a tale of two archives (and more)

I’ve been working in archives for almost twenty-five years, first as an early musician in search of flute treatises and long-lost masterpieces by long-forgotten composers, and more recently as someone who researches the life stories of those who have come before me.

Archives have fascinated me from the moment I first stepped foot into the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague (then the Dutch national home of all the materials relating to music – history, performance, instrument construction, etc; they’ve since been moved to the Royal Library).

As a group of new students, we crowded into the heart of the archives – the basement storage areas – our necks craning to see the treasures the archivists had unearthed for us. It was cool and shadowed, temperature and light controlled to ensure that these documents could live on.

The archivist showed us a medieval manuscript, pointing to the thickness of the paper, the richness of the colour. We passed it amongst ourselves, filled with wonder.

“Wait,” said one of my fellow students, “this is 800 years old?!”

She couldn’t even comprehend it. And to tell the truth, neither could the rest of us. 800 years. And it was in our hands. Right. There.

That day, I learned that medieval manuscripts, while fragile, are much less fragile than nineteenth-century ones. Pulp and paper mills may have revolutionized paper production, but they didn’t make for lasting products. As I myself have since experienced, nineteenth-century papers can crumble at the touch, the past turning to dust before your very eyes.

That day, I also learned how much I love to burrow into the past, how much I enjoy the process of following a story, finding pieces, and trying to figure out how they fit together. Archives are places I can call home. They are my childhood dreams of locked trunks and dusty attics realized. They are all the mysteries that filled the books I devoured, and more.


The Hague, City Arms. October 2014. Photo: Sonja Boon

I’ve been thinking about archives again, now considering them as physical spaces, and considering what those physical spaces tell, who they invite in, who they exclude, and why that might matter. I guess, in a sense, I’m thinking about the autobiography of the archive, as told by the physical space it occupies.

These are not, of course, new questions. There’s been much work done on the politics of archives (see reference list below for a small sampling of literature on the topic). Scholars have considered the nature of the knowledge produced by the processes of archival collection, processes that take certain assumptions about race, class, gender, ability, and yes, history, for granted. They’ve also considered how it is that archives are formed, and why it is that some individuals and groups have actively chosen to donate their materials to national collections while others have fundamentally resisted this process, choosing instead to create alternative archival spaces. And they’ve looked at the politics of protecting and sustaining archival projects that could challenge and even threaten the powers that be.

But what of physical space, and what of how that space – and the processes that organize that space – operate?


Skyscape, The Hague downtown. October 2014. Photo: Sonja Boon

This started out as a tale of two national archives – the Nationaal Archief in The Hague, The Netherlands, and the Nationaal Archief Suriname in Paramaribo, Suriname, two places I have come to know reasonably well over the past few years. But as I started thinking about the differences between them, the ghosts of other archives intruded, reminding me that the story was much bigger.

I needed to dig further into my own research stories….

October 2006. I’m in Paris for the first time in my life, in a tiny hotel just off the Rue St. Honoré, a location I chose because it was within easy walking distance to the Richelieu site of the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the Archives nationales de France. It was also, and perhaps more romantically, around the corner from the former home of Madame Geoffrin, one of the leading salon women in eighteenth-century Paris, and one of the subjects of my doctoral research.

My doctoral supervisor had warned me about the intricate processes involved with accessing materials at the Richelieu location. I’d need a letter from her explaining the reason I was there. I’d get a card. And then I’d need to arrive early to put my stuff in a locker. They’d give me a red card and a green card upon entry and I’d have to pass the green card to someone and the red card to someone else and then I’d get a seat and the materials would arrive and if I wanted to leave the room, I’d have to reverse the whole process. She also warned that I’d have to dress appropriately. No sandals. No casual. Professional. It was long and convoluted and I don’t even remember all the ins and outs any more. There was gatekeeping upon gatekeeping upon gatekeeping upon gatekeeping. These documents were meant to be protected, and only certain eyes could have access.

The working space is magnificent, a child’s dream of a magical castle library, complete with a high ceiling, a winding staircase in a corner and a few more floors of books. The documents themselves nestled on velvet cushions, with velvet beanbag snakes to hold the pages down without damage.

Who wouldn’t want to work there for a few weeks?

Madame Geoffrin’s story (or, more precisely, her daughter’s story) ended up getting jettisoned from my thesis (she reappeared later, in an article), but that visit taught me much about the relationships between archives and national identity. The Bibliothèque nationale de France is not just a repository for esoteric mouldering documents to be read by people like me; they are France’s patrimoine – its legacy, its heritage, its inheritance – and it is clear that the archivists take this responsibility seriously.

Fast forward a decade, and I’ve found myself in both formal and informal spaces. In Berlin, on the hunt for flute manuscripts from the court of Frederick the Great (an avid flute player), I had to surrender my passport and wait three hours for materials to appear. In Lausanne, chasing Samuel-Auguste Tissot’s patients’ myriad complaints about, I shared a much more casual work environment with flip-flop wearing university students working on class assignments (more on that research process, and the loveliness of la Suisse romande, here).

Over the years, I’ve grown accustomed to the different requirements of different archival spaces; I’ve moulded myself to what they expect and worked with it. And to a large extent, I’ve done so because I’ve been able to do so. I can be the professional. I can be the academic. I can look the part. I have the right credentials. And with my computer, pencils, loose papers, and magnifying glass – all in a clear plastic bag – it’s clear to all involved that I have the right tools.

