Here is a decidedly humorous account of my professional life in Normandy and Jerusalem at the end of the twentieth century, before I discovered the internet and left for San Francisco. The first part concerns the city library in Granville, with its dust and old books, before it was transformed into a beautiful media library. The second part concerns two libraries in Jerusalem, one with its cardboard boxes and the other with its computers. This account was inspired by an older version that was published in L’Autre Journal, a printed magazine. It is dedicated to my colleagues past and present.
Granville – dust and old books
It’s there. There? Yes, the fish market became a library. Is there anywhere else in the world where there’s a library in a fish market? Frosted glass windows that were cleaned from the outside with a hose, grey granite stone on which children were not allowed to draw and a huge door, painted in plain bottle green. I wished the door could have been smaller, because of the cold air that rushed into the building in winter, but it was never possible. I also wished the glass could have been clear, not frosted, to let in more light, so from the inside you could have seen the square, and from the outside, the books; but that was never possible, either. I would have liked the windows to open and close, like any window worthy of its name, but these had been shut tight for many years, ever since they were repainted, and the beige paint acted like a sealant round the edges.
The library/fish market had four floors: the ground floor, with its public library department, the first floor, with shelves full of old books, the second floor, with old books in cardboard boxes, and the attic, with the official journals. The total floor area measured sixty-five square metres. The first floor was linked to the second floor by an ordinary staircase. The wood had been covered with carpet after a particularly painful fall. The first floor was linked to the second floor by a much older staircase with uneven treads, which were even more slippery, and a slope that resembled an extreme ski run. The second floor was linked to the attic by a ladder situated opposite an internal window. If by chance you missed a step, you would have been projected against the window, through it and straight onto the ground floor. I narrowly avoided taking the plunge several times. I asked for the window to be replaced with a wooden panel, but that was never possible, either. You know as well as I do that administrations sometimes wait for an accident to happen before they remedy dangerous situations.
It’s there. Lots of books, and dust, lots of dust, the venerable dust of ages, they explained. I breathed in dust for two years, and I have never used as much soap and washing powder as I did during those two years – soap for washing in the evening, because you would have thought I worked for a coalman, and washing powder to wash my clothes every day because they would be black with dirt after the day’s activities. They explained to me that dust inevitably goes hand in hand with books, which is true, but there’s dust and dust. When you can’t open a book without being enveloped in a thick cloud, it becomes rather worrying. Two years of cleaning without vacuuming – the Hoover there aspired to a more permanent retirement, as did the electrical installations – put me off cleaning for life. I could write a long comparative analysis of the quality of cleaning cloths available on the market and the effect of their shape and colour on the efficiency of the work. In Granville they prefer to work with square green cloths.
After the clean up of the century, the bindings of the old books had to be cleaned. The National Library’s formula was carried out on around five thousand books by Graziella and me. Take a set of twenty books. Run a duster over the bindings. A green cloth is advised, but not obligatory. Apply Brecknell soap to the bindings, a saddle soap that cleans the leather and makes the gold look like new. Then select the indicated colour from the range of tubes of Baranne wax, which are spread out before you. Make sure that the tubes, rather than the wax, are spread out on your work table. Rub with a woollen cloth until the book shines. No particular colour is advised for the woollen cloth. It is only then that the books could be opened so we could stamp them and add them to the inventory – the leather was so dry it would have cracked if the books had been opened too soon. The National Library’s formula is excellent, and we often explained it to our visitors, who found our old books very beautiful, proof that we hadn’t been polishing in vain. I had even photocopied our “recipe” so I could hand it out when asked. Now, like housework, don’t ask me to clean bindings any more, even if they are weighty historical tomes, very luxurious or the work of the best bookbinders. Those two years of polishing were more than enough for me.
I have just mentioned photocopies, and you have a burning question – you didn’t have a Hoover, but you had a photocopier? No, this modern piece of equipment only appeared in the library later on, when I was no longer there. In “my” time, we transported documents on foot to the town centre and used the photocopier in the Town Hall, after waiting our turn in the queue. For articles from local journals, bound by year, or two or three years, it meant that our mornings were very physical. If you look at the bound collections of the Granvillais, the Journal de Granville or La Manche Libre, you will see what I mean. But nothing is too much trouble for the public.
