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Archival Records, Migration and Public Service: An Interview with Anne-Charlotte Olas, The National Archives of France 

    Zoom interview February 2024

    Welcome & Acknowledgements. Presentation of the interviewers.

    Camelia Zavarache: Thank you so much for taking the time and for accepting to answer our questions. I am Camelia Zavarache, a Research Assistant at the “Nicolae Iorga” History Institute in Bucharest, Romania, and I have been part of the Women on the Move network since it started. So, it is really nice meeting you and I look forward to our discussion today.

    The National Archives of France is one of WEMovʼs stakeholders. It is represented by Anne-Charlotte Olas, an archive professional. On the official site of the National Archives of France one can read that you are “responsable de fonds” [manager of archival fonds]. We would like to know more about your work as a specialist of organizing and managing archival collections and of working with the data provided by written documents. Could you tell us more about your background, your studies and also the reason why you chose to specialize in archival studies and what drew you towards this field?

    Anne-Charlotte Olas: So, after high school, I studied and graduated from a Bachelor’s degree in general history, then I specialized in patrimony and museums for my Masterʼs degree. It was at that point that I became interested in archives because of my first professional experience working as an intern at the French Senate, where I produced an inventory of the archives of the Palace of Luxembourg, le Palais du Luxembourg, which is where the Senate is today. And for my graduation I focused my Masterʼs thesis on the earl of Provence, the younger brother of the King Louis XVI, when he lived at the Palace of Luxembourg. And during that time, I conducted multiple research at the National Archives of France to find archives related to my subject and it was at that point that, thanks to the archives of domesticity at the Palace of Luxembourg, I took interest in social history. And after those research, I started an internship at the National Archives of France to work on the archives produced by the Ministry of Culture, le Ministère de la Culture, where I work today as a “responsable de fonds”, so as an archivist.      

    Camelia Zavarache: I have a question though. Here in Romania we have a different Faculty specialized in Archives and History is separated. Is it the same in France because you started as a historian and then moved towards archives?

    Anne Charlotte Olas:  It is not really the same; my Bachelor’s degree was on general history, but for my Masterʼs degree it was not in history, it focused on patrimony in general and in this Master’s course, you can also specialize in archives, but these are two different things.

    Camelia Zavarache: I see, ok, thank you!

    Vanessa Szollosi: I would like to add that I too studied history and then became an archivist, so it is really a commontrajectory from university in France.

    Marie Ruiz: Yes, it is usual. In our University we have, in the History Department, a Masterʼs degree in Archivism or Archivist and it is really good because it leads to a job, because sometimes in Humanities you are passionate, but finding a job later is complicated.

    Camelia Zavarache: I see, thank you! What are the main tasks an archivist is responsible for?

    Anne Charlotte Olas: An archivist is responsible for what we call in French “les quatre c”, the four c: collectingconservingcoordinating and communicating the documents to the public. This is the main mission of the archivist. For example, my Mastersʼ project was about describing and inventorying existing archives related to migration in my department; to do so, I looked at all the documents related to the subject, then I explored those archives with various methods: contextualizing them, enriching existing descriptions and homogenizing the descriptions. And when this is done, I write a compilation of all those archives that would be published on our platform, the platform of the National Archives of France. And this inventory goal is meant to valorise and explore the archive to existing and new users alike. 

    And at the moment, we are also in the middle of a campaign of digitalization of posters about the fight against racism and illiteracy. My main goal is to make fragile archives or fragile documents like these available to wider audiences throughout online consultation. On a daily basis, we also manage public requests for research mostly by students and researchers, and exemption requests to access specific documents that are not available yet for consultation, because access to these documents is restricted. Our main goal as archivists is good communication with the general public andwith our users, with quality descriptions of documents. 

    Camelia Zavarache: I see, quite a lot of responsibilities. So, moving, on. Working close with archival documents has allowed you to have a broader perspective on the process of generating an archive and the need for it to be organized and properly preserved. From your experience, what kind of barriers and difficulties are typical when working in record preservation and management?

    Anne Charlotte Olas: Well, there are multiple problems that we encounter on a daily basis. For example, the variety of the domain and speciality we need to be proficient with since the subject it can vary depending on the person who requested the archives, the types of archives and overall the timeframes we are working with being able to trace the documents, to contextualize them and make them available, despite the variety of documents that we can manage, fragile archives, digital archives or under restriction archives for example. And to finish, finding a balance between giving access to archives for research and protecting information related to individuals who were connected with administration for administrative reasons without knowing or giving consent to any other use of the information they shared. And this is our responsibility, to help research but more over to keep out of the public eye documents that must stay confidential for a period of time, because archives contain private information, they are under restriction for 50 years from the documentʼs creation, but we must wait even longer for online access of archivists’ call descriptions,meaning that private information must comply with the rule of GDPR, the general data protection regulation.

