Sunday, April 6, 2008

National Styles in Archives

Thank you to Mary Dudziak, who invited me to guest blog for a few weeks. Mary asked me to say a few words about foreign archives since I have been spending time this year at the British Library and the French Bibliothèque Nationale. The appearance and design of these buildings challenges national stereotypes. Where one expects a magnificence or verve in a signature French building, the Bibliothèque Nationale offers an ugliness so looming and all-enveloping as to be heroic. Did one of the Sun-Presidents of the French Republic want to build on a Pharaonic scale in a time of tight budgets? Nondescript towers rise from a windswept concrete plaza to incarcerate the books. But the reader does not ascend into the towers. Escalators take the reader deeper and deeper into the ground past several security check points that have a science-fiction buzz, as if the architects blended Disney’s Futureworld with the soul of the sternest librarian that haunted Gallic elementary schools. By contrast, the British Library is more welcoming, warmer in design, and, shockingly, has considerably better food. It also has more books in English.