by jemma margaret

My visit to the Bibliothèque nationale de France turned out to be rather comically inessential to my research. One of the books I was hoping to see (Plücker’s Analytisch-geometrische Entwicklung (1828)–available via Google books but without legible figures) was mysteriously not available to borrow. The other book came promptly and shortly thereafter I realized I had a scanned copy of it on my computer already.

Nevertheless, the journey and inscription were well worth while as I found myself within the largest quiet space I have ever set foot. I have been to the top three largest libraries, but only in the museum part of the Library of Congress, besides French quiet is much quieter than American quiet.

This is because the French do not fidget.

As an aspiring academic I am often seated in uncomfortable chairs for multiple hours in drafty or stuffy rooms. In these lectures it is very easy to play, spot the American, because she is the one squirming around every five minutes. The French have remarkable composure–they do not cross and uncross their legs, they do not tap their feet, they do not slump back and forth, they do not scratch imaginary itches, and so on. I do. All the time.

I do not think this is some sort of attention deficit. I think this is called being human. All that beautiful French stillness is a result of many years of disciplined training. Don’t believe me? Read Foucault (who, fittingly, spent a whole lot of time at the BnF).

The BnF is like a secret small town inside a contemporary Mayan ruin. You must walk up many many stairs and then go down a very long sloping escalator to get inside. There is a metal detector at the entrance. Then, if like me you have not yet registered, you take a number and wait. There is an interview and you show all your necessary paperwork. Then you sign an agreement, listen to many instructions, get your picture taken and receive a card and a map. The card will not function until you pay for it. I bought a non-consecutive three day pass. All bags must be stored at the coat check, but you will be provided with a clear plastic briefcase to store belongings. Finally, you are ready to descend.

Scan your card once, pass through two doors, take the escalator down to the garden level, use a computer to reserve a seat and order any books to be delivered to that seat, scan your card again, pass through two more doors and voilá! you are now in the research section of the BnF.

The research section is a huge hollow square surrounding an impenetrable garden with soundproof cafés at each corner. Food is limited to within the cafés or certain designated indoor pique-nique sections. Even bottled water must be kept off the desks and away from the books. Over the summer, I was discussing secret eating in libraries with a French colleague, who said he was surprised to see it so rampant in the states. In the past seven months I have seen surreptitious cookies and tangerines at the bibliothèque, though only in the hands and mouths of teenage girls (so at least they aren’t smoking!). Today though, the woman across from me occasionally shook out a couple cashews from a carefully concealed bag and silently chewed them up.

Aha! I thought.

Until I noticed that her computer was plugged in with a European adapter.

Sure, it’s possible that a French person owns a small American computer. But that the same French person would also secretly snack while reading old books…ce n’est pas possible.