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Culture

Hollande opens new purpose-built centre for French national archives

media The new National Archives building in Pierrefitte-sur-Seine Ville de Pierrefitte (S. Le Nechet)

French President François Hollande officially inaugurated a new site to house some of the official French archives in Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, near Paris on Monday. There are now three sites housing documents from government ministries and administrations, as required by French law. The new building in Pierrefitte-sur-Seine is modern and it meets the requirements for the latest archiving techniques, though even in the digital age, what matters most is the physical documents

The new building is across the street from the St Denis campus of the University of Paris, in a rough neighbourhood north of the capital. A ten-story-high concrete box, it is sheathed in aluminium with diamond-shaped cut-outs, a nod to design, as the building's goal is more preservation that decoration.

Archivist Hélène Guichard-Spica gives a tour of the storage areas, which are off-limits to the general public.

"We've got 154 units of storage, and in each storage unit you can put around one or two kilometres of archives," she explains, referring to the common way to measure archives. The Pierrefitte site will eventually house 200 kilometres of archives, half of which are already moved in, which has taken over six months to do.

On the ground floor is a loading dock and lifts go up to the storage rooms which open onto clinically white hallways. Every door is accessible with a card reader.

Click to enlarge
Ville de Pierrefitte (S. Le Nechet)

Guichard-Spica opens one which, like all the doors in the building, swings open automatically. Inside, rows of grey document boxes are lined up on metal shelves in a climate-controlled bunker-like space. Their bar codes and hand-printed labels do not immediately reveal that these are archives relating to the presidency of Charles de Gaulle and Georges Pompidou.

A law dating back to the Revolution requires all ministries and public administrations to maintain archives.

"It's not only for history. It's also for administration purposes," explains Guichard-Spica. "We keep records of naturalisations, for example. Some people also come here to prove property rights."

The Pierrefitte building will eventually contain public records from after the French Revolution. The site in central Paris contains documents from before.

Guichard-Spica used to work in the Paris building, an 18th century palace in the middle of the historic Marais district. While the new building is much better for the archives, it does not have the same feeling.

"The Paris site had a very magical atmosphere, with different boxes and different periods of French history," she says.

Lawrence Martin, who runs the National Archives' restoration studio, agrees:

"It was a beautiful studio, with arcades and beautiful windows. But it was a nightmare for conservation," he says. "The really good thing is that the new building has been built taking into account what we wanted, whereas in Paris we had to manage to cope with the old building."

Half of the restoration studio on the new building's fourth floor is full of machines that look like they belong in a hospital or a space ship. The other half has wooden benches, with hand-cranked presses.

"We are spread between old-fashioned craft work, and science. We have to deal with acidity and moulds, which can only be mended with chemistry."

Downstairs in the reading room, researchers sit at long black tables going through the boxes they requested to look at.

Jean-Christophe Barbier comes to Paris regularly from Nice to consult archives for a project on law professors of the 19th and 20th centuries.

"The space is different, but it's the same," he says. "The ambiance is the same. People are getting used to it."

With some updates, the concept stays the same: physical documents stored for people to access. Given the modern setting, why not scan everything? Helene Guichard-Spica, who specialises in digital archives, says a big reason is because it's not clear if the technology to read the scanned files will be around in the future.

"Also it's heritage, so you cannot destroy the original only because it's easier," she says, noting that it is not, in fact, easier to scan documents.

"You've got many different formats, and you must find a way to migrate the scans as technology changes. So it's not so easy, and it's not so inexpensive."

Of course, there is the question of digital-only files: much government work today is done via email and SMS. But archiving those is a whole other story.

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