Guess what I’m doing this May

Short update as I’m in France on a one-month research trip.

Last time I was researching at Vincennes (SHD, or the Archives de Guerre) was back in January 1998, a mere 17 years ago. They’ve switched buildings within the Vincennes complex since then, and now have online ordering of documents. The current reading room is appropriately named the salle de Louis XIV (in the Pavillon du Roi), and the room’s large paintings of the Sun King’s martial endeavors set the appropriate tone of Baroque seriousness. (If you want gaiety, you can check out the Château de Vincenne’s donjon right next door, where the Marquis de Sade, the Grand Condé, the Duc d’Enghein and many other political prisoners spent time.) In Louis’ salle you can see a large version of this painting that you’ve probably already seen, one of the few which bothers to show the view of a siege from the trenches:

No animals were harmed in the filming of this propaganda piece?

No animals were harmed in the filming of this propaganda piece? Alert PETA!

The registration and consultation process at Vincennes is pretty similar to the other archives I’ve been to: go fill out a form with appropriate ID, get your photo taken for the ID card and receive said card, put your things in a locker (including the obligatory 1 euro coin for the locker key), go up to the 2nd floor (3rd for Americans), get assigned a seat, go to the window to pick up your documents (or see the président de salle if for some reason some of your volumes are ‘special’), then read them. Send back those you finish, and place the rest en réserve to consult the next day. Repeat as necessary.

Since the archive is open through the lunch hour, I try to eat some breakfast and just steal a quick snack so I don’t waste an hour going for lunch. Ideally this could give you 3-4 more hours per week consulting documents (a full extra day over the course of a month), though I recognize this hyper-efficiency is an insult to the French way of life. But since you’re limited to 5 volumes per day (ordered 2 weeks ahead of time), it’s hard to be efficient, particularly in the first weeks when you don’t really know how quickly you’ll be able to get through volumes. What this really means is that your rate of consultation is locked in for the first three weeks, since any increase in document orders will take two weeks to get to your desk, after you realize how it’s going at the end of your first week. Ah, lag time. So as it turns out I didn’t have anything to look at on Thursday and also today (Saturday), because I overestimated how long it would take to get through the volumes I’d ordered for that week. But that did allow more time to meet with some French military historians of Louis XIV’s reign. Yes, they actually exist!

Most of the volumes I’ve consulted have been microfilm, and since the SHD has old microfilm readers (4 of the giant hooded kind, and 4-5 of the not-quite-newish microfilm printers, but NOT scanners), and since you’re not allowed tripods of any kind, you need to figure out a way to take mediocre-quality photos of the mediocre-quality microfilm images, so you can read the authors’ mediocre-quality handwriting.

Like this, but the reels on the top and they at least have mechanized forward/reverse buttons

Like this, but the reels on the top and with mechanized forward/reverse buttons

First, make sure you use a reader that actually works fully, e.g. you can move the image on the screen both left/right and up/down, that you can rotate the image, zoom and focus appropriately (e.g. the machine has the appropriate zoom magnification lens), etc. Check each machine till you find one with all these necessary qualities. Ideally that same machine will also be away from bright lights, whether windows or overhead – “glare’s a bitch,” as they say. And then after you figure out whether the machine is loaded overhand or underhand, you’ll figure out a way to zoom in on the image and focus, then decenter the page image to one side of the screen so you can steady your hand on the frame without blocking the light or the image and still have your camera pointing straight down (or at a very slight angle). Even with all that – I’m not knowledgeable or patient enough to play around with many of my digital camera settings – I’m lucky if I get a photo this good:

Now if only I could read Chamlay's handwriting...

Now if only I could read Chamlay’s handwriting. Or is it the poor photo quality? Hard to tell…

Pretty standard archival fare, in other words.

So like any self-respecting Taylorite, I went back over my old musings on my British Library experience from three years ago and compared it with Vincennes. The accommodations and food are, of course, much better in France than England (but we already knew they would be). Rereading my old BL post, I’m surprised at how much I complained about the time lost waiting for 70 minutes for five volumes to be delivered. And yet I feel slightly less anxious here at Vincennes, where I’m limited to five volumes at a time ordered two weeks in advance. Admittedly I have a whole month here in Paris instead of the 2.5 weeks in London, but there are far more volumes to consult here in France than there were in London, and ordering copies of documents is far easier with the BL than SHD. So what gives?

