Adjudicating Access: The Zhejiang Provincial Archives

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Last week I stopped by the 浙江省档案馆 Zhejiang Provincial Archives one afternoon to get a sense of how things work there. I didn’t know if researching (or even trying) at the archives was worth my time because their website is bereft of essential information, such as a searchable folder-level catalog. Would they have files related to my project? And would they be accessible?

I found out the information online is limited because permission to research is granted on a case by case basis and access to the post-1949 catalog is restricted to staff only. Yes, even the catalog is classified.

(Rejoice pre-1949ers, the Republican period catalog is searchable by researchers via on site computers.)

Since I’m researching the 1960s and couldn’t see any catalogs. I asked how will I know what to request, then?

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Here’s how it works: you fill out an application with name, contact info, letter of introduction from a Chinese danwei, and several sentences describing what you are looking for. The staff then go to their computers and search the catalog. You are 10 feet away from them, so you can try to give some advice on search terms, but they are doing the work.

After a few minutes, they will have compiled a list of folder and document entries from the catalog. Who knows what they left out due to search terms and/or by choice. This list is presented and you can then request specific entries that look related to your project.

But! This is just the first step. My application and the documents I wanted to see had to be reviewed and approved by a committee. The staff said this can take up to 30 days, though they try to process applications much more quickly than that. In other words, don’t expect to get any research done on day one.

In my case, it took only two day for my application to be adjudicated and approved, so I came back to the archives today. Only 11 individual documents were awaiting me, so some of my requests were not approved. I didn’t take good notes on my requests, so I don’t know what I didn’t receive–this is a bad research practice in China. Lesson learned.

An aside: the documents were printed out, not originals. Presumably this means that the PRC-era holdings of Zhejiang Provincial Archives are digitized and could be made accessible through a database system similar to the Shanghai Municipal Archives. If the archives was more open and research oriented…

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Photocopies and cameras are not permitted, but computers are allowed. I was encouraged to take notes and transcribe as much as I wanted. The reading room is wide, has big tables, and has outlets to keep electronics fully charged. There were very few other people present during both times I visited. Things were mostly quiet, except for one or two agitated citizens seeking information.

I worked through the 11 documents quickly and wanted to put in another request. But by this point in the day, the two lead staff had left for a meeting and the junior reading room assistant didn’t have permission to run catalog searches for researchers. Bummer. I was told to call back after the national day celebrations.

Since I was allowed to do research here, I encourage others to come as well. But my suggestion is to first make a quick stop at the Zhejiang Provincial Archives, interface with the staff and submit your application/request, and then head over to the much more researcher-friendly Hangzhou Municipal Archives. After a few days at the Municipal Archives, hopefully the Provincial Archives will have finished adjudicating your application and you can go back to Shuguang Road. It is a lovely neighborhood, at least.

The Zhejiang Provincial Archives is located at 浙江省杭州市西湖区曙光路45号. Follow the signs down the path, enter the compound, turn left and then right again. Go down the road for a minute. The reading room is on the 2nd floor of the building.

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5 thoughts on “Adjudicating Access: The Zhejiang Provincial Archives

    1. No problem! But two caveats almost always apply when researching in China’s archives: conditions on access change frequently and, relatedly, no two researchers will necessarily share the same experience at the same archive, even if they visit at roughly the same time.

      This is why I think it’s a good idea to cast a wide net in terms of archives. Visit a bunch if you can. You’ll inevitably hit a few walls, but you’ll also be successful at others.

      Shanghai and Beijing are usually safe bets though.

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