Archives – Their Organization and Use

by Tom Verschaffel

Along with national libraries and museums, national archives became an attribute of the modern nation-state. They were symbols of the nation’s historical identity. The initial development of national archives can be linked to the French Revolution. The fundamental reform of society and national sovereignty entailed appropriation by the nation of records from the past (and the present). On 4 August 1789 the Assemblée appointed one of its members, Armand-Gaston Camusas, as archivist, and by decree of 7 September 1790 the archives of the Assemblée became Archives nationales. Napoleon decreed in 1808 the organization of a single central depository in Paris, to which all important documents of the conquered countries were to be transferred. This archival imperialism engendered in many countries the idea that documents were (and should be) ‘national’. English archives had never been really threatened; and therefore, for many centuries, they had not been the object of particular concerns. Nevertheless, the creation of national archives in France was not without resonances across the Channel. In 1800 a committee was set up to examine the situation of the English archives. This initiative was without consequences, but in 1836 another parliamentary committee proposed reform of the system, and in 1838 the Public Record Office was founded. The appropriation of documents and archives by the nation implied that all of them, including the archives of provincial authorities from the past, had to be organized, if not in one location, then at least under one administration. The extent of centralization of the archives depended on the level of centralization of the state. More or less unified states, like France, Belgium or the Scandinavian countries established national archives, as well as departmental archives, regional depositories or ‘national archives in the provinces’. In states with a federative structure, however, existing archives remained more or less autonomous, and the central archives only conserved the records of the central government and administration. This also explains why Germany did not have a genuine centralized national archive.

The ‘old’ states exhibit early examples of archival organization. The history of the national archives in Sweden reaches as far back as 1618. As regards Denmark, 1663 can be considered the date of birth of the national archives. In the Habsburg Empire, national archives were established separately from, and to some extent contrary to, the authorities in Vienna, where the Haus-, Hofund Staatsarchiv, founded in 1749, comprised mainly the archives of the dynasty. In 1829 the Bohemian parliament appointed František Palacký as official historian, and he prepared the creation of national archives as decided by the parliament in 1862. Moravia followed a similar path by appointing Antonín Boček as national historian in 1837 and tasking him, a few years later, with the direction of the national archives.

Publicity was part of the purpose of national archives. The law of 7 Messidor year II (25 June 1794) stated that every citizen must have access to them. The practical arrangements, however, were often discouraging. Not until 1845, when the complex was enlarged with the Hôtel d’Assy, were the Archives nationales provided with a genuine reading room. The appropriation of the archives by the nation did not self-evidently imply their use as a historical instrument.

In France it was mostly after 1830, when Jules Michelet was appointed head of the historical section, that the historical mission of the national archives became more obvious. Historical use entailed that the archives must be arranged, classified and provided with inventories. The task was huge, and it required properly trained staff, and therefore professionalization and specialization.

In 1821 in Paris, the École Royale des Chartes was founded. After initial difficulties it began full operations in 1829. The academic programme consisted of a three-year course leading to the qualification of ‘archiviste-paléographe’ and to guaranteed positions in archives and libraries. In the Habsburg Empire, several schools modelled on the Paris École were founded, such as the Scuola di Paleografia, Diplomatica e Archivistica (1842), connected with the state archives in Milan, and the Institut für Österreichische Geschichtsforschung (IÖG), founded in Vienna in 1854. The IÖG reached a high level of academic quality, particularly through the work of Theodor von Sickel, alumnus of both Paris and Milan, who became director of the Vienna school. These examples inspired the Archivschule in Marburg, which, together with the Archivschule in Munich, became responsible for the training of specialized archivists in Germany.

In Spain, the opening of Simancas (1843) was an important step forward in European historiography. In Italy the reorganization of the Florence Archivio di Stato in 1852 marked an important development in a very different context, while in 1845 an archival museum was opened in Naples. In Turin, despite the early activity of a royal commission for the publication of sources, and the presence of an archive school on the French model, the contents of the Court archive remained secret. The departmental archives in France were gradually opened to scholars. The first of them to have a professional archivist was Poitiers in 1834, and the first researchers worked in the Archives Departementales des Bouches du Rhone in 1843, while others followed between 1850 and 1870. In the same period also the Swiss and the Swedish archives were opened to researchers. In the Netherlands, the royal decree regulating access to the record offices was issued in 1856. Yet in Russia only in the late 1870s were the archives transferred to a building which allowed scholars to conduct research, but again with restrictions.


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