    Camelia Zavarache: I see, just a curiosity. Do institutions that are obliged to send you their collections, documents, really do this? Do they collaborate with the archives when it comes to sending the documents of interest to your institution for preservation? Institutions in general, ministries, I am referring to public institutions.

    Vanessa Szollosi: In each Ministry you have an archival service that we call a “mission”; the title says it all. And in our field, which is very large, because we have work, health, social, we have fields that work well with what is sent to us and others that do not work as well. So, it very much depends on the people working in the administration; so maybe today some fields collaborate closely but maybe in 10 or 20 years, all will merge in a big entry in our fonds. So, itʼs inconsistent. 

    Camelia Zavarache: Ok, thank you! Do women in general and migrant women in particular stand out in the archives?

    Anne Charlotte Olas: Sadly, they donʼt. In France, the way we categorize archives is different from English-speaking countries, for example, where the archives are often divided by gender. The direct consequence of this is that you need to search archives by individual instead of category, which makes the progress slower since you need to look at the name of each document to find women among them. So, the only way to find archives related to women is to search in general categories hoping to find them, which is difficult because they are underrepresented in the archives. And for the migrant women the problem is even more present, since in addition to those problems you need to search in different Ministerial departments to find something related to their activity. For example, ministries related to migration like Labour or associations related to migration, for example, la Croix Rouge, or le Service Social dʼaide aux émigrants.  

    Camelia Zavarache: Yes, I understand, we have the same way of categorizing archives based on the institution that generated those archives, not based on gender or other criteria. 

    The National Archives of France are a staple in research and public service, staying true to their objectives of providing the documentation for academic research while also engaging with the general public, through exhibitions and educational campaigns. Could you tell us more about how your collaboration with the National French Archives started? 

    Anne Charlotte Olas: As I already said, it started with my internship at the National Archives. Then, later I was able to be recruited for a fixed term contract of a year and a half to work on for 400 linear meter archives related to Jack Lang,who is the former minister of Culture. And during this contract a job was available as an archivist in the archives of Social Affairs, where I am today. And in this division, there are two other people, Vanessa Szollosi, my supervisor, who works with archives related to Social Affairs and different Ministerial Offices and Lucile Douchin, my colleague who works on archives related to health in general. So, we are three people in our department.

    Camelia Zavarache: That is great. I actually had an internship, we had to do practice at the University, I studied history as I said, and we had to do practice each summer. I was first on an archaeological site, the first year, and the second year I was at the archives and I thought it was so interesting and so amazing to see those documents that no one has seen before you, well someone had, but anyway it was really exciting. Vanessa, would you like to add anything else?

    Vanessa Szollosi: I agree with the exciting face of the work of an archivist. Often, people think “Oh, it is boring, and it is for people we want to stay put at the office” but it is a very, very interesting job, it is a job with a lot of action in all directions; towards the producer of the archives, towards the public and towards the future public, so it is very interesting. 

    Camelia Zavarache: I agree, thank you! Considering that the National Archives of France are a stakeholder for the WEMov COST Action, could you tell us more about the collections they possess on female migrants and female mobility? 

    Anne Charlotte Olas: So, we have a vast and diverse collection of archives related to the project Women on the Move: resident permits and work permits, which is our most interesting archive since it can give you a lot of information on why these women are here, what kind of work they did, what kind of jobs they were looking for. And we have a wide variety of jobs which make the scope of research really valuable.

    Family reunification files – le dossier de regroupement familial – which, even if they are mostly open by men, are exhaustively describing women, most of the time their partner, their wife or their daughter which contains their job, their status, their relatives, their motivation to move with their husband etc. 

    Thirdly, regulation of medical practice and management of healthcare professionals which allowed people who have medical degrees to keep working as health workers in France. In this collection we have a lot of women like midwives, nurses for example. Career files that provide details of the professional paths of these women in public administration.

    And to finish, files open by associations, most of the time for aid requests and the main association is Service social dʼaide aux émigrants that provided help and support to migrants and their families in a wide variety of ways like financial aid or logistic support. 