I think the difference is how the archives organize the volumes. In the BL, almost all the volumes are organized according to the author or the recipient: Marlborough’s papers from Opdam in a single volume, Robert Harley’s papers, etc. But unless you are working on a biography of that individual, or that individual is only a military actor, many of the documents in each volume won’t be relevant to your particular project. Hence the need to consult a LOT of volumes (in order to find only a few relevant documents) just to piece together several different accounts of the same event. On the other hand, Vincennes has two advantages, three really, that all come down to distillation and focus. First, as befits the origins of the archive, the documents are overwhelmingly on military subjects, which is exactly the subject I’m researching. So every document is relevant for me in some sense (or could easily be), whereas in the BL some of the personal papers dealt with personal financial matters, family affairs, and the like. Second, the SHD has further organized the vast majority of its papers not just by individual provenance per se – generally they are all letters received by the Secretary of State for War, though some others sneak in occasionally. They are further concentrated by the most logical scheme for war historians, by time and theater (when written and where written from/where written about). So A1 1968 consists of 600+ pieces of  correspondence (from a few dozen authors) just on administrative military matters, pertaining to Italy, for the year 1705. And there are altogether separate volumes that focus on the operational correspondence about 1705 in Italy: one volume includes all the letters written during January-March, another volume April-July, and so on. That is an incredible amount of  information, pre-selected into concentrated gold. And yet all this concentration doesn’t come at the cost of volume, at least as far as the War of the Spanish Succession is concerned. As I estimated before, there are probably 2 million pages of documents just in the AG A1 series dealing with this war. So when contrasted with the average British Library volume, each Vincennes volume is so much larger; each volume probably has 1000+ pages, with literally hundreds of individual documents, all focused on a specific geographical region ranging (usually) across mere months. Contrast that with the Blenheim Papers, where you would need to consult 75 different volumes (just a guess) in order to see all the letters Marlborough received in a similar time frame, talking about the same subject(s). Since the volumes are organized by place/period instead of by author/recipient, and each volume is concentrated and therefore almost completely relevant, 5 volumes per day at Vincennes is more than enough. And that’s with the ability to take photos.

At the same time, these voluminous Vincennes volumes are also far more manageable than most of the volumes in, say, the Blenheim Papers, even with the published Blenheim Papers catalogue and index. The pièce de la résistance is that each AG volume also has an incredibly helpful table of contents which lists each letter (hundreds per volume), its date, the author and recipient, and a brief summary of its contents. They usually also include the standard separate index of all the authors in the volume. I don’t want to even imagine how many 19C-20C French archivists gave their lives (or at least their eyesight) describing every single letter at the individual document-level. A moment of silence for those brave archivistes


Now if only we could get all those tables of contents online, French military history would rule the world!

Other random travel research reminders to myself: renting a small apartment (with wifi, toilet, shower, clothes washing machine and full kitchenette including fridge/freezer and microwave), that’s a nice 5-10 minute walk from the archives (with the Bois de Vincennes visible from the apartment window) is so much better than my grad student experience was: a 30 minute commute on the Métro every day, while staying at a cheap cheap hotel with a toilette à la turque shared by the whole floor, and paying extra for each douche. Admittedly twenty years ago the Internet barely existed, and ten years ago France was barely on le World Wide Web (ah, but Minitel!), and I could never get the hotel’s wifi to work anyway. Oh yeah, and I had no money either. Nor was I getting reimbursed. So, yeah, things have improved. Even compared to when I was in London a few years back.

Proximity to the archives also has its advantages if, say, hypothetically of course, there’s a transportation strike, or maintenance that would force you to double your commute time, or, least pleasant of all, your train is delayed half-and-hour due to a malade voyageur.

Screenshot 2015-05-23 12.27.50

And since I’m not a morning person, a very short commute means I’m more likely to actually get there soon after the archives open, rather than straggle in an hour or more late.