Another fear that haunts me from my work in Granville is tidying up the attic. I was assured that the attic was empty, and, contrary to my usual habits, I didn’t go and see for myself. Then, one fine day, the municipal authorities came to treat the woodwork for various insects that had been occupying the premises for a long time. It was then that I understood the extent of the disaster, when I went up and had to cram masses of documents under a large black tarpaulin as quickly as possible so they wouldn’t be treated with the woodwork. There were hundreds and hundreds of books, magazines and posters; and we had just finished the clean up of the century on the other three floors. I could have wept.
With a new order of green cleaning cloths from the municipal supplies, the attic was gradually emptied of its various treasures. Some of these treasures went off to the Museum of Old Granville – non-printed items (whale harpoons, African spears, seals, coins and other assorted objects); some I discovered with amazement, such as old posters folded into eight, sixteen or thirty-two, colourful, huge – posters for carnivals, posters for regattas, posters for large local and regional festivals, posters for the 14th of July (the French national day), in a catastrophic state, Sellotaped, torn, waking from a long sleep. It was beautiful; it was like being in Ali Baba’s cave, with more dust and less gold.
Another major incident was the mice. I had been warned that the library was one of their favourite playgrounds. I was rather surprised at the calm manner in which this news had been announced, and I was worried about this unfortunate presence. But, like everything else, that was how it had always been. I adopted a cat, but he preferred running around on the roofs of the Haute Ville with the other cats from the area; it’s easy to see why. Then it was the turn of mousetraps, which were completely ineffective, and finally orange seeds recommended by the municipal authorities, which should have killed them in the blink of an eye, but didn’t kill anything at all. The mice, however, eventually became bored and disappeared from circulation. I still wonder how, no doubt it was because of the continuous comings and goings on the upper floors.
Mice are particularly fond of official journals, would you believe. I have always dreamed of the day when the mayor of the town would ask me for an official journal in which the text of a Decree he really needed had disappeared, eaten by a mouse – this journal would have been evidence to support my claims – but unfortunately the situation never arose. Then, exasperated by all these packets of journals piled up horizontally and held together with the aid of a piece of old, beige-coloured hemp string, which was often too short, just to make life more difficult, I used the collections belonging to the Chamber of Commerce, in Rue Lecampion, near the port. These collections had two major advantages over ours: on one hand, they were stored in boxes, and on the other, they were classified vertically. The fact that they were convenient to use made me blissfully happy.
To return to my fish market, I still haven’t mentioned that the library was situated over a well. A well full of water, blocked with a circle of concrete when the fish stalls were replaced by books. What about damp, you might ask, which isn’t a problem for fish, but is a problem for books. Quite right, and the same goes for temperature. It took me five years to get heating worthy of the name. In my rare moments of rest, I sat on the only heating that worked at all, a large orange and brown cube full of firebricks, on which you could rest your derrière with no risk of being burnt, which could be used as proof, if necessary, that the heat given out was by no means excessive.
Like so many other things, we had to wait for the goodwill of the elected officials. This eventually revealed itself when the new deputy mayor responsible for cultural affairs saw for himself, at several meetings in our premises, that my thoughts about the prevailing cold were not just a whim, but were borne out by the low temperature shown on the thermometer. Then we had to wait for funding. This fateful word was uttered at least once a day. And then the heaters arrived a few days before I left this illustrious place. During a courtesy visit, I saw for myself that it was warm and that it was no longer necessary to put on four jumpers and two pairs of tights under trousers to survive the cold months of winter. Locals no longer had to bring the staff lemons and homoeopathic flu remedies, as used to be the case when I was racked with a cold or bronchitis and wondered how I would last until seven in the evening and whether I would be able to open the library the next day. Public service comes first.
The library was like a long sum: fish market + blocked-up well + dust + cold + attic + mice + miscellaneous. I felt as if I had come across the most exceptional place, something unique in France at that time, the last municipal library with no up-to-date books and no lending service, a library to be rescued after a hundred years of neglect. In brief, I became the Indiana Jones of his modest place. But several people who called in assured me that it was not as exceptional as I thought. Despite the other various other damp, filthy places that people described to me to prove that something similar existed elsewhere, I am still convinced that the totality of the problems there was quite exceptional.
We now turn to the next decade. The library was used for almost everything, including, of course, borrowing books and for information. It had come out of the Stone Age, there was a lending library with five thousand books and magazines, a small children’s section, a study area with a Normandy collection, a maritime collection, illustrated documents and the municipal archives. Meanwhile, the posters from the attic had found a new lease of life. It was small, of course, but it was like a local public library, but one that actually functioned.