    Camelia Zavarache: You have quite a lot of collections, that is so interesting. I am just curious, what is the timeline of these fonds and collections, twentieth century?

    Anne Charlotte Olas: Mostly yes. After the Second World War.

    In fact, two weeks ago the inventory I have been working on regarding these archives was published. This thematic inventory includes an introduction to the collections and a history of the various producers. It includes 80 archives’collections, from 1926 to 2009. The first part of the inventory deals with migration archives from the point of view of the central administration. A second part, dealing with operators, the organizations responsible for implementing these policies as close to the people as possible, is currently being created.

    This first part covers three main themes: the management and organization of central administrations, migration policies and demographic policies. The section on migration policies covers a range of topics: policy development and regulation, international affairs, the reception and integration of migrant populations, and individual files.

    There are many individual files, dealing with applications for work permits, temporary work authorizations, the reception of interns and students, applications for residence permits, family reunification files, assisted return to the country of origin, the return to France of beneficiaries of assisted return, and litigation relating to these situations. Here is the link.

    Camelia Zavarache: I see, that is so interesting, quite a lot of documents and what an impressive work. Thank you!Has the National Archives of France coordinated any projects regarding female migration?

    Anne Charlotte Olas: Sadly, I donʼt know any project that has been done related to this but there is one that is currently in the making. The OFPRA – Office Français de Protection des Réfugiés et Apatrides is initiating a project in collaboration with the National Archives of France, with myself as one of the references and many researchers. I highlight migration routes, qualitatively and quantitatively. This project is about how people left their countries, how they were welcomed to France, for example, so I hope that the different roads that we are going to explore will include womenʼs backgrounds and womenʼs journeys, so it is very interesting. 

    Camelia Zavarache: Yes, it is. So, is it a long-term collaboration or is it a two year or a three year collaboration?

    Anne Charlotte Olas: It is a collaboration for the preparation of a conference to be held in one or two years, I donʼt know, but it is for the preparation of a workshop.

    Camelia Zavarache: I see, that is so interesting, good luck with everything!

    Ok, so moving on with the third section of the interview. As a specialist involved in archival management you have a broader perspective on the interconnection between historical documents, academic research and public education. As a global phenomenon, migration and female migrants face hostile reactions from governments and sometimes the public; have the education campaigns and the exhibitions such as Migrations au féminin, organized by the National Archives of France been contributing to a better understanding of such experiences?

    I have seen that on the website, when I was researching for our interview.

    Anne Charlotte Olas: The Migration au féminin exhibition was not organized by the National Archives of France. It was a 15-panel exhibition mounted in 2015, so I was 14 years old at the time. It was designed by the Association Générique, an association that campaigns to saveguard the history and memory of immigration in France. On the other hand, the documents presented at the exhibition come from the National Archives. But, I confess I did not get any specific feedback from my colleagues on the subject, so I cannot really answer your question. But I know that this exhibition was a success for the association. 

    Camelia Zavarache: So, it was an NGO?

    Marie Ruiz: No, from what I remember Génériques is composed of researchers, right? They created a guide of primary sources on migration, like thousands of pages that I am using for our project as well. But I think they were researchers, right, academics?

    Vanessa Szollosi: Yes, and Génériques gave its archive to the National Archive, but it is not in our department, it is in the private archive department. This is a difficulty we have, that we keep the public archives but we also have a department for private archives and so we have to connect these two. And this exhibition with Génériques must have been with the private archive department, so that is why we donʼt have really information about it.

    Marie Ruiz: And also, from what I remember from the catalogue they have catalogued and referenced primary sources that are held everywhere, in local archives, but very often they have changed the reference numbers since then. Each time I write to those archives, they cannot locate those documents anymore. I cannot identify them online so I have to write to all those local archives and they donʼt really know what I am talking about. 

    Camelia Zavarache: But this is because of an administrative reorganization, or why does this happen? 

    Marie Ruiz: I have no idea, I must say I am sorry because the archive system in France is not really easy.

    Vanessa Szollosi: It is really complicated.

    Marie Ruiz: In England is so easy, in all Anglophone countries is so easy, in France it is hard. It is hard to find the documents in France, even the keywords.

    Vanessa Szollosi: Because administration is complicated.

    Marie Ruiz: Yes.

    Vanessa Szollosi: We are the reflection of the administration. 

    Marie Ruiz: You were the only ones willing to help and to work with us, but I do not understand. So, Génériques did a wonderful job, I am reading every page, they have located amazing documents. Now, trying to locate them today is another story. 

