History of the institution
The Archives Nationales preserves and provides access to the records of the central administrations of State (excluding the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs), original deeds produced by Paris notaries, and private record groups of national interest.
The Archives Nationales was created as a result of the French Revolution. There was no centralised body for archiving documents produced by all the government administrations under the Ancien Régime, only for deposit by specific bodies (the records of Parliament, of the Courts of Account, of the Chancery, of the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and so on).
The Constituent Assembly named these archives the Archives Nationales on 12 September 1790.
Four years later the National Convention passed a law, on 7 Messidor Year II (25 June 1794), setting out their role and creating a "central depository for the national archives". The law set out the three main principles which still apply today:
- The centralisation of the nation's archives,
- free public access, and
- the need for a national archives network. The law of 5 Brumaire Year V (26 October 1796) completed this system, by setting up an archival service in each département's chef-lieu.
The Archives Nationales thus acquired:
- the archives of central institutions suppressed by the French Revolution,
- the archives of ecclesiastical establishments (bishoprics, parishes, and religious houses) in the diocese of Paris,
- and archives found on migrants and those guilty of crimes.
In 1808 Napoleon I allocated the Hôtel de Soubise to the Archives Nationales,pending the construction of a specific building on the Champ-de-Mars which was never actually built. During the 19th century the Archives Nationales started collecting records from the ministries. It expanded around the Hôtel de Soubise with the building of the "grands dépôts" (great depositories) under Louis-Philippe and Napoleon III. It started employing specialised members of staff (archivists who had studied at the Ecole des Chartes) and publishing calendars. In 1867 the Archives Museum was founded, and the most remarkable documents were put on display.
In 1927 the Hôtel de Rohan, previously home to the Imprimerie nationale where the State's official documents were printed, was allocated to the Archives Nationales. It was used to hold the original deeds produced by Paris notaries, which it started collecting straight away (under French law of 14 March 1928).
New record fields started to be built up after the Second World War, with personal and family records as well as business archives. "Missions" were set up in the main ministries to organise the collection and conservation of archives at the earliest possible stage.
By then, there was no longer any room on the Paris site. In 1972 the former NATO buildings in Fontainebleau were allocated to the Archives Nationales. The purpose of the "cité des archives contemporaines" (home of contemporary archives) was to house archival deposits from the ministries. An ambitious project was drawn up (with 8 conservation units of 80 linear kilometres each). Only two units were actually built, for the site was not easily accessible to readers and was not ideal for contemporary archives. The Fontainebleau teams became experts on contemporary archives and especially electronic archives.
The number of members of the public interested by archive documents continued to grow. In 1988 a large building for the public was opened in Paris, the CARAN (centre d'accueil et de recherche des Archives Nationales), housing the various reading rooms which had hitherto coexisted.
But as of 1995, confronted with the lack of room at the sites in Paris and Fontainebleau, and the remoteness of the Fontainebleau site, plans were drawn up for a third site. An association of researchers, archivists, and genealogists, called "Une cité pour les archives", was set up in 2001 to push for a policy decision. Jacques Chirac, the president of the French Republic, and Lionel Jospin, his prime minister, backed the project. In 2004 the government chose the site of Pierrefitte-sur-Seine. The new building, the largest archive depository in Europe, was designed by the architect Massimiliano Fuksas and inaugurated by François Hollande, the president of the French Republic, on 11 February 2013.
Books on the topic:
- Claire Béchu (ed.), Les Archives Nationales. Des lieux pour l'histoire de France. Bicentenaire d'une installation, 1808-2008. Paris: Archives Nationales-Éditions Somogy, 2008 (384 pages, with illustrations).
- Lucie Favier, La mémoire de l'État. Histoire des Archives Nationales. Foreword by René Rémond. Paris: Fayard, 2004 (466 pages).
- Françoise Hildesheimer, Les Archives de France. Mémoire de l'Histoire. Paris: Champion, 1997 (109 pages, published by the Histoire et archives journal).