Then I diversified our activities a little, because, in view of the lack of funds allocated to the library, we were unable to buy hundreds of books. So … So the library acted as a meeting room, a cultural activity centre, a place to put posters for shows, a secretarial service for voluntary associations, a letter-writing service, a performance room for children, a sound booth for the 14th of July dance, an occasional food shop or somewhere to display prizes for the Haute Ville raffle in August, a mailbox for quite a few people, and so on.
Although people could call me from all over France, I could only make local phone calls. For external calls, I had to walk down to the Town Hall, in the town centre. As luck would have it, the person I was calling would be out for a few minutes, or the line would be desperately busy. Time is money, they say. Not here. It took five years of discussion to have a normal telephone line installed. Discussions on creating a lending service had taken two years.
I have much more to tell, especially stories of donations and plans to move, perhaps in another life. When I learned that the premises earmarked for a children’s library were finally going to be a canteen for the elderly, when I realised that moving to the town centre was part of some very long-term plans, when I realised that the funds available would be more or less the same, when I realised that one-and-a-half people would be running the place for a long time to come, when I realised that the local council had no intention of appointing a replacement so I could take the holidays I had been accumulating for five years, I decided to leave and go elsewhere.
I even waited for “my” library assistant to be given full-time work, for the heaters to be delivered and installed for the following winter, and for the telephone line to go from a reduced service to a normal line. That took another eight months. Of course, the situation wasn’t brilliant for the new librarian, but the heroic age was over.
Colleagues told me it would take ten years to change things. They were right, of course. But I had done my time, and five years and two months seemed enough to me. Martine valiantly took over with much more patience and diplomacy than I could ever muster, assisted later on by Patricia. Claire arrived later to be in charge of the transformation from a small library to a large library. [In 1991, the library employed three people on a full-time basis, they didn’t know where to put all the books and moving was still a long-term project. In 1998, the library moved from the Haute Ville to become a beautiful media library in the town centre. In 2011, the media library employed 12 people.]
As for me, as the song goes, I took my bag and left, in floods of tears, because I was leaving Granville, and wildly relieved to be leaving my fish market to go round the world. First of all I went to London for a sleep cure, then to Paris to fill up the coffers and finally to Jerusalem to pursue my career. I chose this beautiful city for “human” rather than religious reasons, as I am not a believer. I worked for all the communities, Armenian, Christian, Ethiopian, Jewish, Muslim and others, as the world of books has no borders.
Jerusalem – cardboard boxes and computers
The previous year, the Director had launched the campaign “Ten Thousand Books for Jerusalem” in France. The books in question – mostly donations – had travelled from Marseilles to Haifa by sea. At first, we were waiting for them in mid December, but the date of their arrival was postponed to the beginning of January. So, after a false start on 14th December, I left Orly in the morning of 5th January on a charter flight. The two hundred boxes of books arrived at exactly the same time as me. We couldn’t have timed it better if we’d tried.
Jerusalem is a city of walls and white stone buildings; a city of seven hills and three great religions, a cosmopolitan city where customs and traditions mingle, a city where rows of yellow lights twinkle in the night. It’s also the Old City with its four districts, Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian. It’s West Jerusalem and East Jerusalem. It’s Jaffa Street, which crosses the city from one side to the other, from the Jaffa Gate to the central bus station. It’s a city of conflicts, the eternal city.
In Jerusalem, like everywhere else, you can’t get away from boxes. But the worst time ever for me was on 6th January in Jerusalem. The two hundred and forty boxes, i.e. around ten thousand books, made an impressive pile in the centre of the library. The plan was to fill all the shelves on the ground floor and the mezzanine for the inauguration, which was to take place the following day. Obviously, seeing all the books lined up on the shelves, even in the midst of total chaos, looks quite different from seeing a mountain of cardboard boxes of all sizes piled on top of each other. That said, I don’t know if the officials considered it very important.
Luckily, we were a team, and when people were tired, they were replaced by others who were fully fit, throughout the day. We worked for twelve hours on the trot. We opened the boxes with an old kitchen knife that we found in a corner and an orange cutter that must have been used to cut up carpet during the renovation works, as the competent authorities hadn’t had the time to buy us any scissors. You may have been one of people lucky enough to hear it live on the radio, on France Culture. Over the airwaves you could hear the kitchen knife squeaking against the cardboard, the sound of the books being unpacked, and the background noise of the hum of activity as we put Sartre next to aerobics, Camus next to a legal guidebook and the Bible next to recipe books. We would have liked the journalists to help us, but they couldn’t exactly think outside the box (not a bad play on words, but badly timed on that day). As for the Sartre-aerobic juxtaposition, on the day of the inauguration it earned me a few remarks on the classification system used in our library. In just one day, we didn’t have time to use Dewey, the sacrosanct classification system for public libraries.
