Feature Archive: The Archives Nationales’ Digital Archive

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.

Aubrae Wilson is a fourth-year PhD student in French at the University of Cambridge. Here she talks about using the Archives Nationales’ Digital Archive.

Researching an obscure eighteenth-century dancer at the Paris opera requires a good deal of creativity and consulting alternative sources of information outside the Archives Opéra. Fortunately, the notary archives in the Minutier Central at the Archives Nationales abundantly provide such material: property acquisitions and sales, financial investments, personal loans and monetary arrangements, charitable donations, and familial inheritances. During the second year of my PhD, the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe and abrupt closures of research institutions followed. Gone were the days of my research trips to Paris, early morning walks across the Seine from the Rive Gauche to the Archives Nationales, and afternoon planning sessions at the arènes de Lutèce (with jambon beurre in hand.)As with everyone else, the future of my investigation became frustratingly uncertain. After discussions with my supervisor about the potential next steps of my research, I decided to explore the AN digital archive and see what work, if any, could be completed online.

It is possible to search both the databases and extensive collections of the AN in the online catalogue. ‘Finding aids’ include names, keywords, dates, locations, document types, and creators. Results can be further narrowed by consultation sites and archive categories.  For those interested in the Minutier Central, many of the notaries’ repertoires have been digitised and uploaded to the catalogue. This significantly simplifies finding specific documents within the minutes because having the dates of instance and record type (such as a rente viagère), allows for swift retrieval of the corresponding reference from the relevant étude. Once logged in with the same account you would use for onsite consultation, you can add individual reference codes to your cart and create a list from which to contact the reproduction department at the AN.

Rather than completely close for the duration of the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, the AN continued to staff the Paris site in small teams for the purposes of reproduction. Whilst travel to Paris was impossible, and the AN itself was closed to the public, the continued availability of copies was an absolute boon to my work. Researchers can request digital scans to be sent to their emails or burned to a CD or DVD and sent by post. Alternatively, hardcopies and microfilms can be mailed to a physical address. The AN also includes a choice for the intended use of the document (either personal or professional), along with the desired quality of reproduction.

Because there is no limit on the number of copies that you can request online, I was able to purchase a reproduction of every document in my cart. I found turnaround time to be rather quick; the longest I waited for a request was one week, though this varies depending on the kind of document, number of pages requested, and the length of the processing queue. The staff was very helpful and promptly responded to queries when needed, though admittedly it did take longer than being onsite. Each digital folder received from the AN includes the shelf mark in its title, so keeping track of references is rather straightforward.  

Downsides to the digital archive include reproduction fees, something which can be very costly depending on the document and number of pages in question. Whilst the process is quite smooth regarding notary records, challenges arise in different collections. For example, locating specific documents in the fonds conseil du roi is tricky, as there is not an itemized list of them in the finding aid. There are also times when you may pay for a document that is entirely unhelpful. However, when comparing the cost of reproductions to field work, I actually found the scans to be more economical since typical expenses for lodging, food, and transportation are excluded. Having access to nearly every record without limitation, in pristine quality, is an advantage that merits serious consideration.

Aubrae Wilson is a fourth-year PhD student in French at the University of Cambridge. She recently submitted her thesis regarding the lived realities of eighteenth-century filles de l’Opéra through the case of the dancer Elisabeth-Claire Le Duc (1721-1793). Her work utilises financial, cultural, and social histories to better understand the singular position these women obtained in eighteenth-century Parisian society. She currently resides in Texas.

Thank you very much for this, Aubrae!

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