Thursday, August 13, 2015


This post may be niche to the experience of historians, but I am sure that it has further applicability to those engaged with fieldwork abroad, etc.

*Caveat: This post is not meant as an indictment on the Bibliotheque Nationale de France (BnF), but rather a story of my experience of attempting to engage in research in a foreign archive.

My PhD required extensive library and archival work across the UK, Ireland and France. This involved working with 12th-14th century manuscripts, transcribing the various versions of the text which was at the core of my thesis.

I had extensive experience working in manuscript/special collection departments, including the Bodleian Library, British Library, Worcester Cathedral Library, and Oxbridge college collections among others. Two manuscripts I needed to complete my research are located in the BnF and I left these until the end.

Having heard that the BnF could be picky/inconsistent/reluctant in granting access to manuscripts, I took a proactive approach to ensure that my trip to Paris would be as productive as it could be. I emailed the library department (in French!) requesting access to both manuscripts, detailing why I needed to look at the manuscripts in their physical form, with mention that my supervisor would provide a letter of support if needed. In the end, I was granted access to the physical copy of one manuscript, but the microfilm of the other due to the extent of its damage.

I arrived at the manuscript department of the BnF which was undergoing some renovations, and after being sent round and round in circles, I finally got a readers card after 1.5hrs. At approximately 11.30 I placed the request for the physical manuscript (which I had been granted permission for), only to be told that I should consult the microfilm version of it. 30 mins of polite arguing and showing them the printed permission, they finally conceded the point. So I put the request in, and then was told to come back in 2.5hrs because they were going to lunch!!

I returned after lunch, and collected my manuscript. However, the manuscript is divided into three parts, and a further debacle ensued as I was told that I could only consult one part at a time. So, by 6pm when I had to leave I had only completed my work on part 1 of the manuscript so I made what I thought was a simple request:

Could I reserve the manuscript for tomorrow?

This led to a further 30 minutes of meaningless argument since no one else had reserved the manuscript! (I should point out that keeping the manuscript for the next day is a benign and common request in every other archive I have used). After battling with the archivist, she finally conceded and reserved the manuscript, but not without finishing with the punchline:

We don't run things here like the British Library!!

Ooooh, burn!!

So, you could imagine my trepidation on entering the archive on the second day, but it was a supremely better experience. Completely different staff led to a wildly different experience. I was given all three parts of the manuscript in one go! I went down the the Salle Ovale to check out the microfilm of the other manuscript and the staff could not have been more helpful!

So, what did I learn from my archival experience:
1. Be prepared
2. Have agreements in writing
3. Always be pleasant, even when the experience becomes frustrating
4. Try to communicate in the language of the archive (they'll appreciate the effort)
5. Persevere
6. Plan for contingencies when things go badly (I would factor in an extra day than you think you need!)

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