The Alliance’s library was well designed, with a ground floor and a mezzanine supported by small black columns, all with shelving in white laminated wood, made cheaply in situ. A few tables and chairs. We didn’t fill the lowest shelves, because choosing a book while lying on your stomach is not ideal. We didn’t fill the highest shelves, either, because not everyone is five foot nine. As the shelves were not very thick – economy, economy, – we turned them over from time to time so they didn’t always bend in the same direction. As for changing the space between the shelves, that was an operation that took half an hour per peg, as they were so tightly fixed into the holes provided for the purpose. The workers must have banged them in with a hammer. So we gave up. Long live furniture designed by professionals for professionals.
Although it wasn’t on French territory, the library was infected with the “cluttered up with old books” virus that affects so many of our French libraries. The library had only existed for a few hours and it was already cluttered up with old books that some people must have donated just to get rid of them. I tried to explain that, for old books as well, you have to distinguish between old crocks and interesting titles, and that was the librarian’s job, too. There was nothing to be done. No pulping. No selling to specialist libraries. No selling for the price of the paper. Even so, I refused to classify them. I hadn’t travelled almost two thousand four hundred miles to classify books that would never be read.
Even without classifying the old crocks, it was two months of very intensive work. I first bent over the books on the 8th of January and didn’t straighten up again until opening day on the 3rd of March, when everything was ready. I’m not exaggerating. After pleading with the Director for three weeks, I succeeded in having the first student appointed, and after pleading again for three more weeks, a second student was appointed. We reinforced all the books and magazines with sticky plastic, and made a list of the books in record time – we dictated them to each other. Sometimes we found that reading the titles aloud one after another made an amazing poem. Try it, and you’ll see.
Books should be nicely lined up, and arranged on suitable shelving. Believe me, the life of a library book is no joke. It can never aspire to the life of a book in a bookshop. It must conform to the strict classification represented by the label stuck on its spine – this must be worn all its life, unlike the poisson d’avril, the paper fish stuck on as a prank in France on April Fools’ Day, which only lasts for a day. If ever a book loses its label, we are thrown into confusion for a while, anguish, even, if it happens at the end of the day. Where are we going to put this one? Not only do they have to be put away, but they are sometimes subjected to an appalling lack of air by new librarians. When they first begin, they make the mistake of jamming the books in so hard that the reader can only pull one out with a violent effort, giving up if it proves too difficult.
One of the essential tasks of a librarian is stamping, the first operation that a new book undergoes. It’s not worth stamping every page, unless you really enjoy doing it. Three or four per book is a good average. At the Alliance Française in Jerusalem, we stamped ten thousand at once, so to speak. That represented multiplying four stamps by ten thousand works, i.e. forty thousand, all done with one stamp. No-one could have accused me of wasting public funds!
Another almost intoxicating activity was covering books with plastic, a dreaded word that made us see red at the beginning of March, we were so fed up with it. After many experiences in Normandy, which were more or less successful, I only swear by self-adhesive plastic now. We therefore ordered a stock of ten 1.40 by 10 metre rolls from France, which we cut into strips. The technique for librarians with no money – that was still the case there, at least at first – was five strips per book or magazine, i.e. two strips on the internal hinges between the cover and the body of the book, two strips on the side edges of the cover, and a larger strip on the spine of the book, after sticking on the label. For hardcover books, a protective strip over the label was enough. This process was both effective and economical.
A task frequently practised in twentieth-century libraries was typing on small index cards. These generally had the following characteristics: white in colour, a format of 125 mm wide and 75 mm high, with a perforation in the centre at the lower edge of the card. The perforation in question is not just for aesthetic purposes, to break up the plain surface. It has a very specific use when the index card is placed in the card holder during a process called intercalation. As its name suggests, this process involves sliding new index cards in the appropriate place, either alphabetically or according to a specific system. In each drawer, a rod is slid into the perforations on the cards to avoid them flying everywhere if your drawer falls out, something to be avoided at all costs when the rod is pulled out during the intercalation.
