I love bookstores. I wander around checking out new releases and bargains, not just the books, but also the movies. If there’s a café, even better. I can have a hot chocolate and a snack while perusing a magazine. Libraries, on the other hand, suck the energy right out of me. I go in, do what I need to do, then leave.
I first realized this when I was a college student. I would simply take out whatever I needed for research papers. If that wasn’t an option, then I would photocopy what I could. In extreme cases, I would take notes from a resource. After every visit, I felt so tired and lacked a desire to do anything, let alone more studying.
This condition was never more evident then in Paris. I lived there for a year as a graduate student. My Master’s thesis was entitled La Condition Féminine dans Le Père Goriot d’Honoré de Balzac. Consequently, I had to spend time in a library or two.
As I was planning out my paper, I investigated a local public library—une bibliothèque municipale. I can’t remember much; it was a short visit. I do remember feeling out of my element. It wasn’t set up to function as public libraries do in the States. I know one of my friends felt the same way after her own investigation.
Once I determined the obvious—that my research would be limited to collegiate and specialty libraries—I sought out those that would be the most helpful to me. My first visit to the Maison de Balzac was productive, and a bit amusing. Productive since I discovered a treasure trove of information for my thesis. Amusing since I was a young American woman dressed in her college sweatshirt, blue jeans, and sneakers entering this small space with older professorial French (I assume) men. The librarian, a young man, seemed a little surprised and delighted, or perhaps bemused, when I arrived with a “Bonjour” and “Pouvez-vous m’aider?” I made many visits to this library. I also spent a lot of francs on photocopying.
I’m sure I may have gone to other libraries, but the only other one that stands out in my memory is Sainte-Geneviève. First, there was a line to check into the library. I presented my student ID and was directed to the next line where I received a seat number. Only so many were allowed in at a time. I don’t recall if there was a time limit or not. Either way, it wouldn’t have been a problem.
I climbed the spiraling stairs into the library proper and took in the vaulted ceilings, the upper level with wrought iron rails, the long tables with students studying at their assigned seats. I felt overwhelmed; practically every seat was filled with someone writing, writing, writing, note-taking, note-taking, note-taking. I located my seat, three quarters of the way down the table with only one access point. The tables were rather close to each other. I’m not a small person, nearly 5 feet 11, and I carried a cumbersome book bag. I hugged it close as I inched my way in, repeatedly murmuring “Pardon.”
I took off my coat carefully; room was tight. I sat down, organized my things, and made ready to do research. I took a deep breath and prepared for the annoyed glances. Inching my way back out, I reiterated all the previous pardons. I was pleased to have quickly completed my resource quest with the card catalogue. Yes, that’s right. A card catalogue. The internet was in its infancy twenty years ago.
With the help of the librarian, I retrieved all but one resource. That particular book was on the upper level. I had no idea how to get up there. I spotted one spiral staircase, but couldn’t figure out how to get to it. In addition to wrought iron rails, there was also caging. I admit I didn’t look too hard, nor did I ask for help. I felt very intimidated by the whole building and its environment. I wouldn’t care now, but at that time, I thought, “So what’s one book?”
I pardoned my way back to my seat, giving my fellow students a “Please don’t hate me” look. I took a few notes from the shorter texts and determined I would need copies of the others. This did not take very long. I thought, “They’re going to kill me.” Another deep breath before pardoning my way back out, where I then sought out the librarian to whom I explained that I knew very well how much photocopies cost. After a few minutes, she handed me a thick packet. In a brave, brief second, I opened my mouth to ask about the other book. I knew I was trying the patience of the students at my table, which was quite the understatement. If I got this book, I’d have to look at it right away. I closed my mouth and let the question die in my throat. I wimped out.
Of course, I still had to collect my things. The thought of the exasperated looks from the students as I pardoned my way back to my seat was painful. I arrived at the conclusion I would not be returning to this library except perhaps as an admirer of its architecture. It’s a beautiful library after all. I muttered my pardons and added a few mercis. I packed everything up, took a deep breath, and began my litany. “Pardon. Pardon. Pardon.”
I checked my watch as I left. A half hour. Maybe forty minutes at most. I was completely wiped out. No other library had sapped my energy like this one. Please don’t misunderstand me. I bear no ill will toward libraries. I simply can’t spend much time in them. Even with so many adding small cafés, I still prefer getting lost in bookstores.