Working at the Bibliothèque nationale

Judith Surkis, a Professor of History at Harvard, provides an insider’s accunt of what it was like to perform reserarch at the old Bibliothèque nationale, where Foucault also worked. The site was moved in the mid 1990s:

Entry into the luminous Salle Labrouste was conditional upon an interview; being admitted felt like belonging to a select club. Even when granted permission, securing a seat was not easy, as the limited number of spots- some 360 in all- were in high demand. A late arrival could mean waiting an hour- or more- for one to become available. This intervening time, if often frustrating, also created camaraderie; the wait was also an initiation into the unique temporality and sociability of the “B.N.”

More here.

One Response

  1. It was interesting reading this account of working at the old BN. My own experience was a little different as I always worked in the periodicals reading room – not the main book reading room. The periodicals reading room was always half empty – no trouble getting in there – and as I was consulting mainly contemporary journals, newspapers and magazines – all related to Foucault of course! – they were lovely new and untouched. What a satisfying feeling separating those pages stuck together with newness!

    This was back in the days (late 70s, early 80s) when research in academe focused on old things – not the contemporary. I felt a superior pity for all the desperate crowds hanging around waiting outside the main reading room and the few times I ventured in there myself (for example to read Foucault’s thesis on Kant) – I found it stressfully overpopulated

    The leather covered tables and chairs and green lamps in the periodicals reading room were luxurious and the average age of the other readers was around 100. The coffee vending machine outside the reading room was indeed bad but I always enjoyed the watery hot chocolate when I could no longer keep my eyes open.

    I rarely spoke to anyone and the library staff were always very taciturn. If the periodicals reading room was easy entry – one still had to fill in the forms and wait for the journals to be delivered from the stacks. You had to bring to something to read while you were waiting and I always had a Foucault tome to hand.

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