Friday, March 11, 2011

Library Moments

I sat next to my father in the library.  I was writing and he was perusing the Sunday New York Times.  The last time I found myself sitting next to Dad in a library, we were in Paris at the Bibliothéque Historique de Paris.  We were waiting for our requested books and periodicals to be rolled out from the bowels of the library.  I had gone to great lengths to figure out the library system in France in order to look at some resource materials my father might be interested in for his research about Cadwallader Washburne who was the Ambassador to France in the mid-19th century.  Dad’s fascination with this man and his brothers, all of whom were wildly successful in one way or another, was based on their shared heritage as Mainiacs and Universalists.  
Most of us can walk into a library, look something up in the catalog, then wander around the stacks to locate the book—or wander around aimlessly in the hopes of finding something else interesting.  In France, the process is strictly scripted and requires authorization of this and that along the way.  The stacks are off limit to the public.  Libraries in France are vastly different from libraries in the United States.  

Before making the trip, Dad expressed an interest in visiting the national library—Bibliothéque Nationale de France—which is comprised of four buildings designed to resemble books that are open and facing each other.  They are large and imposing and very much evident in the Paris skyline.  I had read Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon several years ago and was soundly discouraged from the idea of looking for anything at that library. But when we literally stumbled across the Bibliothque Historique de Paris in Le Marais, I could no longer refuse.  So we returned a few days later as instructed by the man inside and we could get whatever kind of authorization we needed to use the facility.   

Authorization required an identification photo—even though we were only using the library for the day.  After much explanation and pleading, the woman made do with our passports.  She gave us what we needed and sent me on my way to the card catalog—that is, the paper card catalog—drawers and drawers of it.  If you want to read more detail about that adventure, click here for the actual journal I put together after our return:  There was nothing slam dunk about the experience.  But it was an experience.  

Despite the complications we encountered in the library in Paris, sitting side by side in our local library was comforting and satisfying.  These moments with Dad are as memory making as that trip to France.

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