    Camelia Zavarache: I am so sorry to hear that. Archives are a valuable but a vulnerable and perishable source and given the fact that they have been organized on topics regardless of gender differences do you think that digitizing an archive would allow a different organization of the material so it could better showcase women and their migration routes?  

    Anne Charlotte Olas: I think it is something that could have a beneficial effect on the way in which fonds dedicated to migrant women are valorised. Since it is long to digitalise documents that are related to female migrants, it is easier to create dedicated spaces for them on our platform. For example, we can create an inventory of sources related to migrant women to create a direct link to those digitalised documents.

    Digitalisation can also be used to create content for example to illustrate articles, to talk about these archives on our social networks, to highlight them at conferences. And, this digitalisation contributes to improving the value of our collections and therefore to their understanding by the public.

    But, digitalizing alone isnʼt enough; a more precise description of the archives is the first necessary step and, like digitalisation, it takes a long time and cannot be done for every document, since we have to respect the rule of GDPR, and those related to the protection of individuals private lives, the 50 years. 

    Camelia Zavarache: Thank you! Yes, here as well it is a struggle to try to find anything on someone you are interested in because everything is organized based on institutions. And for instance, in the archives of Bucharest, not the National Archives, like the local archives of Bucharest there are still files that have not been numbered, you know, entire files, unnumbered. So, yes I agree, it takes a lot of time, and I think it takes a lot of funding when it comes to such an important work.   

    So, we are at the last question of our interview. Since you are the representative of a stakeholder of the WEMov network we would like to know what has been a part of this network brought to you, the aspect you consider most relevant?

    Anne Charlotte Olas: So, as soon as I arrived, Vanessa told me right away about this project which had already been started by my predecessor, Chloe. It was a project that I had to manage for all the National Archives of France and it was my first project when I integrated into this department, so I have fond memories of it. Whatʼs more, it was a very good way of getting to know the archives I was going to be working with during my contract as I could not use the inventories on the subject, I had to look directly into the archives stock which taught me a lot about this collection, the themes that are recurrent and the background of some women. Whatʼs more, it gave me an insight into the collections that I donʼt work with, for example the archives of health, of my colleague Lucile. And I think that in the future this list of collections we have provided could be used to draw up an inventory of research assistance sheet – la fiche d’aide àla recherche pour le lecteur, dedicated to this subject. 

    Marie Ruiz: I think this is something that we wanted to do as one of our objectives at the beginning and it is called Finding aids. And we wanted to gather the finding aids on womenʼs migration but then we realised that finding primary sources was already hard enough and finding aids donʼt always exist, there are some for migration but women… it is another category. 

    Camelia Zavarache: Ok, so thank you so much, these were all my questions. So, if there is anything else you would like to add, or if not, I would like to thank you for taking the time and for being part of the interview, for sharing youractivities and your projects with us. Thank you!

    Marie Ruiz: Thank you so much, Camelia. Is there anything you would like to add, in the end, you know, something about your archives, something about this project, anything coming up?

    Camelia Zavarache: I simply want to say that when I was researching for this interview I thought that the website of the National Archives of France is really well structured, for instance, for me as a foreigner I think it is super organized, I mean, Marie knows better, but for me, it actually helped me to understand what you have. So, that is important. I do not want to mention our archives, because I have my dissatisfactions, so I will stop here.

    Marie Ruiz: I think, what is good about our project Women on the Move is also that we are learning from practices in other countries. For instance, in Estonia they have developed collaborative participation archives, which means that each time somebody uses documents they leave a scan, they leave photos, and basically Estonia has digitised almost everything they have and that is through participatory archives. I donʼt work on French archives, I work in Anglophone archives so I was never faced with the difficulties finding primary sources as in France. I think it is a big, big job to reference everything that the archives have and I think it would be wonderful to use the help of historians and develop participatory archives. I think what Estonia is doing is amazing to be honest.

    And then there are different systems, you see Spain and Germany they have a regional system, not a national system, it is complicated. 

    Vanessa Szollosi: Anne Charlotte, would you like to show them your work?  

    Anne Charlotte: Yes.

    Vanessa Szollosi: Anne Charlotte worked on a big, big inventory of all the archives on migration, and she published it two weeks ago?

    Anne Charlotte: Yes, two weeks.

    Vanessa Szollosi: So, we wanted to show you what it looks like. Here is the link.