The Archives Nationales, Paris

 UPDATE – The National Archives/Archives Nationales at Pierrefitte-sur-Seine

The National Archives (or the ‘modern’ section at least) have now moved to a new site at Pierrefitte-sur-Seine.  The move caused some grumbling from the researchers that I spoke to – and from myself too.  But having spent some time working at Pierrefitte, it’s not all that bad.

The Archives Nationales, Pierrefitte-sur-Seine
The Archives Nationales, Pierrefitte-sur-Seine

The biggest problem for me has been the location of the Archives – or rather the location of the flat that I chose to rent!  The new site is located at the end of line 13 at Saint-Denis, meaning it took me about an hour door-to-door to get there from the 13th arrdt.  It seems though that unless you live near a line 13 stop in the north of the city, it can take some time to get there (it took a friend living near the Abesses stop in Montmartre 40 minutes).  Line 13 is often crowded in the morning and it can be difficult to get a seat.  On the way home though you’re guaranteed a seat, being at the first station on the line.  Taking the RER B to the Stade de France and then walking to the connecting metro stop is not worth it – it’s a 20 minute walk to the nearest metro stop, though you do get to see the Stade de France on the way)

Upon arriving in Saint-Denis, exit the station and you’ll see that the Archives are well signposted.  They are a two minute walk away.  I haven’t explored the area around the station much but from what I can see there are few amenities; there’s a small cafe in the station(no seating) but that’s about it.

When you arrive at the Archives, you’ll notice what an impressive building it is – imposing, modern and surrounded by a moat.  Pass through security and go to the back of the building (look right to see an Anthony Gormley installation on the water) to register.  Registration is now free.  Once registered, go the lockers and put the things you’d like to take into the reading room into the plastic case – only computers, paper and pencils are allowed, as is a camera.  The lockers operate on an electronic system now – no need for a Euro coin, which I found so annoying at the old site (if you didn’t have one you had to go out and find a shop to get change).  There is usually a member of staff on hand to help with the lockers if you get stuck.  Here’s a tip – use the corner of your membership card to select options on the touch screen – it’s much more precise.

You are then ready to go through into the reading room.  As you enter the reading room, on your right you’ll find the inventory room, where you can search through electronic databases or look at the paper inventories kept on shelves at the end of the room.

The reading room is large, bright and airy, and the seats are very comfortable.  There is also a wired internet connection – hurrah! (but the cable may not be suitable for Apple users).  Before you can sit down, you need to go to the guichet on the left and ask for a place, much like you did at the former site.  Once equipped with a place number you’re ready to order documents.  This is all done online now from the AN’s website  : . This means that you can both use the computers at the AN to order your documents, or you can do it from your desk using the internet connection.  You can order up to 5 boxes per day.

The reading room at the AN
The reading room at the AN

It takes about 45 minutes for a box of documents to arrive, and you collect them much the same way as at the former site: ask for the talon at the guichet and the staff will go and get your box.  The staff are helpful and friendly, and some will be up for a chat if you like, too.  If you’d like to photograph some documents you can do this so long as you aren’t in the ‘Red’ area.  The Red area is where you consult sensitive or private documents and you need special permission from the président de la salle to take photos here). Once finished, return the box to the guichet and tell the staff whether it’s a retour définitif (you don’t need the box again), or if you’d like to prolonger’(you can consult the box again in the future without having to reorder it.

Overall, the downsides to the new site are that getting to the location is a hassle, and the lack of a proper cafe/canteen in the building itself is frustrating,.  There is a coffee stand that also sells sandwiches and salads (which are ok) and there is now plenty of seating (you can even sit outside if you like), but I don’t know why they didn’t include something better when designing the building (even a cafe similar to the one at the BN would have been good).

But the AN at Pierrefitte is a comfortable place to work and I’ve enjoyed my time there.  If you’re lucky and get there early enough in the morning you might even be welcomed by the cockerels that roam the grounds!


Joe Starkey (Cardiff University)

NB The National Archives (the modern section at least) have moved to a new location at Pierrefitte.  I shall update this page after my first visit there during summer 2014.

The Archives nationales are on the move. From mid-2013, documents dating from the French revolution to the present day will be housed at a new modern facility in Pierrefitte-sur-Seine in the northern suburbs of Paris. For many students, this short guide will soon be out-of-date. However, I hope it will provide some guidance  to those studying there in the near future, as well as to students of the ancien régime who will continue to work at the present site.

