So, here we go:
About ten years ago France opened a new library, the last of the Mitterand monuments. At that point the BN somehow became the BnF (Bibliothèque nationale de France). The new site is known, short hand, as “Mitterand.” The old one, pictured above, “Richelieu.” But it remains for me simply “the BN,” and that parvenu building on the southeastern fringe of the city (about which I will have much more to say in the near future) is “the new BN.” I handle change, you see. I just don’t handle it well.
Anway, the BN is a real example of 19th-century grandeur, its breath-taking monumental reading room today sitting largely empty of people and of books, inhabited at the moment chiefly by ghosts of readers past. I had originally envisioned this article as a heart-felt tribute to those days gone by, but my last foray into nostalgia left me so emotionally gutted that—it seemed to me—well, enough said.
Let us focus instead on the happy accident that one corner of the grand building has remained largely unchanged, itself as resistant to the ravages of time as am I: the Salle des Manuscrits, pictured above, where I have done most of my work of any consequence as a historian. I really don’t believe that, most of years of my life, I’m much good as a scholar. But to ascend the magnificent stairway and to sit in this lovely, often sun-drenched nineteenth-century space, surrounded by two-tiered grand bookcases, and with literally tens of thousands of hand-written documents at your disposal, all catalogued and indexed with varying degrees of detail (but all catalogued and indexed—hello, Vatican!) . . . well, how could you not get good work done?