I have returned triumphant from looking at actual physical manuscripts at the Archives Nationales, so here’s the second and final part of the guide to the Paris archives.
Unlike the Bibliothèque Nationale, which is fundamentally a research library for scholars, the Archives Nationales cater to a more general audience. This is good, because basically everything about setting up there is substantially easier. The first thing to do is to register an account on the website, for which you’ll need an e-mail address. Then, go to the CARAN building on the Archive’ actual site. (Note that the Archives have multiple sites both inside and outside Paris; this guide deals only with the Paris site.) There, you can register for your reader’s ticket. Happily the only document you’ll need is a passport.
As with the BnF, it’s pencils and computers only in the rooms. Everything else has to be left in the lockers. Unlike the BnF, no money is required – these are code-operated.
Then, go upstairs. Again unlike the BnF, there are different procedures for manuscripts and microfilms. For microfilms, go to the microfilm reading room on the third floor. If it’s your first time, introduce yourself at the front desk and the librarian will show you round and explain the procedure. It’s a fairly simple set up: sit at any microfilm reader you like. The microfilms themselves are in draws in the room, and you just go and help yourself to the one you want – bear in mind you can only have one at a time. This is beautifully simple and convenient, but there is a catch: all the microfilms I saw, including those I saw others use, were in inverted black-and-white (black page, white text), which gave me a headache after a while.
For manuscripts, as I said, things are different, although still fairly easy. You need to order the manuscript you want online first; unfortunately, this means that you do need to know the classmark. Also, the system is slightly oddly set up, so that to search for (for instance) the manuscript with the classmark LL 50, you have to enter it into the system with two slashes, like so: LL//50. Once you’ve ordered the manuscript, at 3pm the same day or on the following day, go to the second floor reading room. There’s an issues desk on the right, go to it, show your card, and they’ll give you a place and hand over your manuscript. Sit at the assigned place. Once you’ve done with the manuscript, hand it back at the desk and they’ll give you a new one. At the Archives Nationales, both with the MSS and the microfilms, it appears that one can take photos with impunity.
And that’s it! It’s quite simple.
There are catches, of course. The two big ones are these. First, the Archives Nationales online catalogue is nowhere near as good as the BnF. Whereas with the BnF you can look at the catalogue and have a reasonable idea of what you need to look at, at the Arch. Nat., you might get handed a box full of papers and have to spend a considerable amount of time trying to find what exactly in them is relevant.
The second, and bigger, issue is that there is no wi-fi at the Arch. Nat. At all. So bear that in mind…
I hope these guides will prove helpful, especially to junior scholars (such as myself!) going to the archives for the first time. If you think I’ve missed anything, or something should be added, let me know! My archive needs have been relatively simple, so there may be things I’ve left out or wouldn’t think to include – do leave a comment or send a message.