Sunday, May 10, 2009

La Bibliothèque Nationale (the Library)

There is one library in Paris that I have been avoiding this entire academic year. To find my much-needed sources, I opted instead for my university's library. When I couldn't find my books there, I went to Gaby's university's library. I even checked Amazon and FNAC for books that those libraries didn't have.

But last week, I could no longer put off the dreaded task. I needed books that could be found only at France's Bibliothèque Nationale, aka the BN (or as my snobby French colleagues like to call it "La Bibliothèque François Mitterand.") In any case, all the names refer to the same place: France's National Library. Or as I liked to think of it: Hell.

So I tend to overdramatize. But that place is no picnic either.

There are two levels to the library: the Upper Level which is open to the public, and the Lower Level which...isn't. I'd bought a library card to the Upper Level way back in September but had found the selection of books to be unsatisfactory. Plus, there was the time I'd dragged myself all the way across Paris in the pouring rain to get some work done only to find upon my arrival that the Upper Level was closed. On a MONDAY.

It was with dismay that I discovered that the several books that I needed were available only at the BN's Lower Level. The special level. The level that required an interview with a librarian who would then determine if you really needed to use the books there. Yeah.

Gaby and I went together, which made things less scary for me. Our interviews went fine (thank God!), and then our librarian told us how to use the library which unfortunately was full that day. Full? Yes, it would be better to make a reservation for a seat or come back another day. A reservation? Yes, or to come in the morning for the few open seats that are non-reservable.

I tried to make a reservation the following week. Full. I would have to go in the early morning to try to get one of those coveted seats, and that's just what I did.

I arrived, had my bag checked and went through the metal detector. Then I checked in my bag at the vestiaire where they gave me a transparent plastic briefcase to put my belongings in: laptop, paper, novel, writing utensils. I was then ready to go through the first set of turnstiles. I scanned my library card, a green light indicated a free passage and I pushed open a very tall set of heavy metal doors.

To my right, two gleaming escalators led down to the reception area of the Lower Level where I had to ask the lady at the desk if there were any seats available in Room V, the French literature room. She informed me that there were a few seats left for the morning. I could have one, but I would have to give it up in the afternoon since it was reserved. She gave me a seat number, and I was then allowed to go through a second set of turnstiles, through more heavy doors and finally into the Lower Level.
Thick plush red carpeting led the way to room V, where I saw rows of big wooden tables lined up with small lamps at each work space. The tables were mostly empty, and I felt rather annoyed that they were nearly all supposedly taken. I found seat 36. In front of it, a little red light indicated it was reserved for me. A green light was next to it. I put away my affairs and headed over to the computers where I could make my book reservations. Oh yes, aside from a few books in Room V, there is no access to most of the stacks. You have to reserve the book and when it's ready at the desk, the little green light at your table lights up. It can take 45 minutes for it to arrive.

I reserved one book and then found another one in the available stacks. When I arrived back at my seat, I noticed the green light was blinking. My reserved book was available? Already? I went to the desk where the librarian took my card. "No, it's not ready yet," he informed me. "But my green light is flashing," I said, puzzled. "That's for the afternoon person," he said, sounding rather irritated at me. was I to know when my book was ready? Too shy to ask, I figured I could work with my available book first.

Finally, when I had only one hour left for my reserved seat, I returned to the desk to see if my other book was ready. A friendly-looking lady took my card and then frowned. " wanted these books." I nodded. "Well, you'll have to use the microfiche instead," she said. "Why?" I asked. "Are the books not available?" "They are," she replied, "but when it's this type of book, we prefer you to use the microfilm." She then handed me a piece of paper with the call number for the microfilm written on it and told me I would need to reserve it. And then wait 45 minutes for it to be ready. This would leave me 15 minutes to look through the source. I smiled tightly and told I was just going to cancel my order because I didn't have time to wait. She was very apologetic about it. It was okay, I said, I'd come back the next day.

As I packed up my belongings though, I could feel my frustration mounting. If they preferred that people didn't look at the books, why did they make them available for reservation? Why couldn't they have sent down the microfilm instead? Why couldn't the first librarian have told me there was a problem with my order? Well, at least I'd been able to get a lot of information from my other book, I thought to myself consolingly.

When I went to the BN the next day, the seats were all "taken." I pictured the nearly empty room. But fortunately the receptionist gave me a place in a science room where I ordered my microfilm immediately. Success! It arrived in 20 minutes and I was able to spend the entire morning looking through one of Alexandre Dumas' newspapers that he'd run.

That day I left feeling like an accomplished scholar. I decided that although the BN is intimidating, not really user-friendly, and requires a certain amount of patience, it was a good experience to figure out how to use it. Just another step towards becoming a real researcher. And honestly, the sources they have are just really cool. I just hope my next sessions over there prove to be good experiences as well.