What do historians do?

What do historians do?

When I tell my non-academic friends and family that I just spent time in Paris doing research, the response usually is “lucky you! I wish I had a job like that.”  I can see in their imaginations that I am sitting in a café, drinking a grande crème and writing in a little notebook, eventually retiring to some fabulous but unknown bistro for my canard confit.  Uh, not exactly.   I am a historian.  When historians are not teaching, they generally spend a lot of time on research, a lot more time than they spend, say, writing.  Or sitting in cafés.  Research usually involves going to libraries and archives.  For a historian of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries like me, it means reading books with fragile bindings and odd typefaces and manuscripts that you hope were written by a secretary because then you might be able to read them.  When I’m on a research trip I do this six days a week.  I take Sundays to write because the libraries aren’t open then.

There are a lot of libraries and archives in Paris, and I’ve only hit a few of them.  The biggest of all is the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, which used to be in a beautiful set of old “hôtels particulières” (that is, former homes of the nobility) not far from the Paris Opera.   It had moved there in the 1720s, with newer buildings added in the 19th century.  It had a lot of atmosphere, and there were many cafés around for lunch, but it had outgrown its quarters sometime during the Third Republic (which fell in 1940).  You had to wait in line to get a seat.  In summer, you showed up before opening time and joined a hopeful queue of scholars straggling down the rue Richelieu.  In winter, you took a number and waited in the chilly lobby, looking hopefully at the bleary-eyed scholars staggering out the door to see if they had had enough and were giving up their place.

The Richelieu site is still open for manuscripts and prints, but printed books were moved in 1998 to a new site on the eastern edge of Paris in the 13th arrondissement, the Bibliothèque François Mitterand.   Designed by Dominique Perrault (I wonder if he is descended from Claude Perrault, who designed the Colonnade of the Louvre and the Paris Observatory), its two glass towers are supposed to resemble piles of books, or so I have heard.  Unfortunately, no one told the designer that sunlight is not too good for books, especially old books, and many more thousands of francs were spent putting in window covers.

The French love technology, and the BN is a high-tech institution.  You can reserve your seat, as well as your books, over the internet.   It’s also a high-security institution.  After you’ve gone through an interview with a librarian, you’re allowed a reader’s card that lets you into the lower-level research library (the upper level library is less restricted, but you still have to have a card).  You have to have a reserved seat before you can go in; this you do on computer terminals scattered across the vast lobby, or over the internet.  You check your coat and bags and put your laptop into a nifty clear plastic schoolbag with a shoulder strap.  Your reader’s card allows you through a set of turnstiles and large metal doors (push the first, pull the second) that rival anything Maxwell Smart walked through, and down two long escalators.  The walls are gray concrete, enlivened with some gray chain-mail stuff on the upper half.

The library, once you get in, is labyrinthine, like the one in The Name of the Rose or some Borges story.  It’s designed in a gigantic square with an outdoor courtyard in the middle (that I don’t think you can actually get outdoors to) and research rooms by topic on the inner side, numbered from K to X (no, I don’t know what happened to the rest of the alphabet).  When I was reading an old and fragile book (that is, most of the time), I was told to go to room Y (ee-grec, in French).  After some searching and walking down long red-carpeted corridors posted with vaguely monastic “prière de respecter le silence” (please be quiet) every few feet,  I found room  Y  behind room T.  You can’t reserve a seat in room Y, so you have to reserve a seat in room T in order to get in.  It took me a while to figure this out.  Room Y is the rare book room, which you reach by going through room T and another set of metal doors, up an elevator two floors (with a female French voice that tells you “this elevator goes to the third floor” ) and through another security door.  This room is even quieter than the rest of the library, dimly lit, and freezing cold (old books don’t like heat).  After a few hours straining your eyes on seventeenth-century text and staring into your laptop, you can warm up with some coffee in the café.  Supposedly there is a way to leave the library without losing your seat, but I never wanted to take the chance.   Or you can wander the ghostly concrete corridors behind the reading rooms where the toilets are located.  I am guessing that these vast concrete spaces are meant to allow for the library’s expansion, but right now they are just spooky.  The café is full of dazed-looking people with clear plastic schoolbags like a bunch of oversized elementary students, looking into the middle distance to get their eyes to focus.

Also in the freezing cold category is the rare book room of the library of the Paris Museum of Natural History, on the edge of the Jardin des Plantes.  There is even a warning on its web site to “dress accordingly.”  This room is only open a few afternoons a week, and only by reservation.  It’s a large attractive room, with a huge painting of a giraffe by the eighteenth-century animal painter Oudry on one wall. The one long table is packed with researchers, and the archivist doles out one folder at a time to the readers.

