The Importance of Administrative Directories as a Guide to Sources for the History of Grand Paris: The Example of 1885

Digitised, but not yet available online, the administrative directories of Paris and the département of the Seine held at the Archives de Paris, cover the period 1883-1980. As Elsa Camus’ research for Archival City has shown, using the complementary funds of the Library of the Hôtel de Ville we can go back to the days before, the Third Republic as two directories are referenced there for the years 1844 and 1850, plus a third for the year 1880. The first directory in the digitised collection, for 1883, is of limited interest for research into the history of Grand Paris (greater Paris). It contains only 83 pages and merely lists the main workers at the prefecture, without mentioning names, remits or addresses. The first truly useful directory for our research is the one published in 1885 by the Préfecture de la Seine and printed at the municipal printworks (document 1). The publication should be closely associated with the development of the Paris administration, under the auspices of prefect Eugène Poubelle (1883-1896). In fact, under his mandate the administrative directory was published regularly, under the title Personnel et attributions des services de la préfecture du département de la Seine et de la Ville de Paris (Personnel and their Remits of the Departments of the Prefecture of the Département of the Seine and the City of Paris).

Document 1. Cover page of the administrative directory of 1885

The 1885 document runs to 290 page and is a mine of information regarding the history of Grand Paris, that can be approached in three complementary ways.

The directory as a source: documenting the administrative history of Grand Paris

The first purpose of an administrative directory is to list the services of the City of Paris and the département of the Seine (including the arrondissements of Sceaux and Saint-Denis), the main managers and the postal addresses at which they could be contacted. Whether it was by order of the Republic or not we do not know, but the 1885 directory also includes details of elected representatives of Paris municipal council and the Seine general council in the list of civil servants, as well as people involved in the many ‘commissions’ that oversaw the relationship between civil society (often limited to experts) and the government of Paris affairs.

Despite the possible margin for error when it was put together, the directory provides a good snapshot of the administration and management of the département of the Seine, which, until the creation in August 1961 of the District of the Paris region, was the epicentre of decisions relating to Grand Paris. The lists form an organisation chart that was already very complex in 1885, of the central administration (secretarial office, councils, offices, funds) of the three major administrative bodies of the French capital (primary teaching, construction, finance) and the 67 departments and commissions attached to the prefecture. There is a significant level of detail to the information, even though only the heads and deputy heads of each department are mentioned. For example, the six pages dedicated to the powerful Directorate of Construction of the Inspector General of Civil Engineering, Jean-Charles Adolphe Alphand details the attributions of four divisions and 14 offices, and provides the names of 25 department managers.

Document 2: extract of the list of department heads in the Directorate of Construction (1885 directory)

There is considerably more information in the 24 pages of lists on the ‘Annex Departments of the Directorate of Construction’. In reality, these ‘annex departments’ overlap with the administration proper (water, waste, roads, civil engineering, navigation etc.), consultation commission (counsel of engineers, commission for works and supply tenders of the City of Paris, commission for poor housing etc.). A simple extraction of the civil engineering personnel of the Directorate of Construction cross-referenced with the biographical databases put together by the Bibliothèque des Ponts allows us to reopen the debate brought up a while ago by Jean-Claude Thoenig[1] on the role of the administration of bridges in urban management, especially if using this kind of data on long collections, as facilitated by digitisation (document 2).

Even beyond this example, the documentary base the directories provide can contribute to a general history of the structure of the administration of Grand Paris, whether approached from the angle of tabling new questions (extensions, public transport, pollution, etc.), the social history of the administration (the role of engineers, doctors and university academics in the various departments and commission etc.) or territory (cartography of department addresses at municipal, départemental or regional levels).

The directory as a gateway: understanding fund organisation strategy

It’s no secret that the Paris city archives are a maze around which very few people know their way, notably because of the intricate history of fund constitution. The administrative specificity of a ‘city-département‘ with an unusual administration, and the masse of documentation related to a capital city whose demographic growth was unique in France during the contemporary period, partly explain this situation, without even mentioning the elimination of the département of the Seine on January 1st, 1968 and the fiendishly complicated question of the devolution of the archives to the new départements of the Petite Couronne area around Paris.

At this level, the directories undoubtedly constitute a common gateway for archivists and researchers, notably to a greater understanding of the documentary masses for which research tools are left lacking or are insufficient. The detail of the attributions in the major directorates and their offices enables an understanding of the thinking behind funding organisation, which was a problem for resolution before and during any archive consultation (document 3).

