How many pounds does that come to?

I don’t know what I was thinking, really. I had $5000 burning in my pocket, waiting to be spent on French war archive documents. For some reason I was assuming that French archives wanted to take my money. Yeah, right.

If you’ve ever ordered archival copies before (my experience is limited to English, French, Dutch and American institutions), you know that it usually takes at least a few weeks for a response, and probably one to three months for the whole process, depending on the size of your order, holidays, etc. The catch for me this year was that in order to receive reimbursement, the funds had to be spent before the end of June – fiscal year budget and all that. If you order too late, you end up footing the bill yourself – a dangerous game to be sure. The French archive’s website was down (hacked) for a month or more and I was busy with conferences and due dates, so I didn’t make the online order until mid-April. Needless to say, I’m not ordering the dozen-plus microfilm reels that I’d hoped.

Two lessons for me, and anyone else who needs a reminder:

  1. If you have a time-sensitive grant, start the process really, really, really early. Even if you’re really, really busy with other things.
  2. Realize that some “modern” archives aren’t quite that modern. This could mean: a) they may not have modern facilities that allow them to process large orders, even if they’ve done so in the past; or b) they may not have the staff to fulfill such orders in a short period of time, and if it can’t be done quickly it isn’t worth doing at all. (Side question: Don’t they have those machines that will automatically scan microfilm as image files?) Other possibilities are more ‘meta’, but not beyond belief: c) they may not want to diminish their patrimoine by allowing lots of documents (even copies) out of their possession; d) they may not have a capitalist desire to make money, especially if it requires more work for the staff; e) such requests might require personal contacts; f) they may not have the consumerist mindset of customer service being job one; or g) they may have other reasons for discouraging long-distance ordering.

Which reason best explains why I can’t order the microfilm? That’s another lesson: don’t assume you can find out. The letter I received (a snail mail communication written two weeks after my request and which took another week+ to deliver, responding to my online order that included my email address) simply informed me that because of the “large number” of documents requested, the archives “could not respond favorably to my request.” No hint of how many would be acceptable, whether another format would be acceptable, or really any attempt to continue the discussion at all. With the clock ticking, I decided that at this rate, negotiating through the bureaucracy wasn’t worth it – c’est pas la peine.

Fortunately all is not lost. Turns out the British Library is more than happy to take this American’s cash on short notice. They don’t have a problem processing large orders. Hell, they’ll even let you know via email within a week or two how much it will cost, and ask you to verify the amount before they continue. My past orders have confirmed that an order of this size is also large for the BL, but they seem able to manage it as a part of their normal workflow. Then they deliver the documents within a month or so.

Serendipitously, the organizational change this kink in my plans requires may actually work out better for my book in the long run. First, it will allow me to order English archival documents on the Iberian theater during the Spanish Succession – unpublished accounts of lost British battles such as Almansa and Brihuega will strengthen my contrast to Marlborough’s battlefield successes in the other theaters. Further, instead of focusing solely on the French case in the last chapter as I had planned, I’ll instead discuss the French and Dutch as two, complimentary, examples of those ‘battle-avoiding’ Continentals. That also solves one of my remaining uncertainties about how to incorporate the Dutch into my book. Lemons and lemonade.

So for the umpteenth time, I learn the valuable historian’s lesson that archival holdings and access will dictate the shape of a work. But I’d like to think there’s a lesson here for the French to learn as well, one framed by their recent debate over whether more French universities should teach in English in order to buttress global interest in France and its culture (BBC story here). The Bibliothèque nationale’s Gallica was spurred by this same concern over declining French linguistic and cultural relevance, although it has still been overshadowed by the more recent American capitalist approach taken by Google Books. Perhaps French archives will eventually learn that facilitating easier access to their archival holdings in the digital age will encourage more foreigners to write on French history. Maybe said foreign historians will even write on French history in English, the global language of scholarship. Worse things could happen.




One response to “How many pounds does that come to?”

  1. Ben Trotter says :

    I’ve had the same experience with the AN. Email contact has been nearly impossible. I requested scans of some docs 12 March via their “Virtual Inventory Room,” but received an price and order form only in early May (dated 23 April and postmarked 30 April). Of course, I had to pay before the scans would be made and sent and could pay only by the costly means of a bank transfer or check. And then the wait. The site also told me that I could not have scans of material that was already on microfilm (no copies from the microfilm either) – no explanation or easy way to find out why not. I was too near my deadline for getting everything in to the publisher, so I just gave up.
    In having to get a small sum to another archival entity a few years ago I found that it cost more for banking services than the amount I owed. I was fortunate that my goddaughter lives in France, so I was able to give her mother in the US the cash to deposit in her US account so that she could write a check in France and send it in on my behalf. Reminds me of making book purchases from France back in the 1970s (before I was spoiled [ruined?] by Amazon.Fr).

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