As some may already know, I have spent the past two weeks in Paris, researching vigorously with the help of the Bibliothèque Nationale, the national library of France. While my research experience here has been for the most part incredible, from time to time it has been incredibl-y frustrating. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve found a wealth of information that I’m eager to share with the rest of the team, and I would have been hard pressed to find it without the BN’s mind-numbingly vast collection – but for a national library, it can often feel somewhat… disorganized.
Take La Semaine à Paris, for example. It’s a weekly periodical that was published starting in 1922 and lists many, if not all, of the performances and special events that were happening in Paris that week. As one might imagine, it’s an incredibly useful resource for a project like ours, wherein we try to catalogue day-to-day musical life. We have been able to access it through Gallica, an online database hosted by the BN; however, the complete run from 1924 is not digitized. Thus, one of my projects while I’ve been in Paris has been to track down the issues we can’t access and photocopy them so we can be more confident about the thoroughness of our research. The first step was to go to the BN’s online catalogue to look for a listing of la Semaine. And there it is! I found the location (because there are many smaller libraries that make up the BN) and the call number, which I noted for later reference. When the time came to head to the particular department where this collection was supposed to be held (Arts du spectacle), I sat down at my desk, pulled out a Demande de document slip, and filled out all the necessary information. As I handed the small scrap of paper to the librarian on duty, I made sure to look the part – friendly, without smiling overmuch; serious, without appearing upset; and confident, without appearing proud. You have to have the right look about you, you see, for French librarians to take you seriously. Sadly, it was to no avail – the man sighed, shook his head, and drew a treble clef at the top of the slip before handing it back and explaining that, because of ongoing construction, the document I sought was held at the Département de la musique.
The next day, I took a trip to Musique, hoping once again to see la Semaine and be done with it. Once again I filled out the little bit of paper and handed it to the librarian, having composed myself appropriately and explained that yes, while the call number would seem to indicate that the document should be at Art du spectacle, I had been told only a day earlier that I could find it here. Relieved that this seemed to satisfy her, I returned to my desk, only to be greeted by another librarian ten minutes later who told me that the document I wanted to consult was non communicable and that I would have to go to Arts du spectacle to see the microfilm of la Semaine instead of the paper copy.
Returning to Arts du spectacle later in the week, I filled out more slips – three this time, as the 1924 issues of la Semaine are on three separate reels, for some reason – and turned them into the librarian, who politely told me that, because these were microfilm, I would have to go to the Salle Ovale to see them instead of the Salle de lecture, where I was.
Feeling thoroughly immersed in an old episode of Scooby-Doo, I made my way downstairs to the Salle Ovale. It’s really a stunning room – a grand oval space surrounded by three floors of bookshelves along the walls and capped by a great oval skylight surrounded by small little round windows that are far enough away that don’t really seem taller than I. I didn’t get much of a chance to marvel at the architecture though, as I was on a mission – making a beeline for the Arts du spectacle desk, I handed in my Demandes for – what, the third time? Fourth time? I had lost count. Anyway, The librarian pointed me to a microfilm reader and a few minutes later and – voilà! There was la Semaine à Paris, in (almost) complete form.
The point I’m trying to make here is that, while the Bibliothèque Nationale has a great many resources that are immensely helpful, it can be infuriatingly complicated to gain access to them. It’s the archival equivalent of a Rube Goldberg machine – only much less entertaining in the process.