I am continuing to write the sequel to my book on Jeanne – this one to include the stories of the remarkable people I met and extraordinary experiences I had during my search for Jeanne’s story. It is taking a lot longer to write for several reasons, not the least of which are delays caused by managing all the details involved in my decision to move to France. The book has also undergone major rework after a workshop I took online. Part of that rework involves the elimination of chapters I wrote that now just don’t fit into the book. One of those cuts is about my experience in the different archives where I have done research. Since the chapter provides information that could be useful for anyone conducting a search for family stories, I thought I would provide a summary here.
My first encounter with French archives took place during my initial visit to Coutances in 2011. I wasn’t quite sure what archives in France were supposed to look like, especially in a medieval French city like Coutances. So when I was directed, or so I thought, to the third floor of the building just next to the Visitors’ Center, I was not too taken aback by the old wooden staircase which I climbed, with some trepidation and tentativeness. At the top were two old doors. I opened the most promising one and gazed into a dark hole with pigeon droppings and feathers everywhere. There was no light or any living person in sight.
I quickly retraced my steps and then found the elevator stuck on the other side of the 19th century building and made my way to the third floor. Finally the archives looked more like what I imagined archives should look like: dark wood bookshelves stacked with old manuscripts which promised to reveal all sorts of secrets. Unfortunately, I was not able to have a good conversation with the archivist, who could not make out much of my stammering attempts at questions. I did learn that she had not found any more information about Jeanne, other than the register entry of her baptism.
At her suggestion, I visited the main departmental archives in Saint-Lô two years later. The archives there were a direct contrast to those in Coutances, with their sterile white walls, standard bookshelves, and plain tables and chairs, reflecting choices made during the rebuilding of that town after the Second World War. An ID was required for entry. Pens were not allowed. Instead, pencils were provided for use, and smartphones were encouraged for making copies. At the same time, I actually could have gone through original land records without gloves or other precautions.
Since those experiences, as I continued my search for additional information about Jeanne, her husbands, and her parents, I have learned that archives come in many different shapes and sizes and they have many different rules. So each visit has been a different experience, an adventure.
To access the archives in Rouen, Caen, and Montreal you need a passport, although another form of identity is acceptable. Sign-in sheets work at other places like Quebec City, Château Richer and La Pocatière in Quebec, Le Havre and Dieppe in France, as well as at the libraries in Montreal, Manchester, New Hampshire, and Woonsocket, Rhode Island. In Boston, at the New England Historical Genealogical Society, a membership card helps although day passes are available. At Harvard, special permission is required to access its incredible treasure of books and that permission is only good for 3 months, although I must admit I didn’t attempt a renewal.
Some archives require gloves for handling old documents. Some do not. In one, I had to use bean bag weights for holding pages of old books open. Sometimes the staff personnel wear white coats, and sometimes, everyday dress is the rule. Most allow i-phones or cameras, in preference to printers, and sometimes I have had to note down the pages of the documents that I have copied.
Architectural impressiveness varies from the grand, bright and airy entrance to the archives in Montreal, with its entry way lined with giant statues, or the splendor of Harvard’s Widener Library, to the old fort that houses the Le Havre archives. Archives can be found in old school buildings or museums, or in much simpler spaces. Many are co-located with headquarters of genealogical or historical societies, allowing very useful access to volunteers who can help with searches.
Noise levels also vary, from library-type silence, to everyday chatter, which can be disturbing if you are trying to read old documents!
Web access to archives and to the Internet has also helped me track down documents and information, through contacts and email exchanges, for example, with volunteers at genealogical societies. Online-access to databases of archives in France is not uniform, however. The archives for the Manche and Seine-Maritime departments in Normandy can be accessed on line, but those for Calvados cannot.
Whether online or not, the records are not easy to read, being handwritten in the French of the time, with inconsistent spelling, on paper, often double-sided and covered with ink splotches. There are also databases of transcriptions, created by volunteers from local genealogical societies, but the information can be disconcerting. When I can’t locate the registry of an event in one of these databases, I don’t know what to think. It is possible that the record doesn’t exist since not all events were documented, given the possible absence of a priest. It is also possible that the record has been destroyed or that the volunteers haven’t started the work on that period or that particular village. It is even possible that the event never took place!
In all of the archives and libraries, except in Montreal and Quebec City and the Unites States, of course, knowledge of French is essential not only for reading the registers, but especially for communicating with the staff and volunteers. They are, however, generally helpful, welcoming and tolerant of Anglophone researchers with faltering French.
Sometimes, however, when my requests for information with staff were met with blank stares, I have not been sure whether they didn’t understand me or were being what could be termed “bureaucratic” or just didn’t know how to answer me. I’ve run into challenges, but gentle persistence has usually worked.
What pulls them all of these stories together – at least for me — is the experience that actual presence in a library or archive allows: finding books that I didn’t know existed, by just wandering through the shelves, or delighting in being able to handle actual documents from the 16th and 17th centuries – usually with gloves. What’s also been special are the contacts made with people interested in the same things that intrigue me. Those experiences and the friendly hellos from staff after a year away far outweigh the frustrations of not being able to communicate easily or running up against rules and regulations that can hamper research.