Document 3, attributions of the 1st Bureau de la Direction des Travaux (1885 directory)

Prior to the consultation, a researcher must compile a corpus based on keywords (maps, roads, sanitation, plots, insalubrious zones, etc.), which do not necessarily lead to departments (and therefore funds) closed on themselves. The Plan de Paris (map of Paris) in the 1885 directory for example, shows departments from both the first division (General Affairs) of the Directorate of Construction, an ad hoc office of the second division (Roads) of the same directorate and three departments (central section and external services, alignment and stocktaking, topography), managed exclusively by surveyors. Here, prior use of the directories allows researchers to build a more significant corpus than that directly referenced in the Bureau du Plan de Paris (Office of Paris Mapping).

If a researcher is working with insufficiently detailed tools while consulting the archives, it can be disconcerting to be presented with a mass of such disparate items in the same box or series. Here again, prior familiarity of the directories can considerably facilitate reading and prevent chance speculation on improbable links. The Bureau du Plan de Parig has the following attributions for 1885: the completion of the topographical map of Paris, alignment and tunnelling maps (urban layout), building plots, nomenclature of Paris streets, demarcation, and preparation for acts of sale, exchange and disposal (which points to the technical elements of the completion of the Haussmanian redevelopment cycle).

The horizon of expectation for a connection between the information supplied by the directories and the research tools available at the Archives de Paris would facilitate the compilation of a corpus, especially for documentary masses that can at first glance appear discouraging (Construction and Roads, for example).

The Directory as a research tool: imagining Grand Paris from the archive

Administrative directories can be a great help to researchers and archivists in identifying and understanding bodies of research. To this function as a tool, we will no doubt eventually be able to add an epistemological function. It has long been known that archives, just like statistics, constitute instruments of government for cities and even urban societies. A better understanding of history, even of the compilation of the archives themselves, allows us to think about Grand Paris from the point of view of the archive; which means understanding how the Parisian administration built its own bank of knowledge on the ever-evolving territory it managed.

It was clearly not by chance that the Municipal Statistics department, headed by Dr. Jacques Bertillon in 1885 was attached to the General Secretariat of the Prefecture of the Seine (document 4). The attributions of the department mentioned in the directory are both allusive  and suggestive of the desire to produce demographical, health, industrial and even environmental analysis. The term ‘statistic’ appears 17 times in the 1885 directory, even beyond Bertillon’s department, to appear in roads, public instruction, conscription, gas mains. What was counted? What was not counted? Where was it counted, and how? The directories raise so many questions that prepare the ground for longer-term research on the extent or the myth of social economic control in Grand Paris.

Document 4: Municipal Statistics Department, 1885 directory

The directories also help us to grasp how the relationships between Paris and her suburbs were conducted, through the instances of territorial mentions in the different departments. If the term ‘suburb’ only appeared once in 1885 (‘suburb grant’), several towns in the Seine suburbs were cited as places of residence or in the detail of different departments, without even mentioning the arrondissements of Saint-Denis (33 instances) and Sceaux (24 instances). Although the cartography of these addresses holds no major interest in a single directory, situating it in a series over a longer period helps to build an atlas of the administrative history of Grand Paris relatively easily, revealing what this territory of « conflict and solidarity »[2] owes to developments in public health (hospices, hospitals, clinics, asylums) and public instruction (implementation and management of teaching careers) far beyond what historiography has already highlighted for cemeteries and sanitation.

These brief examples of the possible avenues of research will need to undergo quantitative study on the series of digitised directories, which ultimately, should help with the extraction of  big data by Elsa Camus.

However, it remains down to the research community to seize the opportunities for questioning opened by deep study of the administrative directories of Paris and the département of the Seine. As long as we can continue to dedicate collective and interdisciplinary time to research, the work on the directories carried out by Archival City will help to overcome the traditional distribution of work between archivists and researchers. It’s no longer simply about considering archives as resources, for which history itself shows a particular technical and documentary approach, but as subjects of history in their own right.  

Loïc Vadelorge, November 6, 2020


[1] Thoenig, Jean-Claude, l’Ere des technocrates, Paris, Editions d’organisation, 1973

[2] FOURCAUT, Annie, BELLANGER, Emmanuel and FLONNEAU, Mathieu (dir), Paris/banlieues. Conflits et solidarités, Paris, éditions Créaphis, 2007


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