For the time being, then, the French national archives are held at the Hôtel de Soubise in the heart of the Marais district of Paris. The site is a marvel – entering from rue des Francs-Bourgeois, you will pass through a set of grand iron gates into the neatly kept courtyard with the striking hôtel facing you. Don’t be surprised if you are bothered by tourists demanding photographs on the way in – as well as an archive, the site is also a popular tourist destination with regular exhibitions. Students will need to head to the Centre d’accueil et de recherche des Archives nationales (CARAN). CARAN is actually best accessed from the rather more prosaic entrance on rue des Quatre-Fils, but the difference isn’t great.

Upon entering CARAN, you will pass a security guard who will give your bags a cursory check. The lockers are located towards the back-left corner of the lobby. The majority use a key and require a euro piece but there are others with a rather temperamental number lock should you have no change. You must deposit the things you intend to take into the salle de lecture into the plastic bag provided. The service d’orientation is located next to the locker room. Registration is fairly quick and painless – you will require your identification (passport is best) and your proof of enrollment. The second is not obligatory – the archives are accessible to all, not just to researchers – but it will help the process go more smoothly and, most importantly, prove your eligibility for the student rate. After a short interview, you will have to pay a small annual fee (10€) for your carte de lecture, and you are away.

A recent addition to the AN is the salle des inventaires virtuelles (SIV), an online hub to search for archives and make reservations. Armed with you new card, you should head to one of the computers on the first floor and set this up at All of your reservations will be made through this site, so become well acquainted with it.

From here, it’s on with the research. Your first port of call will be the salle des inventaires on the first floor. This room contains hundreds of volumes cataloguing all of the AN’s holdings. The sheer amount of stuff available can be daunting, so do seek advice from the présidence de salle at the entrance. You will need to locate the relevant volumes for your research interests and then root through them to find useful material. Fortunately, photography is permitted so any relevant pages can be photographed to save time for future visits.

The numerous codes that the AN use to catalogue their holdings can be confusing to say the least. The codes will need to be formatted correctly in order for the computer to recognize them, but they take many different forms. This online document will save you some trial-and-error code-punching.

To reserve you documents on the day, you will first need to enter the salle de lecture on the second floor and request a place. The salle de lecture is the principal room for the consultation of documents. It can have quite a stiff atmosphere and the rules are tightly enforced. Photography can only be made with permission; fortunately for most documents this is easy to obtain from the président de salle. Moreover, pens, non-transparent folders and pencil cases are forbidden. Dictionaries may be taken in but, again, you will need a permission slip from the président. Your things will be searched on the way out.

The staff at the counter will hand you a plaque de place with your seat number on it. Computers are located at the back of the room – using the online SIV system, you may now reserve your documents. They will take an hour or two to arrive, so to save yourself some time in the future it is always advisable to order your documents in advance. You will not need a seat number to do this – you will be given one on the day. To ensure that your documents arrive at 9am the following morning, make sure your requests are made by 15:30.

Your online account will inform you when your documents are available to collect. The staff will hand you a number of slips called talons that must be handed over at the counter every time that you want to consult your documents. The member of staff will pass you over your box of documents and, finally, your research may commence. When you are finished with your box, you have the option at the counter to either return it permanently or request a prolongation so you can use it on another day. In the latter case you will need to keep hold of your talon.

Many of the documents held at the AN are available on microfilm. There is a dedicated room for these located on the third floor, and the set up is very similar to the salle de lecture. When you order a microfilm online, it will be delivered directly to the 3rd floor. You simply need to ask for your microfilm once it has arrived from the member of staff and he/she will designate you a place. From my experience the atmosphere in the microfilm room is quieter and more relaxed.

Breaks can be taken on the ground floor where there is a coffee machine and a vending machine. Compared to the daylight robbery of buying a snack at the BNF, the AN is very reasonable; a coffee will only set you back 0.50€. On a warm day, the small park outside the CARAN can also a pleasant place to take a break. If you want to buy lunch outside the AN, bring money; this is the Marais, and the prices of the local cafés match the areas hip, bobo reputation. Still, as an area to take an take an early evening apéro after a hard slog in the archives, you can’t really grumble…