“If it’s in the catalog…”: Off the Beaten Path at Changshu Municipal Archives

Sometimes working at an archive makes you smile, and not just because you found a great set of documents.

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I’ve heard stories of the ‘token foreign researcher.’ You know, the person who shows up at an archive in China apparently never before visited by a foreigner. While sometimes being a foreigner at an archive in China elicits hostility and fear among staff, not with the token foreign researcher. The staff are downright delighted to see this person, because their arrival implies that the small little archive might just be an important institution. After all, someone from so far away came! I read about this on DissertationReviews.org once, while a friend recently shared with me a webpage from the Shaanxi Provincial Archives trumpeting that Frank Dikotter had stepped foot through their doors.

Something similar happened to me yesterday when I visited 常熟市档案馆 Changshu Municipal Archives. A suburb of Suzhou, Changshu is a sleepy city with a population of about one million. It takes an hour to get into town by bus from Suzhou, or two hours from Shanghai.

I came to know of the Changshu Municipal Archives through two happy coincidences. In September, while I was working at the Hangzhou Municipal Archives, I read a few Central Committee reports from the 1960s still stamped “secret.” I wanted to take photos of these files, but knew that the classification stamp—a bright red beacon to the naked eye—would probably cause the archives’ staff, who had to approve my request, to say “sorry, but no.” So I wrote down the titles of the documents before handing them over. I later Googled the document titles and found the website of the Changshu Municipal Archives in the results. It looked like this archive, which I had up till then never heard of, had the same files.

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A month or so later, I was reading some other documents for my dissertation project and ran into the name “Changshu” again. I remembered the city name from earlier. Like several other cities in Jiangsu Province, it turns out that Changshu sent a small contingent of “educated youth” (zhishi qingnian) to Xinjiang in 1965-1966. Eager to gather up materials from as many archives as possible, I promptly logged onto their online catalog to see if they had any declassified files about the city’s participation in pre-Cultural Revolution rustication to Xinjiang.

The Changshu Municipal Archives’ online, searchable catalog is a bit clunky, but it works and gives you a good sense of what individual documents (not just folders) are open. As of November 2015, you cannot search across all of the fonds (全总号) at once; rather, you can only search within one fond at a time. This means that you need to repeat searches several times in order to find anything and/or everything. I ran searchers a few times that generated no results, but as I moved through the danwei, I eventually uncovered some files that looked useful.

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So I decided to check out this hidden archive on the outskirts of Suzhou. I came to Changshu with my letter of introduction, passport, and (I believed) an oral introduction from the Jiangsu Provincial Archives. I am not sure if the Jiangsu authorities ever bothered to call Changshu, as the frontline staff didn’t seem to remember hearing about me in advance. But they took my word for it, registered me, and pulled all of the files I had collected from their online catalog.

I was very happy to learn that everything listed in the online catalog is in fact “open.” Occasionally you get to an archive only to learn that the information you found online is not a guarantee of access. I was also very happy that the Changshu staff didn’t scrutinize the files I requested. Sometimes even files stamped kaifang (open) in a catalog are, in fact, not fully open, but this wasn’t the case in Changshu. If it was in the catalog, it was open. The archives has done a good job of separating open/closed files and sticking to the system.

I browsed through two dozen folders from a large desk several feet removed from the registration desk and took notes on my laptop. I found one very long document (40 pages) that looked useful but I didn’t really have enough time to fully process on site, so I asked about photocopying services. I heard a familiar refrain: “if it’s in the catalog, OK!” The staff copied the file for me, free of charge.

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As my afternoon at the Changshu Municipal Archives was coming to a close, the head frontline staff approached me with a funny but adorable request. I was the first foreign researcher to come to their archive, so they wanted to get some photos of me for their next pamphlet or website. I indulged the request. I sat back down at the table, looking like I was deeply engrossed in some historical documents from the 1960s, as a man with a DSLR camera snapped a few action shots. I laughed to myself, thinking, “wow, I’m finally that foreign researcher.”

The Changshu Municipal Archives is a little off the beaten path. It takes a little extra time to get to, as you can’t stroll in on the gaotie/HSR. But if you search the online catalog and find files that look useful and you are already in/close to Jiangsu, Changshu is a safe bet.

The Changshu Municipal Archives is located 江苏省常熟市金沙江路8号, although the main entrance is on 嵩山路. The archives is a 20 RMB cab ride from the 常熟客运站南站.

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