One of the perks of studying the English republican exiles in Europe is that I get to travel a lot. This is nice, not just because it gets me out of the daily grind of university life but also because I get to see how other people in other countries do things. One of the interesting things I learnt on my last trip to Paris is how the French ‘do’ archives and libraries, and the Bibliothèque Nationale (BnF) is an outstanding example of good service and a relaxed working atmosphere.
By way of explanation, I should say that the BnF has several sites around Paris. The main one for those of us studying early modern history is the site Richelieu in rue Vivienne round the corner from the Louvre, in particular its oval search room, which looks a bit like the old British Museum reading room, and its Manuscripts Reading Room upstairs, where items are still ordered on slips of paper and the staff keep a close eye on how you handle the documents.
There is also the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal on rue Sully with its wonderful collection of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century printed works, including those of English and French republicans, where you can work quietly alongside another handful of historians surrounded by wood-panelled walls and well-stocked shelves. You’re also never far from a colleague sharing your enthusiasm for republican thought. Waiting on the bench outside in the sun for the library to open in the morning, I drifted into a surreal conversation with a specialist on the French Revolution who knew all about the ‘Skinner and Pocock’ stuff I was interested in.
The only thing you must never do when you’re in the Arsenal reading room is to carry around valuable books yourself. The staff will bring them to your seat, and you will leave them there when you go home. I nearly caused one of the helpful librarians to have a heart attack, when I picked up my pile of Sidneys, Ludlows and Nevilles to return them as I left the room. I didn’t drop them though.
Finally, there is the site François Mitterand by the Quai François-Mauriac. Confusingly, if you’re not local, it’s referred to in the general catalogue as ‘Tolbiac’, where items are held either on the Rez-de-jardin (ground floor) or Haut-de-jardin (upper level). The description will soon make sense when you enter the building.
Composed of four large towers of glass, steel and concrete, the BnF by the quayside is guarded like a high-security ministry – MI6 springs to mind as I picture the next Bond movie being filmed here. Your bag is scanned as you enter through a metal detecting gate. Heavy steel doors separate the corridors, while steep escalators get you in and out of the bowels of the building.
Being the pragmatist that I am I tend to judge the quality of a (foreign) library or an archive – besides its holdings, that is – by a number of categories.
Things you’re allowed to take into the reading room
Surprisingly many, as it turns out – as long as they fit into the see-through plastic satchel you are given by the cloakroom staff. These include bottles of water and items of food as long as you don’t consume them inside the reading room. But taking them in means you don’t have to go all the way back to the cloakroom once you’re inside the working area. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw one very hungry scholar carry in a huge plastic bag with what can only be described as a family picnic. Other items allowed in the reading rooms naturally include laptops, cameras, handbags etc, as long as they fit – alongside all the food – into your satchel.
Quality of coffee and eating facilities
The quality of the coffee available clearly enhances the length of time I can spend in any library. So I was disappointed to find that the BnF had the same terrible coffee machines you find all over the world, next to a vending machine offering very cold madeleines and packs of biscuits. But France would not be France if this were the only thing on offer. I just hadn’t found the cafeteria yet! There you can get full lunches consisting of very affordable and healthy salads, sandwiches, desserts and real coffee from a strong espresso to the French’s favourite milky version. You might just forget you’re in a library.
The staff were exceptionally helpful and friendly everywhere, although they can be very strict about where you’re allowed to work with which document, and they won’t hesitate to tell you off if you’re getting it wrong. If you’re trying to get something out of the ordinary, they might tell you it is impossible or ever so difficult to do, only to bring it to your desk five minutes later. I think it’s to make you aware of the effort it costs them. So it’s worthwhile looking sympathetic and grateful.
Another thing I found ingenious was the fact that all the computer workstations had card readers attached to them. So you could log into your library account without having to remember any passwords. If you, like me, have about a zillion different passwords and keep forgetting them or mixing them up, then you will love this. Naturally, all desks have free internet access.
Patience with pesky foreigners
This is excellent, as long as you try to speak French. If you make an effort, so will they, although I have a feeling they don’t take us too seriously. But if we think their historical documents are worth studying, it’s clearly worth humouring us, which brings me to my last point (though not really a quality category).
Just look at the buildings by the quayside! Four giant towers holding the national heritage of the country and a large wooden bridge across the Seine connecting it to the lively Parc de Bercy, planned in the 90s as an urban regeneration project and home to the film museum as well as a huge sports arena. As you leave the BnF you’ll see two flags in the breeze: the Tricolore and the European Union Flag – now fancy that outside the British Library!
PS: I also used the Archives Nationales, which clearly look like they’ve been forgotten about because all the funding went into the BnF. But since they’re in the process of moving to greener pastures too, I should not judge. Besides, they allowed me to take photographs of an extremely interesting letter by Algernon Sidney from his exile in Nerac.
PPS: I was also more than impressed with the archives of the Ministère des Affaires Étrangères in La Courneuve-Aubervilliers just outside Paris, where diplomatic sources and political correspondences are held. I had barely set foot into the search room when one of the archivists approached me to ask if I needed help. Clearly I looked like I could use all the help I could get. Thanks to her I made a few valuable finds.
It seemed crazy though that they should have all these wonderful facilities – a search room, a library, a microfilm reading room where everything is on open access shelves, and an excellent reading room with plenty of light to take photographs as well as helpful staff – and hardly anyone using them! There were barely twenty people in the reading room, and four fifths of the room empty. Maybe it’s just because of the summer and because the weather outside was so beautiful these last two weeks that it was really hard to stay in inside. It’s clearly a great place to work.