I’ve had the distinct pleasure of working in the Dutch national archives, het Nationaal Archief, in The Hague this week.

In the first place there’s a thrill to holding an original document in your hands.  That paper was there, actually part of something that you yourself are passionately interested in but couldn’t be part of.  In this case I have a good excuse; my parents hadn’t made it past second grade yet when these particular documents were written, although he wasn’t too far away in the Netherlands. 

But the Dutch archives are themselves a nice surprise, especially because you literally have to walk through the central train station and along a construction site to find the door.  The public part of the building is new, spacious and designed to let in as much natural light as possible.  There’s even a courtyard garden behind a wall of plate glass so that you can stare out into green when reading smudged carbon copies gets to be too much of a strain.*

All you need to register for a reader’s card is a simple form and your passport.  You stow everything you have other than paper, pencils and a laptop in a locker which returns your 1 euro coin at the end of the day; show your paper or laptop to the security guard who politely flips through them; wave your electronic reader’s ID at the sensor by the door, and you’re in.  You can order your documents at a computer in the reading room or in advance on-line.  To leave, you wave yourself out  and the guard does a more thorough job of flipping through your papers.  This might seem like excessive security for a bunch of historians who voluntarily choose to spend their days reading documents that are, even to them, often boring.  But it does add a certain James Bondish glamour to our nerdy days.  After all, except for laptops and email, historians tend to lead low-tech lives.  All this gadgetry makes us feel almost important.  Of course whoever thought up this whole system wasn’t worrying about genuine historians, but impostors with mischief-making political agendas on their minds.  But even the possibility of impostors ups our glamour-quotient a bit.

I digress, the very best part of  het Nationaal Archief is the knowledgeable and helpful archivist who shepherds WWII historians.  Sierk Plantinga gave me the impression that his entire job consists of helping the public, although common sense says that can’t be true.  I will admit that my experience in the archive may have been smoother than someone else’s because Sierk helped me out, but it didn’t seem that way.

I certainly could have used someone like him at the French national archives (les Archives nationales) in Paris twenty years ago.  Getting a reader’s card required an official attestation of my credentials complete with embossed seal from Berkeley, where I was a graduate student, and an interview with an archivist to determine the validity of my research.  I remember it more as an interrogation, and a mortifying one at that given the miserable state of my spoken French at the time.  The building was new and modern but not well lit.  Researchers and their notebooks were subject to scrutiny, most unnervingly by the militarized firemen who paced back and forth scowling.  I have a vague recollection of some debate about whether or not wearing a wool pashmina was an acceptable way to keep one’s extremities warm enough to write notes.  The most disconcerting thing, though, happened when a huge concrete panel fell off the cathedral ceiling to smash the twenty-foot, solid wood library table beneath it.  Fortunately the researcher who was sitting there had gone to lunch, but her documents were, as they say, ecrasé (erased, crushed, eradicated).

 That was twenty years ago and there may well be a new, more researcher friendly regime at the Archives nationales these days.  I sincerely hope so.  Many of my difficulties in France stemmed from having chosen what a departmental archivist called a “very delicate” topic, i.e. the Second World War, and being an American graduate student.  But that’s a story for another day.

For now I’m happy to be at het Nationaal Archief.


* For the younger set: carbon copies hail from the age of the typewriter.  You put a flimsy sheet of tissue paper treated with black or purple “carbon” between sheets of typing paper and made more than one copy of whatever you were typing at one time.  Parsimonious secretaries reused their carbon paper until even a magnifying glass couldn’t detect its traces.