The Archives Nationales, home of hundreds of years of official papers and personal manuscripts, also used to be in a hôtel particulier, the Hotel Rohan near the Marais.  Fortunately, it did not change its neighborhood when it moved into its new quarters, the CARAN, in 1988, and I found myself leaving home early in the morning just so I could walk down the incredibly charming rue des Rosiers on the way and maybe buy some rugelach at one of the Jewish bakeries there.  The CARAN is somewhat less high-tech in terms of security; there is a guy at the door who checks your bags coming in (I guess to see if you’re bringing anything to blow up the manuscripts) and then you put your stuff in a locker and put your laptop in a plastic bag, not a nifty schoolbag.   The stiff plastic handle on the bag bends alarmingly when I put in my laptop;  as always, I went for the big screen rather than the light weight.  You walk up a wide staircase and use your reader’s card (also obtained after an interview, but a shorter one) to get into the main reading room, a vast, high-ceilinged space which is governed from above by Madame le Président, who oversees a bank of video cameras in case you were thinking of walking off with some piece of the patrimoine.  Here, too, you order your materials in advance, over the internet or on one of the machines in the reading room, and go to Guichet #1 to pick up your stuff and get assigned your “place” (I once made the mistake of calling this a “seat”).  On my last visit, my manuscripts were in a large heavy gray box much like the others scattered across the reading room, filled in my case with documents written just about 300 years ago.  Fortunately these were mostly written by a secretary and the writing was pretty easy to read.   At lunch time, you can go out to one of the many cafes in the Marais, or join the frugal graduate students in the little nook off the lobby which has machines dispensing the cheapest hot chocolate in town – 40 cents.

By far my favorite archive is the library of the Paris Academy of Sciences.  The Academy, founded by Louis XIV in 1666, was folded into the Institut de France after the Revolution, and is housed in the magnificent buildings of the Institut, built by Louis le Vau (one of the architects of Versailles) in 1691, across the Pont des Arts from the Louvre.  The security here is stunningly lax compared to the BN.   You walk through a gateway and pass the porter’s lodge, where you may or may not be stopped.  Usually I just waved at the men in the lodge, but occasionally one would come out and ask what I was doing. “I’m going to the archives of the academy,” I said in my American-accented French, and they point toward the back of the building.  You go through one courtyard, passing the majestic Bibliothèque Mazarine, founded by Louis XIV’s minister back in the 1640s, and then through another courtyard filled with cars.  At the very back, you pass through a door and up six flights of stairs – either on a tiny elevator or up the broad staircase.  And there you are, a little haven on the sixth floor with a view of the rooftops.  The reading room is small, two tables,  but often I was the only person using it.    The service is quick and the staff are uniformly kind and friendly; when I see one of them on the street we exchange greetings like old friends.  I found myself making up reasons to come back here.  At lunch time I could leave my laptop on the table and walk across the Pont des Arts to the rue de Rivoli, and eat my sandwich and look at the tourists as I walked up and down.  Sometimes I walked in the Tuileries instead.

So what is the point of all this?  Why do I do this?   The easy answer is that it is what I do – I’m a historian, I do research about the past and write about it.   I get credit for this in terms of promotion at my job, and I write books and articles that make me very little or no money.    But really I do it because I love it.  It is incredibly satisfying to read old documents and reconstruct a story about something that happened in the past, to try to understand these long-dead men and women and their passions and motivations, to break through that veil between the past and the present.   In my case, I try to reconstruct how they thought about the world, not so much the world of politics as the world itself.  How did people in the past look at the universe, the earth, the human and animal body?  How did we get from there to here?  I believe passionately that if we are ignorant of the past, we will have very little future.

Oh, and I did find that perfect little bistro, and the duck was terrific.

4 thoughts on “What do historians do?

  1. Tamara Caulkins

    Quelle belle description! Merci beaucoup pour l’introduction magnifique à les bibliothèques indispensables française. Et en effet, comme j’ai vu dans le Hunt Institute le juin dernier, l’écriture peut être cryptique, surtout pour quelqu’un comme moi pour qui le français n’est pas la langue première!


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  3. MAO

    The French do like high tech things. Remember the Minitel? Thankfully, many in the hexagon also know when to draw the line, though.

    A diligent fonctionnaire — a hero librarian really — saved the old card catalogue for this library when books were relocated to it. The government was going to destroy it because it would all be online now (right?) and had even contracted for the destruction. There is a lot of information on those old cards, and not all of it has been or will be put into electronic format.

    The hero librarian is married to a historian and I hope this act of courage merits election as a Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur!


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