Saturday, June 26, 2010

BNF day one

Why did I bother with Starbucks? The French national library not only has a café (several), but one with something called "flan gourmand." And the clear bag they lend you to carry around your belongings is like some kind of plastic Birkin, chic enough that I opted to use this (which is, apparently, an option) when I went out for lunch, rather than The Backpack.

That said, I spent more time figuring out how to enter and exit the building; connect to the (very much non-wireless) internet; find the books I need; and (surprisingly complicated) locate the restroom than I actually reading anything. I'm trying to think of a way to describe the layout other than the overused "kafkaesque," but until another word is coined for a bunch of confusingly interconnected rooms governed by a bureaucracy, there you have it. But a kind and helpful bureaucracy. I'm the sort of person who, if given a choice of more than one route to take, will inevitably choose the wrong door, take the wrong turn, and so forth, so I appreciated the willingness of everyone I encountered to point me in the right direction, tell me where to swipe my card and when. That said, I made sure to point out, whenever I asked what promised to be an especially dumb question, to mention that this was my first time using that library. I suspect, however, that I'll make equally embarrassing mistakes my second, third, fourth...

The most exciting, however, was a trip to the rare books room. While I'd already checked everything but my wallet and computer, in this room (which is Salle U but you have to go through Salle T and up a little elevator), you have to check everything except the laptop, and you get a little locker for the clear Birkin. Then, as is often the case in such rooms, you get a little velvet bed for the book. However, as compared with equivalents in the U.S., there's very little fussiness or lecturing about how to handle the materials. Given that they've made sure you're not coming in with, say, a flan gourmand, I suppose they figure anyone who's bothered to look up something obscure enough to make it there isn't about to destroy what they've made it all the way there to look at. Even though, in the end, the "rare" book turned out to contain much less interesting information that a merely "research" one I'd been reading earlier, it was fun going on a whole mini-version of the process I'd gone through just to enter the library in the first place.

The obvious point of comparison for me is the New York Public Library. Both can seem to have everything, yet each presents its own set of challenges. The good and the bad of the NYPL is that it's centrally located and very much open to all. You can go there to find some document that they and they alone possess, and you'll be surrounded by people with entirely different concerns. Meanwhile, the BNF research library is out-of-the-way geographically, requires a card you have to both interview and pay for to use, and encourages you to reserve a spot ahead of time online. And, in the French Paradox department, getting around the library, unless you use a wheelchair, requires an immense amount of walking. All of these factors discourage non-research-related visits, and make it so that once you make it to one of the café areas, the clientele looks like everyone's fantasy of French intellectuals, minus the black turtlenecks. Which is mostly a good thing once you're in, but is time-consuming to enforce, and keeps out not only tourists and raving lunatics, but also anyone without the social capital it takes to figure out how to make it inside from using that library.

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