I came to the 北京市档案馆 Beijing Municipal Archives earlier this year, but my visit was disrupted by the Anti-Fascist Military Parade. I ended up only having one day in the archives in September, much too short to look at all of the files I initially planned on. So, here I am, two months letter, back in the Beijing Municipal Archives, trying to pick up where I left off.
I assumed that my letter of introduction to the archives from September would still be valid, but this ended up being a bit of sticking point when I arrived. The staff explained that visitors need a new letter of introduction if more than one month elapses between visits. After some back-and-forth in which I explained I came all the way from Shanghai for only two days of research, the staff partially relented: my old letter was still good for requesting and viewing materials, but not for photocopying. If I wanted copies, I needed a new letter. Not a problem, I said—I’m happy to type away.
Thankfully, the Beijing Municipal Archives maintains an online catalog at the folder level (not at the individual document level) that you can search from home. Just jot down some archival numbers/signatures, bring them to the archive, and fill out a request slip at the check-in desk.
Contrary to older advice on DissertationReviews.org, you are limited to requesting 15 folders (卷 juan) per day. I tried to ignore this rule (it is printed on the small request slips you fill out) but the staff quickly caught onto what I was doing. I was told I’d have to wait until the following day to see anything more after exceeding the 15 file limit, unless the files were digitized. Digitized files do not count against your daily quota.
I was pretty annoyed by this rule for two reasons: first, the archives was completely empty besides me. Not a single other person was browsing paper files. I don’t think retrieving a few extra folders on my behalf would have taxed the BMA’s resources.
Second–and this was more my own fault–I was racing through everything quite fast so that I could see as many materials as possible during my short stay in the archives. It turns out I could have taken things much more slowly and spent the entire day browsing my 15 folders, because I wasn’t going to see anything more than those 15.
Aside from this annoying rule, my research at the Beijing Municipal Archives went smoothly.
One of the folders I requested was digitized, so the staff set me up on one of the computers outside of the main reading room. Unfortunately you don’t get full access to everything that’s been digitized; the computer only allows you to see the file(s) you requested. While you can’t just run searches and browse ad hoc as you might at the Shanghai Municipal Archives, being able to see a digitized file almost immediately allowed me to work while the paper files were retrieved from the stacks.
The archives is open from 9:15am-5:15pm. The reading room does not close for lunch but there are staff reductions during typical lunch hours. In my case, this meant that my request submitted at about 11:40 a.m. took longer to process than normal. My other requests were generally retrieved and delivered promptly within a few minutes.
If my stay at the Beijing Municipal Archives was longer, I would have tested the copying services to see how they compare to the Shanghai Municipal Archives’ printing procedures. I’ll have to do that next time.
In general, I found the Beijing Municipal Archives to be a low-fuss research environment and a safe bet for doing research in China, provided you have the right paper work. Knowing about the 15 folders per day rule now (and, more importantly, knowing it is enforced) would cause me to carefully consider the order of my requests during future visits. Since you’re limited to what you can see, you need to make wise choices about what to request. Still, in addition to Shanghai, it’s a must visit.
The Beijing Municipal Archives is located at 北京市丰台区蒲黄榆路42号.