On an ordinary day, you might see a long line of people outside this seemingly ordinary building across the street from the Pantheon and a few steps away from the church Saint-Étienne-du-Mont. This building, with names of scholars and philosophers carved into its austere façade, is the historic Bibliothèque* Sainte-Geneviève. The Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève has been at the heart of French education from its beginnings, as part of the vast Abbaye de Sainte-Geneviève in the early sixth century, to its current role the main research and reference library for students of l’Université Sorbonne Nouvelle. Although the library is public, to avoid tourists wandering around distracting studies, casual visitors are only allowed to visit between 9am to 10am, after which the library is open to students.
Following the process, I emailed the library in advance and was told I could bring the LO but would have to wear her as the library is not stroller friendly. On the day, a large group of French speakers show up and the tour is conducted in French. The librarian was sweet enough to pause and repeat the main points in English for me.
St Geneviève, one of the largest and oldest abbeys in Paris, had amassed a large library by the 12th century. The Royal Library Sainte-Genevieve was built sometime in the future to house this collection. The French the architect Henri Labrouste was commissioned to design and oversee the construction of the modern version of this building. Labrouste’s Bibliothèque Nationale is widely acknowledged, but Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève came first.
The building is famous for its use of figured cast iron, reaching up to form two soaring barrel vaults running the length the reading room. It was among the first to have iron used in such a prominent, visible way. The library was conceptualized as “a temple of knowledge and space for contemplation”. The building is a marriage of light and dark. It represents the “outside” and the “inside”; the “arts” and the “sciences”. Its genius lies in the way it switches common notions which should darkness and which light. The movement of people from light (outside) to darkness (inside/the lobby) to light (the reading room) can be interpreted in so many metaphysical ways. The reading room door has a secret lock. If that doesn’t catch your imagination, the thousands of books that line the walls will. Labrouste insisted that the interiors of the reading room be simple and unadorned. Books should be a library’s greatest decoration. Impressed.