Yesterday, Casey Schmitt began our “Archives around the Atlantic” roundtable with an extremely helpful guide to the Archivo General de Indias in Sevilla. If you have not yet read her piece, you will want to do so here. My hope is that my post can be useful to two (potentially overlapping) audiences: one that is interested in general tips for doing research in French archives online, and one that will be lucky enough to be physically present in French archives in the near future.
Here are a few tips for delving into the French Atlantic from the comfort of your own internet:
- Make Gallica your best friend, and bookmark it immediately. Gallica houses the digitized collections of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. The collections are searchable by type of archival material, theme, geographic area, title, author, or date of production. Gallica can be overwhelming, but is quite user-friendly. It’s a great place to start a research project, or send a motivated undergraduate student looking for primary sources on the early modern French Atlantic.
- Visit IREL, the heart and soul of the Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer online. The Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer in Aix-en-Provence, France, are an illimitable resource for any French Atlanticist. The digital counterpart for the physical archive leaves many things to be desired. While technically key-word searchable, I haven’t had a great degree of success finding documents this way (even when I knew the exact author or subject of the document and the year in which it was produced). Treat this website as a digital, albeit incomplete, version of the inventories located in the binders outside of the reading room at ANOM, and use it to familiarize yourself with the arbitrary series titles of the collections. However, stay tuned and check back often! ANOM is slowly but surely digitizing their collections and posting them on IREL! Interested in correspondence coming from Martinique (ANOM collections C8A and C8B), or personnel files (ANOM E series), or diverse documents from religious missions (ANOM F5A)? You’re in luck! They’re already online, with the promise of more to come as time goes on! As a French scholar recently reminded me, “Patience is the mother of all virtues…”
Wait…do you actually get to GO to Aix-en-Provence and research at ANOM? That calls for a whole different set of tips!
- Consult series inventories before AND during your trip. I assume that most of you already know to do this, but I was completely unaware of how many useful printed source inventories exist for ANOM. The best part? Most them are just a hop, skip, or a jump from your interlibrary loan inbox! The Guide des sources de la traite négrière, de l’esclavage et de leurs abolitions and the Guide des sources de l’histoire de l’Amérique Latine et des Antilles dans les archives françaises are two archival guides published by the French National Archives that proved invaluable to me and were available in my university’s library. They, along with the research-bibles-disguised-as-binders found outside of the reading room at ANOM will make you more confident and prevent you from wasting part of your daily documents quota on a carton of documents that isn’t that useful to you. Remember: there is no WiFi in the French National Archives’ reading rooms, so it is vital to do this legwork before your research trip if possible!
- Trust the archivists! This may seem like a no-brainer, but the archivists at ANOM are some of the kindest and most helpful I’ve ever met. As one of them told me on my first research trip, I shouldn’t worry about coming up to the desk to ask questions about the collections because many of them “are organized in a way that isn’t at all clear or logical.” If your spoken French or oral comprehension skills aren’t as strong as you’d like, they may even try to find a native English speaker to translate what the archivist is telling you. They’re excellent!
- Once you’ve accomplished the first two items, try exploring a “creatively” organized (and therefore underutilized) collection. The “eclectic” Moreau de Saint-Méry Collection (ANOM F3), compiled by a creole man from Martinique at the end of the Ancien Régime and during the Caribbean revolutions, contains a series of laws, edicts, memoranda, and other gems deemed worthy of saving because they displayed the inner workings of the early modern French empire. The “Dépôt des fortifications pour les colonies” or “DFC” is difficult to navigate, but once you master two sets of call numbers and how to order them properly on the archive’s computer, you will have diverse maps, rich memoranda, and fortifications plans dating back to the 1630s at your fingertips. Trust me, and the exceptional scholars who recommended these collections to me, when I tell you that the payoffs vastly outweigh the frustrations of wading through collections like these.
- Eat ALL the pâtisserie. Enough said.
Clearly, this list is nowhere near exhaustive. It’s just meant to give preliminary French archival explorations a head start. What other tips and tricks have been useful to you while researching French Atlantic sources from afar or while in residence at the archives? Please share in the comments section below and keep the conversation going!