Readings — From the September 2013 issue

The Inventory Room

By Arlette Farge, from The Allure of the Archives, published this month for the first time in English by Yale University Press. Farge is a historian of eighteenth-century France and the author, most recently, of Effusion et tourment, le récit des corps. Translated from the French by Thomas Scott-Railton.

The inventory room is sepulchral. Someone decided that central heating wasn’t needed here, so cold, damp air is continually drifting down from the high ceilings. Prison-issue gray iron tables line the length of walls stacked high with volumes. Their purpose is to allow for the consultation of the inventories that contain the serial numbers under which a sought-after document is stored. In the middle of the room there is a table, as austere as the others, although perhaps slightly larger. An impassive archivist is sitting there. Beside a window opening onto the garden, a staff person is numbering pages in diligent handwriting. Not a single word can be heard; there are only a few rare smiles and vague whispers. The shuffling of papers is monotonous, and the clock above the double-hinged door no longer tells time. Time is elsewhere, as the clock has been still for a long time, like the one in the porphyry room of the Escorial where the kings and queens of Spain are buried, sternly laid out in the marble tombs. At the bottom of that dark Spanish valley the long line of the monarchy lies at rest; at the bottom of the Marais in Paris the traces of the past lie at rest. An analogy between the two mausoleums may seem arbitrary, yet on each of her visits to the inventory room she is struck by this memory from across the Pyrenees.

Today, an intimidated young man is asking the archivist on duty for advice. He would like to compile his family’s genealogy for his ailing father. The oppressive strictness of the inventory room has slightly stooped his shoulders, perhaps even more so than usual. Awkwardly hanging on to his brown leather briefcase, he almost doesn’t dare look in the direction being indicated to him. The archivist, speaking very quietly, takes out a volume from behind him, and, with his fingertips, traces the printed lines of numbers preceded by capital letters. Then, softly, he leads the young man to the long row where the indexes are kept. He takes down six or seven volumes, picking them out without hesitation. He opens them up, points to the long columns of numbers, closes them, puts down the books, picks up others, explains, and returns to his desk to consult a set of file cards tightly squeezed into a beige shoe box. The young man listens, briefcase in hand, with the expression on his face of a traveler who finds himself in an unfamiliar neighborhood of a foreign city and has no idea how much longer it will take to reach his destination. The hands of the clock hang motionless. The archivist returns to where the young man is standing, whispers a few words into his ear, and abandons him at the table on which the books are laid out. The young man sits down, begins to read, and removes a white piece of paper from his briefcase, which he has finally released from his grasp. His eyes wander from one page to the next without fixing on anything, once or twice lifting to observe the other readers who, green squares in hand, only come here to quickly double-check a reference. It seems as though he envies them, she thinks. He remains in this spot taking notes for a long time. His white sheet becomes dark with serial numbers written at an increasingly fevered pace. He is at the entrance to a long labyrinth into which he is descending with a heavy step, less worried about the eventual exit than about the web of paper streets through which he will have to walk.

The inventory room of the National Archives is nothing like the reference rooms or card catalogues of other libraries, which are energetic and animated, and whose wooden drawers can be closed as briskly as they were opened if you fail to find the desired reference. Their bright wood is not in mourning, and their readers, looking relaxed, use this break to stretch their backs and keep one another up-to-date on the latest news of the academic world. In those card catalogues, it is not frowned upon to walk around with pencil in your mouth, three blank pages in hand, high heels clicking crisply on the floor. These rooms are an amusing sight; instead of the galley slaves, backs bent, hunched over and silent, that you see in reading rooms, you have a view that is charmingly out of the ordinary: the disembodied heads of men and women floating above the tops of filing cabinets. People do not talk loudly, but they do not exactly talk quietly either. In certain libraries raised filing cabinets give a view of researchers’ legs, sometimes stiff and alert, sometimes relaxed.

In the inventory room, by contrast, the world stands still. The index books are sibylline to anyone who does not know their code. Breathing quietly, each person hunts for the magic words that will open the door to them, although only one door at a time, of course. In a library, the right call number to the right book will sometimes give the researcher a definitive answer on the spot. An archival reference number, however, often will only direct the reader to another serial number that will itself only give access to a new series where other serial numbers await. Your eyes become glazed over from having to memorize this immense world that spans not just from A to Z but from Z1A to Z1H. Secrets are there to be found but are sometimes impossibly out of reach. An old hand’s pride rests on derisory victories; when he encounters another veteran, he might casually mention in conversation that Y 10139 is significantly better preserved than X2B 1354. In the inventory room he is no longer a man in a tomb but a fish in an aquarium. We can observe this evolution when, a month later, the same young man enters, relaxed and smiling, and quickly heads toward a large crimson volume that he immediately opens to the right page. He copies down two pieces of information, straightens his shoulders, and looks distractedly at the clock that still refuses to budge. Satisfied, he puts back the inventory, and, as he heads back to the reading room where the manuscripts are waiting, he notices a timid young man, slightly hunched over, not daring to disturb the archivist. He turns away briskly, then closes the door behind him. In the hallway he runs into a friend whom he first met in this pale white room. He announces happily that he will soon be able to give his father the eagerly anticipated genealogy. He adds, who knows why, that this summer he is heading back to the Escorial to see the royal tombs. . . . She smiles.

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