A History of Archival Labor in France
In my dissertation, I argue that the condition of possibility of what we know about the French Revolution lies in its archival practices. Uncovering and recreating those practices therefore also allows us to learn more about the Revolution itself. To study archival practice, I analyze archival labor. My dissertation focuses on archival workers broadly defined; that is to say, I study official archivists as well as a whole host of other people who gathered, organized, and inventorying documents in personal and public archival repositories. Studying labor brings the history of archival institutions to life, and it provides a way to explain for the vast differences between archives despite state pressures to standardize. Human error, the inherent messiness of archives, and the myriad obstacles that archival workers faced all contribute to institutional specificity.
The traditional story of archives during the French Revolution has been one of destruction, of popular burnings of documents for political purposes. But that is not the whole story. No archive can preserve everything. Archiving is not just a process of acquiring documents and preserving them; it also entails deciding which documents to not preserve. Archivists in France repeatedly reevaluated their collections in order to decide what belonged in archival institutions and which documents were merely "useless papers" [papiers inutiles]. I trace how the definition of "useless" changed from the eighteenth to early twentieth century, and I also show how later archivists sometimes sought to undo earlier deaccessions when they disagreed with earlier definitions of uselessness.
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, more and more departmental archivists were drawn from the alumni of the École des Chartes. This was encouraged by the French state, who sought to standardize the organization of departmental archives. During this process, the Chartists undid the more idiosyncratic organizations created by earlier archivists. Even as the Chartists dismantled those structures and critiqued them for being illogical, they could not fully undo the earlier archivists’ choices, especially those of which documents to collect or not. I argue that the decisions of archival workers led to particularities of archival institutions, and I analyze how those decisions directly impact our contemporary interactions with archival collections.