Plus, it doesn’t hurt that Vincennes is a very nice neighborhood with plenty of chocolatiers, boulangeries/patisseries, brasseries, not to mention several supermarchés (though the not-too-distant Hyper Cacher that was besieged during the Charlie Hebdo attacks is still closed).

My biggest regret so far? That I don’t have the full Adobe Acrobat on my MacBook Air, which means I can’t really combine the archive photos into documents until I get home. (I know you can do it with an Automator script, but that increases the size of the resulting file at least 2x-3x larger than if you did it within Adobe.)

One week down, three to go!


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5 responses to “Guess what I’m doing this May”

  1. Robert Fulton says :

    I was lucky that I had no “interruption partielle de trafic” on Ligne 1 for the entire nine months I was there. There is of course much to desire in the lack of technology, but my understanding is that it was much worse two years ago. Good hunting!

  2. jostwald says :

    Further details for my own planning edification: Photographing the table of contents of a 420-pièce A1 volume takes about 10-15 minutes. Skimming through those ~55 pages of ToC to note down which documents to photograph takes about 30 minutes. Photographing those ~110 pages of documents (35 pièces) took about 30 minutes. So in theory: 1-2 hours for a selective photographing of a volume without a lot of interesting documents. This could scale up to maybe 3-4 volumes in a day.

    Photographing a full volume takes more time, depending on the number of pièces and exposures, and whether you need to take multiple shots of the same letter (e.g. a long letter means the top/bottom may be out of focus on the overview). Thus far I’ve photographed 1100 shots in a day and, closer to the maximum practical, around 1330 shots in a day. (Wear good shoes with comfort insoles, and aspirin for muscle ache might not be a bad idea either!)

    When photographing full volumes, I averaged 4 shots/minute in long bursts; over the course of the day, 3.5 shots per minute (1300 shots over the course of 6 hours of photographing).

    • jostwald says :

      Two weeks in, it’s probably best to order several volumes for each day, assuming you can get through them in a day or two and they won’t pile up on you. If you do that (instead of ordering 5 on one day of the week and putting the rest on reserve for the next days, as I’ve been doing), your name will be on the formal printed list when you check in, which might mean that if the seating is full – it hasn’t been close so far – you may have priority with a ‘reservation.’
      Also, if you misgauge how long it takes to go through volumes, doing five volumes on one day every week may leave you with a day or two at the end when you finish early and don’t have any more documents available yet.
      And there’s always the possibility that one of the guichet guys (who hand out/collect the volumes) will be nice and give you some volumes before you requested them because they were on the shelf under your name, but then when you try to put them back on reserve, a different guichet guy will say that you shouldn’t have received them yet, and you shouldn’t be able to put them on reserve for next Monday because the slip says you requested them for next Tuesday.

    • jostwald says :

      Other obvious time-saving details: If you order a bunch of volumes at once and are running short on time, photograph the tables of contents for all the volumes before you start photographing a single volume. The last ToC you photograph should be the most important volume that you’ll photograph straight through, so you don’t have to waste time rewinding and reloading the priority volume. Later, after the archive has closed, you can go through your photographed tables of contents for the remaining volumes and make a list of which documents you want to photograph the next day. This will save at least 30-45 minutes in the archives per volume. The next evening, if time is running even shorter, you can triage your previous list even further. Needless to say, it also helps if you already have a list of any documents that are already in print, or otherwise owned by you.

  3. jostwald says :

    Re: comparing Vincennes’ organizational scheme with British Library’s. I should’ve also added that when you have lots of letters from different people all talking about the same thing in chronological-theater order, one right after the other in a single volume, it’s a lot easier to quickly build up a broader understanding of the event. Contrast this with the Blenheim Papers, where you can read through Albemarle’s correspondence to Marlborough, but you lose any larger context: what did Marlborough say in response? What was the other side of the story? What events were being talked about that led up to that event? You can of course reconstruct that by combining all those different sources yourself, but it takes a lot more time, and I’d rather not spend time in the archives figuring such things out. I’d rather tag my photos/notes with metadata and let DTPO do it for me.

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