Thursday, 27 November 2008

An Afternoon among Montreal's Rats de bibliothèque, Or the Pleasure of Libraries

The Grande bibliothèque du Québec—Quebec’s bibliothèque nationale in downtown Montreal--was full of people of all ages at 3 p.m. yesterday afternoon. The elderly and the well-dressed mixed amiably with the young and the scruffy in the reading rooms and the document check-outs. It had been a long time since I’d visited—I usually use libraries which are nearer to where I live or the one at McGill—but I was looking for the English translation of Ensemble, C’est tout by Anna Gavalda for the next round of book discussions the week after next. Oddly all copies of Hunting and Gathering, as it’s called in English, were out on loan everywhere, except for one at Quebec’s flagship library.

I couldn’t help thinking two things as I checked out my books (of course I found a couple of other things I couldn't resist: that's the great joy and the great danger of libraries.) The first was just how user-friendly it is, and the second—a corollary--was how different it is from the François-Mitterrand complex of the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris even though both are official depositories for everything published in their jurisdictions. Quebec’s "national" library has suffered problems—a number of the frosted glass panels on the outside which allow floods of diffused light to enter the building without harming books have disintegrated and fallen, for example. But it has been adopted enthusiastically by Montrealers who obviously were thirsting for such a public place.

Paris’s Grande bibliothèque is something else again, a place for research and serious scholars. It may be the center piece for a revitalization of former industrial sites along the Seine, but it is almost forbidding. The difference reflects many things, among them France’s longer intellectual tradition: the BNF has an enormous collection of priceless things that must be carefully preserved. But the crowds in the Quebec’s Grande bibliothèque also are a response to a long penury of public libraries in most of the province. Montreal has had to play catch=up, and decided to collaborate with the GBQ project in order to fill a great need. Better late than never, I guess.

Note: On the left, a photo of Montreal's Grande bibliothèque from Virtual Tourist. On the right, my photo of the François Mitterand complex.


lagatta said...

Yes, I've used both libraries, and while the French version of "La Grande bibliothèque" has a much richer "fonds", it is very forbidding, although I was there with a friend who is a rather prominent French intellectual (CNRS research director). I also know a fellow who works there, and doesn't enjoy it at all, physically, as a workplace. One great thing nearby is the new, fully-automated métro line 14 that serves it and alleviates the overcrowding in earlier central Parisian lines.

I also like the highly-pitched auditorium at La grande bibiliothèque (Montréal version).

By the way, "national" doesn't take quotes. A nation isn't necessarily a sovereign state. Scotland and Wales are nations, the Basque nation straddles the Spanish-French border, and there are many First Nations here, including the Mohawks who have one reserve that is located in Québec, Ontario, and New York State!

Church-ridden Québec in times past actually seems to have discouraged public libraries. The old city library is a lovely building, but the collection was woefully inadequate.

I've been to very user-friendly libraries in France, but they tended to be local branch ones, or for example the very friendly library in the old Parisian suburb of Montreuil...

The BANQ is actually a great place to meet people. Wonderful for those of us who really aren't barflies.

Mary Soderstrom said...

Libraries are one of my great enthusiasms, and if I'm not mistaken I met you in one on Saturday! Putting things together, I seems to me you must be the woman who had so many interesting things to say about cycling, Amsterdam etc.

The Mile End library is very special for me: as I may have said to you, we were parishioners there at one point, and my son, who had a perod of intense spirituality at 11 decided to be baptized there, and was the last person to be so before the building was deconsecrated for renovation as the library.

Best wishes