Ashley in Paris

Ashley, a member of the University Honors Program and a senior majoring in art history, was awarded a Richter International Fellowship to conduct independent, graduate-level research this summer in Paris, where she plans to examine primary documents and pieces of chinoiserie at the major libraries and museums. Chinoiserie was an 18th-century movement in Europe characterized by the production of goods that portrayed China as an idyllic utopia, with plump pagodes, mystic sages and enlightened philosophers.

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Qu’est-ce que c’est une Bibliotheque en France?

This previous week was unbelievably crammed with work at the libraries, hence my title “What is a Library in France?.” Navigating the Paris libraries is definitely a full-time job. Therefore, I apologize for the amount of time that has elapsed between entries. But I have many new stories to share.

My apprehensions, again …
As I stated previously, I was unbelievably nervous about going to the Bibliotheque National de la France. I know, it seems like almost every time I talk about doing something new I first have a disclaimer about my constant state of worry. I am working on it. That is part of what this trip is all about.

However, the BNF isn’t your average library. I have told several people to think of the National Archives in Washington, DC, or another national institution. They don’t just let anyone in from off the street. You have to go through security, be screened, be interviewed, and sometimes be scrutinized, just to get in the door. So, to say the least, I was apprehensive.

Over the years at SMU, I have heard many varied stories about the BNF. It seems that if you are an art historian, you have at least visited the BNF once, or possibly dozens of times, to consult one of the many resources contained within its enormous collection. The stories I had heard were as varied as the people telling them. So, I basically was even more confused and scared than if I knew nothing.

Luckily, a few weeks ago I solicited the advice of a good friend who had visited the BNF several times last semester for a research project during her enrollment in the SMU-in-Paris semester-long program. She gave me detailed instructions on what and what not to do when I went to apply for my reader’s card. So, at least I had a plan of attack, right?

The 13th (Could it be a lucky number after all?)
The BNF is located on the South side of the Seine in Paris’ 13th arrondissement. When you step out of the metro you are in a very different city than the Haussmann Boulevards of the 8th or the medieval streets of the 4th. You are somewhere that looks like it could be any metropolis in the United States. However, I don’t say this to create a comforting feel. No, this is only a further illustration of the formal tone established at the BNF.

The Ministry of Economy and Finance is directly across the street, if that is any indication. Most of the people you see are male, and they are in business suits. However, you also see a lot of students and other academics near the BNF, mostly French. Luckily, the building is relatively easy to find once you arrive from the metro. Although, the building itself is HUGE and has several different entrances.

In France, which entrance you choose is extremely important. It can mean the difference between accomplishing your goal or being turned away abashed. Julia had already told me that it was imperative I enter through the East doors. Luckily there is a large sign that says “L’EST.” After passing through security at the main doors, I headed to a small office to apply for my card (Rez-de-Jardin).

The Not-so-Painful Process
Applying for the reader’s card is a mix between going to the DMV and getting interviewed for admittance into a prestigious university. An odd combination, I know. When you go in, you take a number. There is an electronic screen that displays your number and the letter of the cubicle you need to go to for your interview once someone is available. Luckily, there wasn’t much of a wait. I only had two people in front of me. Now this is the part that I had been the most stressed about.

Basically what happened once I was called back to a cubicle is, they looked over my letters of introduction from my professors, entered information into the system from my passport, and asked me about the nature of my research. Luckily, my French didn’t fail me. The woman interviewing me was pleasant, but strict. She asked me to read her my passport number. She said that she couldn’t see it, which I thought was odd considering she had been able to enter my name and other personal information listed on it. However, looking back, I think she was testing my French. No problem there. And Voila! I was in and had my reader’s card (valid for 15 days).

Navigating the System
After obtaining the coveted card, I decided to go and explore the reading rooms. Before I could do that, I had to check my purse at the coat check and put anything I wanted to take with me into the reading room into a clear, plastic laptop back. Also, you must make a reservation before entering the reading rooms. This ensures you a particular seat with lamp and power outlets. Also, it allows you to reserve books. When your books are ready at the circulation desk, a little green light on your desk will flash. Very efficient.

So, I spent the next three days at the BNF trying to master the system of requesting books, actually receiving them, and taking notes on my findings. Each day was a little more successful than the last. My third day, I actually got books from the circulation desk. I have to admit that the system at the BNF can be very cryptic, especially if you aren’t extremely proficient in French and assertive enough to demand proper explanations, two things I am currently working on. Many times they come up with reasons as to why you can’t see the book, or they just tell you that they can’t find it. My only solution thus far is just trying again another day. If I am persistent enough, hopefully they will give in.

A Change of Scenery, peut-etre?
I admit, after three days, I was down-trodden and not feeling very productive. I decided that I needed a change of scenery and to consult more catalogues I knew would be rich in images. I decided to try the Bibliotheque des arts decoratifs for a few days and enhance my visual vocabulary of chinoiserie. The entire basis of my research stems from the questions I ask regarding the discrepant iconography present in various pieces. To say the least I found a treasure trove. However, I also realized how much more research I have ahead of me. Just cataloguing these images, many of them not published in the United States, could take years. For many, we don’t know the artist, the date, or the country of origin. So, I found a lot of amazing images, but a lot of research remains to be done.

All in all, I really enjoy the Bibliotheque des arts decoratifs. It is extremely peaceful, and there are many students around, which makes it less stuffy than the BNF. Also, it is incredibly small (maybe the size of SMU’s Bridwell Library, but with one large reading room). Therefore, I’ve gotten to know the staff, and they have been wonderful assets. Aside from all of the research that has been monopolizing my time, I have found a few precious moments to enjoy Paris, not from inside a library (see my next post for more info on that…).

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