Sunday, March 9, 2008

Bibliothèque Nationale

Paris has been a major contrast with Holland. I'm staying in a scuzzy little hotel near Châtelet les Halles on Rue Saint Denis, a narrow, cobbled, pedestrian street full of panini vendors, sex shops and crowds of young guys doing street pick-up. The only advantages to my hotel is that it's cheap, so I save a substantial chunk of my per diem, and it's located in the middle of the city, walking distance from the Bibliothèque Nationale, the Louvre and the museum of modern art.

The city is loud, busy and dirty. So far, I've spent all day in the library and only wandered around a bit at night. I've been pretty tired, so I haven't gotten to see to much.

The situation at the BnF is a classic example of French bureaucracy. My library card was issued fairly painlessly, and I went first to the Western Manuscripts. They are housed in an inner sanctuary, a large beautiful room with high ceilings and books lining every wall. Behind the front door, you give your card to an attendant who scans it an gives you a key. You then stow your all but your essential belongings in the box in the outer hall that your assigned key opens. You then return the attendant who confirms that your remaining belongings are permitted in the manuscript room and assigns you a work station designated by green plastic plate about 4x6 inches. No photos are allowed.

Once you're set up at your work station you can begin requesting manuscripts. The policy is that, if a microfilm exists - and they generally do - you first have to examine the microfilm at one of the microfilm stations. After you've looked at the microfilm, you can request to view the original document. If you request a microfilm, your green plate is exchanged for a bright orange one of the same size and number. About 30 minutes later, when the manuscript arrives you exchange your orange plate for the manuscript itself. The whole system is so involved that if you don't understand it well, it's easy to make a mistake. At one point the lady in charge of the microfilms assigned me an orange plate somewhat arbitrarily of a different number, which cause quite a stir later on when the confusion was realized and of course I was scolded for not realizing that something was amiss, despite the fact that I had never even seen this incorrect plate.

Although it was intense to see the room and the microfilms, the text that I was looking at are all ones that I have read many times and are very well known, so in that sense it was a little boring. For the rest of my time here, I'll be in Eastern Manuscripts, looking at Arabic texts, were there's more opportunity to make original discoveries.

But today the library is closed, so I'll go to the modern art museum and wander around the city.