The patron saint of Paris.
Maybe it’s not the libraries themselves. Maybe it’s where they take me: off the beaten paths, the doorways that I peak my head through when I inevitably get lost.
The day began with a visit to the world-renowned Shakespeare and Company bookstore. A grotto of lost books, wispy poems, quick conversation, Shakespeare and Company serves as the quintessential “cute and cozy bookstore”—in Dutch we would say it is quiteghezzellagh. Fifty minutes of strolling through the corridors, running my fingers across the spines of some of the world’s greatest stories, and of course snapping a few illegal photos, I—with my new Gertrude Stein autobiography—made my way over to the area of the Panthéon, where the historic Saint Geneviève library rested.
And then I inevitably got lost—I can feel a pattern beginning to form here. Poking my head into any large gateway that could presumably guard such a grand place, I found myself in the most beautiful church. Indeed, the magnificence of Sacré-Coeur, of Notre Dame in Paris is unparalleled, but the quietness of this church really struck me. And the library—once found—possessed the same modestly fantastic air about it.
Once inside, the haggling began.
“Can I see the library?”, she asks in a thinly veiled French accent.
“Do you have a card?”, he responds, uninterested.
“No…”, her heart races.
“What do you need?”, interest grows.
“I just want to look around”, she truthfully replies.
*wrinkled brow ensues*
“Ok come back in two hours”, his interest has peaked.
Our young bibliophile returns, crêpe-filled, nods past the guard who directs her to a bibliothécaire (librarian) tapping away on her keyboard. Her eyes glance up, “oui”, they say. Parsing her words together carefully, she explains her mission and states her purpose. In return, our bibliothécaire, convinced of our young bibliophile’s linguistic competency, rattles off in fluid French what to our heroine’s formal classroom trained ears, sounds like one single, four-minute long word. She turns to face the direction that the bibliothécaire’s index finger points, nodding convincingly. Lightly, she begins walking towards the finger-point but once the tapping of the keyboard recommences, she darts up the grand staircase that she knows stands between her and what she set out to do.
Entering the main reading room was a far different than entering the crypts of the Handelingenkamer. This library was alive, it was bustling with people and activity and learning and teaching. Afraid of being caught, I immediately began snapping photos—that is, until I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder.
A look of panic washes over our young bibliophile, though it parts as the woman facing her offers a curious smile. Embarrassed, she explains how she couldn’t understand bibliothécaire no. 1 and just wanted a quick glance. Bibliothécaire no. 2 offers another smile, instructs her on the permissible subject matter for her photos, and calls bibliothécaire no. 1 to guide me back down the grand staircase and out the door.
The library itself dates back to 1847 when the first stones were laid down. Designed by Henri Labrouste (1801-1875), the library of Saint-Geneviève was the first edifice constructed with the sole intention of serving as a library. In accordance with the fashion and materials of the times, the library has modern architectural flair, inspired by and competing with the ironwork that went into creating the Eiffel Tower. The library was dedicated to the modern-day patron saint of Paris, Saint Geneviève, and decided to be erected near the Panthéon on rue Soufflot.
Inside, there are three collections: la Réserve, for rare and precious texts; le Fonds, for documents published after 1830; and la Bibliothèque Nordique, which houses the largest body of Scandinavian and Finnish books outside of those countries themselves. Labrouste originally imagined a massive garden spanning across the front of the library, as a warm meeting place for intellectuals and other community members, but his dream was never realized due to several hindrances. Despite the great beauty of the salon, the décor of the Saint-Geneviève library was meant to be subdued, discrete, and quiet so as allow the books themselves to shine.
I walked out of the Saint-Geneviève library into a pool of sunshine and blue skies. Perhaps the patron saint of Paris was waving hello!