But I’d never visited the National Archives in The Hague and Paramaribo.


How many windmills do you need to change a lightbulb? Never mind. Not The Hague at all, but the Zaanse Schans, just after dawn. October 2014. Photo: Sonja Boon

The Hague’s National Archives is located right next to Central Station. The reading room is a bright, shiny, modern space. If I had to define it in one word, it would be: IKEA. There’s a Scandinavian aesthetic to this space, and, more to the point, it looks as if it’s been styled by someone who develops the annual IKEA catalogue. The work tables are all white, as are the lamps that hang over them. Colourfully-patterned oversize “book pillows” hang from hooks on the wall. The floors are also light and bright. Colourful accents in pink, red, and orange complement the white and add visual energy (I’m sounding like a home decorating blog! But seriously, it’s a gorgeous space, aesthetically speaking – look here). The space is generous and open. I ordered materials online and they were waiting for me, delivered with quiet efficiency. It’s a great place to work; even when it’s busy, there’s room to spread out.


Newspaper story from the Volkskrant about a protest concert I was involved in in The Hague in June 1997 to protest what was proposed as a tripling of international student fees. Who knew early music could be radical?

But while the space is visually appealing and welcoming, the usual checks and balances still operate: I still needed to get a membership card, and guards carefully police anything that goes in an out of the space. I couldn’t even bring my glasses case in – they provided me with a clear plastic one instead. This wasn’t a place you could just walk into, from the street. There were formal hoops to jump through, and there were also informal etiquette rules to learn.


The Hague, view of the Binnenhof from the Hofvijver. October 2014. photo: Sonja Boon

This gatekeeping was reflected in the archives’ patrons: all of us were professional researchers, actively engaged in research projects of various sorts. Almost all of us were in business/professional casual – dresses, dress pants, jackets, some ties. Almost all of us had computers. Almost all of us were silent. And almost all of us were white. We may all have come in off the street, but before that we’d been in university or formal institutional offices, and it was to those offices that we would return. The stories here, if read through the space and its organization, were stories for professionals first. Once translated and interpreted, they could be shared with others.

The National Archives of Suriname are very different. The Paramaribo space is small and contained, the tables close together. There is little room to spread out here, especially when there are more than a few people working at the same time (and when one person is looking at oversize newspapers or ship’s logs, watch out!). And perhaps all of this is fine; by population, this is a tiny country. There is no apparent reason that it would need to have such a big space.


Century-old house in the Rainville area of Paramaribo. July 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon

And yet, it’s an active and busy space, with people regularly coming and going. In The Hague, researchers tend to settle in for the long haul, spending hours at a time in pursuit of their stories. They stretch legs and bodies every hour or so. Sometimes they head out for a smoke or some fresh air, but they almost always return. In Paramaribo, however, patrons come and go throughout the day.

A large part of this, I suspect, is because the gatekeeping is much less pronounced. You don’t need to register to use the archives here. You don’t even need formal identification. Everyone has access to this national heritage. You just sign in: your name, address, phone number, and research interest. And that’s it.

During my time there, I saw the usual students and professional researchers; dogs of a similar breed, we learned to recognize one another, nodding in acknowledgement as we arrived in the morning. But I also saw others – an elderly woman with her daughter both working together to solve a family history mystery, a frustrated man who desperately wanted to find out his heritage but who had just too little information to begin a search, a couple with heads bent close to a screen, a woman with a notebook reading carefully through slave registers on microfiche, jotting down notes as she went, a mother with a baby in her lap looking at plantation stories, and a wide-eyed toddler wandering the room, a bottle dangling from her mouth.

What journeys brought them to the archives? What stories did they hope to find? What mysteries did they want to solve? These were not career researchers; these were people looking into their own pasts, seeking evidence to support stories they’d been told, or documents that could fill in blanks and silences.


One of the many small Moravian churches in Paramaribo. July 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon

If the stories in The Hague are stories for professional researchers, then the stories in Paramaribo are stories for average, everyday people, and, more significantly, for people who would likely be formally turned away from almost every single archive I’ve ever worked at, or who would find themselves so uncomfortable that they would leave.

The Hague and Paramaribo: two national archives, two different narratives.

What kind of welcome do they extend?
Who might they exclude?

To whom do the archives belong?



Buss, Helen M., and Marlene Kadar, eds. Working in Women’s Archives: Researching Women’s Private Literature and Archival Documents. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2001. Print.

Eichhorn, Kate. The Archival Turn in Feminism: Outrage in Order. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2013. Print.

Morra, Linda M. and Jessica Schlagerl, eds. Basements and Attics, Closets and Cyperspace: Explorations in Canadian Women’s Archives. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2012. Print.

Morra, Linda M. Unarrested Archives: Case Studies in  Twentieth-Century Canadian Women’s Authorship. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2014. Print.

Vernon, Karina, “Invisibility Exhibit: The Limits of Library and Archives Canada’s ‘Multicultural Mandate’.” Basements and Attics, Closets and Cyberspace: Explorations in Canadian Women’s Archives. Ed. Linda M. Morra and Jessica Schlagerl. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2012. 193-204. Print.

Weld, Kristen. Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014. Web.

(c) Sonja Boon, 2016 (sboon @ mun.ca)



One thought on “a tale of two archives (and more)

  1. Pingback: going home – Saltwater Stories

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