Beijing Municipal Archives

A review of the Beijing Municipal Archives (北京市档案馆), Beijing, China.

I recently completed a year of dissertation research in Beijing, a substantial portion of which was spent at the Beijing Municipal Archives (BMA). This was my second visit to the archives, having also spent a few weeks there during the summer of 2009. My research is on statistics during the first decade of the PRC. The BMA are located in a white multi-storey building with green eaves at 42 Puhuangyu Road, in Fengtai district, just within the third ring road in southern Beijing. Puhuangyu road runs north-south, and the archives are a short walk from both the Puhuangyu (to the north) and Liujiayao (to the south) stops on the Beijing Metro 5 (purple) line. The archives are open 9:15 to 5:15 Monday through Friday and do not close for xiuxi. During the lunch hour, the staff does thin out, but the reading room remains open and the reference/copy counter is manned by at least one archivist.

The public area of the archives comprises three large halls: the entrance hall houses the reception desk where you register and request materials, lockers to store your bag, a small library section with resources on Beijing, and several desks with computers to access the catalog or digitized archives. Adjoining the entrance hall is the main reading room, which has approximately 40 desks. Connected to the reading room is a large enclosed rest area.

In order to use the archives you will need a letter of introduction from a local danwei as well as your passport (or national ID for citizens of the PRC). A staffer will register you and help you locate materials on their online catalog if necessary. You should be able to use the archives immediately upon registration. Once registered, I was able to use my Tsinghua University ID on subsequent visits.

The best way to prepare for a visit to the BMA is to peruse their online catalog. It is divided into several sections with materials on the Republican era, post-1949, Beijing model-workers, and so on. Within each section, the simplified search permits only a keyword search within folder/juan titles. The advanced search option (gaoji jiansuo) provides three additional fields: archival record number (danghao), start year, and end year. The system is fast and effective and it certainly pays to have done preliminary search work before visiting.

Once you have identified juan of interest you will need to write down the eleven digit danghao and take it to the desk in the entrance hall. To date, you cannot request juan electronically or remotely. In my experience, the total number of juan you can request is fairly flexible and has more to do with what may appear reasonable, both to you and to the archivist. There is no limit on how many times you can request materials on any given day, and since the materials arrive in the reading room usually within ten minutes, it provides no real advantage to bulk-order.

Once the staffer calls up the juan, two outcomes are possible. You may be told to wait in the main reading room for the juan to be brought down from the stacks, or you may be handed a white magnetic card and led to one of the computer consoles to access a record that has already been digitized. A considerable number of materials at the BMA have already been digitized with many more to follow. On occasion, certain juan may be unavailable for that very reason. The quality of digitization, sadly, ranges from the poor to the passable.

Duplication rules and costs vary based on the method of duplication and on the type of source material. The use of cameras is strictly prohibited. On my first visit in 2009 I was permitted to copy one-third of any given juan, paper or digitized. This past year I was allowed up to one-half. However, caveats apply. Since this is a municipal archive, they do not have the authority to duplicate materials that originated outside the city. This can be a little frustrating for scholars of the PRC, since it excludes from duplication all provincial and central government materials. Beyond this, the final decision on whether something can be copied rests with the archivists.

In order to obtain copies, you have to fill out a form (see attached sample) in which you provide your personal details, the danghao, the specific topic/title of the document being copied (not the general juan title), and relevant page numbers. You can also specify what form of duplication you want: photocopy, scan, and so on. Ticking the box indicating you will carry the documents outside China will delay your receipt of the copies by a few days since it will require additional paperwork. Over the past year I was charged between 0.4 to 0.8 Yuan to photocopy a page (depending on paper size). Scanning a paper copy costs significantly more, but burning a CD with already digitized materials costs the same as a paper photocopy plus the 10 Yuan for the disc itself. A small brochure is available at the archives with a listing of all duplication services and their attendant costs. (See attached scan)

Overall, the archive is a pleasant place to work. The staff is professional, friendly, and helpful. The reading room is clean, well lit and, barring the rare occasions when groups of officials arrive to look up documents, also quiet. Eating options in the neighborhood, unfortunately, are scant. There are a few restaurants on the walk over from both metro stations, but nothing I can recommend. To make up for this, every day at 11 one of the staffers comes by to take orders for lunch. The BMA premises have an in-house kitchen, and for 12 Yuan you can get a basic meal of rice or baozi with 3 side dishes. While the food is frequently unpalatable, and becomes increasingly so the longer you stay at the BMA, it is a huge plus to be able to have lunch on the premises and get back to work immediately.

Arunabh Ghosh
Department of History
Columbia University
New York, NY 10027
ag2451@columbia.edu

 

Sample Form

 

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  4. Matthew Wills

    I did a small amount of work at the BMA over the course of 2 visits in May 2014. Generally speaking, the situation of 2011 and today are the same. A useful improvement is that documents can now be requested via the catalogue search terminals. Once this is done, and the request has been granted by relevant staff, documents that have been digitized can be viewed from the terminal. Documents not yet digitized are viewed in an adjoining reading room. Photocopying of materials was free, but still required the filling out of the application form included in the post above. I was allowed to copy up to 1/3rd (no more) of one of the documents I was interested in, but my application to copy another juan was refused on the basis that it was an informal record of a meeting rather than an officially published document. Requests to copy documents that originated outside of Beijing and/or touched on “个人情况” were also refused.

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