Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The most beautiful library in Paris

    I could put on airs and pretend I knew it was there. 
    But the truth is, I didn't.
    The way I found myself in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France—the National Library of France—is this: I was visiting Paris for the third time last week, had been to the Louvre and the Musee d'Orsay, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Arc de Tri0mphe, the Opera and the Eiffel Tower. What, I wondered, did I want to do new? 
     I really like libraries. Not for the books, per se, but for some intangible grandeur they preserve. Maybe the idea of books having value, once, and perhaps still. They're just beautiful. I'm not sure I can explain it. 
    So I plugged in "Most beautiful library into Paris" into Google and came up with this. I think it was the distinctive beige ceiling, with its round skylights, that made me have to see it for myself. 
     The Richelieu Reading Room, as the above space is called, because its address is 58 rue de Richelieu is open only to researchers. Which I learned when the guard tried to turn me away. It was ironic. In many cultural institutions through Italy and Paris, journalists are admitted free—either out of respect or pity. But here, where there was no charge, I couldn't get in. I appealed to the guard, who said he didn't speak English, and summoned an administrator who did. I explained to her that I am a journalist from Chicago who wanted to step into the reading room.
    "People are doing research," she said. "They do not want to be disturbed." I realized she perhaps thought I was there to quiz people, perhaps about the upcoming presidential election. I assured here I wouldn't talk to anybody. I just wanted to see the place. She waved me in, another victory for French flexibility. I thought of the guard at the Library of Congress—whom readers of my Chicago memoir might recall -- would flatly refused to let my 7-year-old son see the reading room because he wasn't a registered researcher like his dad.
"Please return the books to their place."
    The room was worth the struggle. 
    If it looks extra fresh for a 143-year-old library, that's because it just reopened last May after five years of renovation work. 
     Tracing its roots to 1368, and the royal library founded by Charles V, the library has 14 million volumes, and is the repository for books published in France. Of course it has other buildings than this stupendous space, constructed in 1868, designed by Henry Labrouste.
     At the time it was the Imperial National Library, and the room was the Salle de Travail—the workroom—for the Department of Prints. Finished in 1873, it holds 80,000 books over three stories of shelves, seats nearly 330 readers, is divided into nine domes by 16 cast iron columns supporting spherical cupolas, "the successful disposition of which marks a distinct advance in the art of architecture," according to the Oct. 24, 1891 issue of The American Architect and Building News,  which noted its  "grand imperial effect."
    Indeed. Though the place was criticized when new. A British visitor in 1870 noted "the lighting of the new room is by no means satisfactory, there being too much light in summer and too little in winter. indeed, on more than one occasion last winter the reading room had to be closed before four o'clock, owing to the want of light."
     The library was not gas-lit for obvious reasons—the technology was still crude, and gas lights tended to cause fires, a particularly problem in a library holding not only the literary patrimony of France, but ancient Greek manuscripts.
    Although that was part of a general takedown, criticizing it for being noisy, poorly ventilated, lacking blotting paper, and decorated by medallions of writers exaggerating French contributions to literary, containing "three errors for which a child at school would be whipped." 
     Getting in was a challenge from the start, I was pleased to note. Though the librarians, "and indeed all those in any way connected to the establishment" were "polite and affable," those seeking admission had to submit "application at the bureau de l'administra-tion" and show "that they have some definite object in view."
     "Foreigners are generally requested to make an application through their ambassadors, but for the benefit of English readers we may mention that the production of the British Museum reading ticket will immediately admit for the bearer a card of admission."
     In view of that, I got off light. I spent maybe 15 minutes, tops, in the reading room, photographing it from various angles, and sitting quietly at space No. 186.  There I noted that, whatever advantages the internet certainly possesses, quite a number of young French people had taken it upon themselves to use the library on a sunny Thursday morning.

     For more than you'd ever want to know about the history of the French national library, including Jacobin leader Francois Hanriot's proposal, during the French revolution, that it be burned "partly, it would seem, because he was anxious to destroy the Fleur-de-lis and other armorial  bearings stamped on the books" plus minute observations of its condition in 1870, including a general disparagement of the new reading room, and many catty remarks on French vanity versus the unquestioned superiority of all things British, see this unsigned article in the April, 1870 Westminster Review, beginning on page 207.


  1. Steinberg fails to mention anywhere in this post that, at least in the photos accompanying it, not a single person is actually reading, you know, a book, or even a magazine or newspaper, anything dead-tree. They're all hunched over laptops or tablets. Quite telling: both what the photos show and the fact that Steinberg doesn't mention it once.

  2. Don't know what picture you're looking at, but I see plenty of books. Of course there are laptops -- these are researchers, they're not browsers at a bookstore coffee shop. Or do you think people still take notes on 3x5 index cards?

    1. Ghost, you need to try the thinking trick. So you think because you don't see one of the, what, three people in that close-up shot looking at a book, ergo ... what? Oh right, whatever conclusion you rode in with. I went to look at the library, but the scholars using it no doubt have a purpose other than a grand setting for their laptops. I don't mention it because it's not valid.

  3. The heading photo -- I saw it and actually exclaimed "oooooooo..." Wow. Excellent photos. Thanks so much for the post.

  4. Yes! It's gorgeous. Limited access is an ancient tradition. In Umberto Eco's "Name of the Rose," based on historical sources from the Byzantine Empire and early Christian monasteries, scholars worked in an outer room called the Scriptorium, and only the librarian, a figure of power, was allowed access to the Library, the repository of books. And in Eco's novel the library ends up being destroyed because it harbors an ancient text on comedy by Aristotle deemed heretical by the church.

    "The thinking trick." I like that.


  5. I was so disappointed when I visited the New York City Library, because I wasn't able to stroll through aisles of books and sample one then another like picking luscious fruit off a bush.

    I discovered Henry Adams by pulling a book off a library shelf and later, attracted by the name, was delighted by a tale of a man called Abraham Thornton (my grandmother was Julia Thornton), who, though undoubtedly innocent, was the last defendant in England to request a decision by Trial by Combat.


    1. According to Mr. Google, he was not the last. In 2002 a sixty year old man assessed with a 25 Pound fine for a motoring offense demanded trial by battle against a champion appointed by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority. Although the practice had been outlawed by act of Parliament in 1817, he claimed it was valid under EU human rights legislation. The Judges raised his fine to 200 pounds and added another 100 for costs.

      The things you learn reading EGGD.



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