Library Saturday is a very recent addition to the long list of cultural events organised throughout the year in the canton of Vaud. Started in 2012, the aim of this event which takes place in the first quarter of the year is to boost people’s awareness that the canton has really a large number of libraries at their disposal: this year some 39 libraries signed up to take part in this open day for the public. There is a theme for each edition so as to provide some kind of common thread to the many activities that are held, especially at the municipal and communal libraries, namely conferences, storytelling, literary readings, workshops, etc.
A heavy borrower of books, I was particularly interested in the visits of the stacks of the BCU (Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire – Lausanne’s cantonal and university library) which would be organised at this institution’s site in the very heart of Lausanne, at the Palais de Rumine, place de la Riponne – the library’s other main site is at Dorigny, which is also home to the campus of the university of Lausanne. The BCU is both a generalist and an academic library as it serves the needs of university students and researchers as well as those of the general public. Furthermore, it fulfils a patrimonial mission in that by law a copy of each book published in the canton has to be kept at the BCU’s Palais de Rumine branch; the library also tries to hold a copy of every book that has been published about the canton (for its collection on Vaud, called documentation vaudoise, also at Palais de Rumine).
Although I would certainly describe myself as a lover of books, prior to last Saturday I had never visited the stacks of a library not in open access (i.e. those kept in the bowels of the building). I had not even done so when I was still living in Geneva during the open day for libraries and the literary event staged there in September, called La fureur de lire (the fury to read). So when I accessed the BCU’s website to check the due dates of the books I had borrowed and then I read the following teaser I was immediately willing to give it a try:
‘In this place, books […] live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach the hands of a new reader, a new spirit…’, Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Did you know that hundreds of thousands of books are waiting for you in the bowels of the library? Let yourself be tempted by the experience of browsing through our underground lanes with serendipity as your guide and going back with some books which will have caught your fancy. [my translation]
So last Saturday, after having seen the thematic exhibition on French-speaking artists from Switzerland exiled in Paris for artistic purposes in the 19th and 20th centuries at Lausanne’s Cantonal Museum of Fine Art (also housed at Palais de Rumine), I decided to skip the concert scheduled for 3pm and go immediately to the other side of the building, to the BCU, because I was hoping to pay a visit to the main branch of the municipal library afterwards (which closes at 4pm on Saturdays). At the enquiry counter, a staff from the library asked me to follow him down to the basement through a small gap in between the bookcases I had never noticed so that I could join the group which had just started their visit of the BCU’s stacks and many paper treasures.
Our guide, a young woman in her late teens or very early twenties who described herself as a third-year apprentice now working at Dorigny, proved to be highly knowledgeable, entertaining and with a good sense of timing. She guided our small group through the lanes that run between the rows of compactus shelving units (which slide back and forth so as to maximise space) on the three floors of the library’s basement with great enthusiasm, thereby making our 45 minute long visit to this cramped and maybe a little claustrophobic area a rather pleasant one.
On the first floor in the basement, our guide told us about a peculiarity regarding the way in which the books are placed on the shelves of the stacks: they are simply shelved according to the number they bear on the top part of their spine, itself dependent on their size and date of cataloguing. For instance, the top shelf of the bookcase seen on this picture carries the books with the numbers RMA 31421 to RMA 31466. Space is a precious commodity in the underground stacks of the library because Palais de Rumine also houses several cantonal museums (fine arts, archaeology, geology, numismatics and zoology) and, from what I could see during my visit, the library seems to have been allocated only half (if not less) of the basement.
As I tend to like to have my own books neatly arranged and kept firmly upright (i.e. no books positioned like the leaning tower of Pisa, at least not those that I cherish or that are worth something), I was a little disappointed to find out that this was not the case for some of the books I glimpsed here and there during our perambulation through the stacks of the BCU in the basement of Palais de Rumine and that some of the music partitions had been, well, just left to collect dust. Moreover, I felt a little sad when I saw that some of the Italian Marquess of Valva’s books on architecture were not stored in special bookcases (upon the death of Giuseppe Ayala, Marquess of Valva, in Lausanne in 1951, the BCU was bequeathed what is still to date its largest book donation ever – see page 7 of this newspaper; a couple of years ago when I borrowed a book that bore an elegant ex dono in his name – see page 16 of this article – and I wondered a little about this Italian aristocrat, little could I have imagined that I would see some of his books stacked unpretentiously in the bowels of the BCU some 5 to 8 years later).
My wife was a library manager in Singapore (she managed two libraries), so I know that loan statistics are an important professional metric for librarians. This is why when we reached the third floor, the last in the bowels of the library, I felt that I had to play the game and borrow some books to help the library boost its loan statistics. Given the odd classification system and the fact that most of the books were in compactus shelving units I would not dare to open, I was forced to let serendipity (discoveries made by accident) guide my book borrowing. Still, I was able to pick two books on subjects I am interested in: a ‘postcard book’ on the region where the Cathars (a heretical Christian sect who amongst other religious principles strictly prohibited the consumption of meat) had appeared, lived and been exterminated in the first instance of the Inquisition in Europe and a book on trees, these gifts of mother nature I must learn more about to be able to truly appreciate them.
To avoid any misunderstanding as regards my stance in relation to the BCU that might have arisen as a result of the paragraph where I talk about books not always being positioned upright, let me simply state that, apart from this point and the books of the Italian Marquess (even though I would note that I must have seen only a few hundreds out of the thousands he bequeathed to the library), I am very happy with the services the BCU offers to the public (including the interesting series of conferences they hold each year and which I have attended on a few occasions), so that I would like to conclude with this quote (from a book in French) which I consider to be totally appropriate to the BCU La Riponne:
The role of public libraries in [the transmission and updating of the cultural tradition] is irreplaceable. As the true temples of the book, public libraries provide to everyone without discrimination the opportunity to tap into a wide range of publications; as such, they offer both food for the imagination and for emotions as well as books on technical, philosophical, social or artistic subjects. Librarians fulfil their role of [cultural] guides to the perfection by encouraging the discovery of new worlds through books; but they are also the guardians of tradition and educators: it is partly through them that the reader learns to respect the book.
Claire Deschamps, Les bienfaits du Livre, Editions Jouvence, Geneva, 1994, p.31 [my translation]
PS the pictures do not follow the chronological order of the visit…
Other post on books on this blog