. Much less well known is the town’s other archive, the Centre de Documentation Historique sur l’Algérie (CDHA)

Maison Maréchal Juin

Its reputation as a “pied-noir” archive perhaps helps explain the general absence of academics in its (admittedly very small) reading room. Founded in 1974 under the impetus of several key figures within the rapatrié community and with the explicit mission to conserve documentation relating to the history of Algeria up to 1962, there is certainly a strong focus on the history of the settler community. This is evident from the moment you enter the grounds of the CDHA, which contains a memorial plaque dedicated to the ‘French of all confessions’ who ‘disappeared’ during the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962), complete with similar iconography to the more (in)famous ‘mur des disparus’ in Perpignan. The references to French Algeria continue inside with a giant statue of Maréchal Alphonse Juin (born in Bône [today Annaba] in 1888) in the entrance lobby and rooms named after an interesting array of figures prominent within the history North Africa, including Raoul Salan, one of four generals who led the attempted putsch against de Gaulle’s government in April 1961. You are also highly likely to encounter an actual pied-noir if you go there, not least because the Maison Maréchal Juin building which houses the CDHA simultaneously serves as a community centre for local former-settlers and their various associations.

Maréchal Juin

However, as its detailed and very user-friendly online catalogue reveals, this is a professionally run archive with a much broader wealth of historical material in its collections than you might suspect.

Of the more than 100,000 items in their possession, the CDHA boasts a large number of family archives whose contents cover major episodes within the history not just of North Arica, but metropolitan France. My own research into the First World War, for example, has revealed a wide-array of material encompassing photographs, letters, postcards, diaries, un- or self-published memoirs and novels, litérature grise, official paperwork including citations, objects like the shell casing from a German submarine, to oral histories, including that of the submariner Alexandre Cerda who revealed that most of the metropolitan Frenchmen on his vessel were unable to swim! Almost none of this material is available elsewhere, offering historians a different perspective on otherwise well-covered events and subjects.

In terms of practicalities, the CDHA is a very simple archive to use. The quality and accessibility of the online catalogue makes it easy to create lists of items you would like to consult. You then contact the CDHA, either by phone or email, at least 24 hours in advance of your visit to give the documentalistes these codes so they prepare the materials. The staff are extremely knowledgeable, as well as very willing to answer queries and to help, both on site and in advance. Their response to email is very prompt, which is not always the case with French archives. There is no official limit on the number of items you can consult in a day, but it is worth being considerate of the fact that the core team is very small – max three people at any one time. In general, the use of photography is permitted, unless there are specific stipulations attached by donors to the archives in question. Material labelled ‘digitised’ tends to exist only on the CDHA’s (single and rather elderly) computer terminal and usually cannot be downloaded or printed out.

The CDHA is located in the Maison Maréchal Juin at 29 Avenue de Tübingen, a 15 minute walk from the town centre or accessible via the ‘arrêt Tübingen’ on bus lines 2, 5, 9, and 19. It is open Monday-Friday from 9:30am to 12:30pm and then again from 2:30pm to 5:30pm.

The options for the two-hour lunch break are limited. There is a small sandwich shop at the bottom of the Avenue Tübingen, but this is primarily a take-away establishment and while it does have a couple of tables, it is not necessarily somewhere you would want to spend two hours. If you take your own food, there is not really anywhere nearby to sit and eat that is not a bench facing a main road. The length of the lunchtime closure does, however, give you the opportunity to walk back into Aix, where the options are more numerous. Or, you could walk across to the ANOM and eat there before tackling their archives in the afternoon. Indeed, given the recent changes at the ANOM, which is now closed until 1pm every Monday and the first Thursday of the month, I found splitting my days between the CDHA in the morning and the ANOM in the afternoon to be productive. It is approximately a twenty-minute walk between the two sites.

Conservatoire

Finally, construction is now well underway on a ‘Conservatoire National de la Mémoire des Français d’Afrique du Nord’ directly next door to CDHA and into which the centre will eventually move. This new building promises to greatly enhance the facilities available to researchers and is set to be completed at the end of 2018.

Many thanks for this, Claire!

Claire Eldridge is an Associate Professor in Modern European History at the University of Leeds. Her work focuses on the histories and memories of the different ethno-religious communities that comprised French Algeria.

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