At some time or another, we have all felt a thrill of admiration at the sight of these huge rows of wooden filing cases with their drawers full of index cards. In general, the thrill of admiration only lasts a short while, because almost immediately you have to overcome two obstacles. The first obstacle: managing to find the index cards you are looking for in a given drawer. As the drawer is stuffed full, you have to squeeze the cards you are not interested in even more tightly with one hand, while consulting the cards you are interested in one by one with the other hand. Don’t ask me how some people manage to take notes at the same time, with two hands already full. I have tried, but without success. Second obstacle: finding the relevant information on the index cards. Some index cards are not just descriptions of books, but real novels. We had hoped that computers would simplify everything at the beginning of the new millennium, but that wasn’t exactly the case.
After this digression, let’s return to the library at the Alliance. We typed the catalogue on a word processor, printed it on a printer and had it bound. That all seems quite simple, but it wasn’t as simple as that. First of all the catalogue, typed but not printed, was inadvertently deleted by the IT Officer who had just saved it! At that time, saving it consisted of making a back-up copy on a diskette or cassette. Ten seconds, and a whole month of intensive work was deleted. A few weeks later, having overcome our quite understandable feeling of discouragement, I typed the catalogue again on the word processor and printed it immediately. This catalogue was, of course, a temporary version, with one or two lines per book (author, title, publisher, year and shelf mark.) After using it for several months, we had to sort through the collections again, remove the books that no-one was interested in and “clean up” the catalogue while we were at it. A simple operation by the IT Officer would transfer our catalogue onto a database. That’s without taking the disaster into account. A second “crash” of the catalogue was in store for us, caused this time by some pirated software. The library staff had to go back to square one and type the catalogue into a database. Three attempts for a catalogue of ten thousand books, any advance on that?
With the new director, the library was enhanced with a video library, the old books disappeared from the shelves, many new books were purchased and the choice of newspapers and magazines was increased. However, there was still a lot to do – recruiting a library professional, sorting the reference books and classifying them, authorising home loans for magazines, creating a real reference room with dictionaries and encyclopaedias, putting a distinctive mark (for example a red dot) on the books that were easy to read, as the Alliance was first and foremost a French language school, putting another distinctive mark (for example a blue dot) on works by local authors translated into French, buying large-print books, etc. [The Alliance closed in 2000. One can only hope that the books have been transferred to another library.]
For me, the library at the Alliance represented three months of intensive work, plus a weekly visit for several months to two students who were running it. It was voluntary work, in the Israeli sense of the word – accommodation provided, money for meals and essential expenses and a return charter flight. All this was the equivalent of a local salary. Some people have told me that they would never have agreed to work in these conditions, forgetting that anyone can choose whether they prefer to work with a local salary or a French person’s salary abroad, and if they prefer to live with the locals or move in consular circles. In any case, for someone who isn’t Jewish, voluntary work is the only way to work in Israel. It is difficult to obtain a work permit for this country, with just two exceptions – if you are a doctor or a nurse, or if your employer fights for weeks to get you a permit. Neither of these exceptions applied to me.
After the three months spent at the Alliance, I found other contracts. For three years, I had several contracts with The Ecole biblique et archéologique française (EBAF) (the French Biblical and Archaeological School) of Jerusalem, to computerise its library catalogue, although I wasn’t a believer and didn’t practise a religion, proof of the open-minded attitude of the staff. The EBAF is situated in East Jerusalem, on Naplouse Street, which is perpendicular to the north-west wall of the Old City and begins at the Damascus Gate. Once you have entered the large grey gate, it’s quite an idyllic place with large trees, lots of greenery, a cloister, a garden, a church, a Dominican convent, an archaeological centre, a school of Bible studies and a library. This school, which celebrated its centenary in 1990, is the oldest Biblical institute in the Holy Land.
The large library relating to the Bible, archaeology and the Middle East has more than a hundred thousand books and four hundred periodicals in many different languages. The library is situated in what was formerly the refectory, cut in half lengthwise to make two levels. The wooden shelves on the lower floor support both the floor and the wooden shelving on the floor above. The upper floor has five sections: the everyday section, the Holy Land, the Bible, Religion and Archaeology. By the windows are sixty-four offices, equipped with shelves, lamps and electric radiators (it’s not always warm in the Middle East). The lower floor houses three sections: history, travel and literature. Access to the library is restricted to researchers with diplomas and references.
On my first visit to this place, which I discovered by chance on a walk, I was impressed by the very clear library catalogue, a specialist catalogue with both concise notes and comprehensive entries. This catalogue represented thirty-five years’ work by a Dominican librarian – a life’s work – and twelve years’ work by a lay librarian. A colossal task, a catalogue arranged entirely alphabetically in twelve volumes, bought as a bibliographic work all over the world. A completely hand-made catalogue, updated every year with new notes using a cutter and Sellotape on the paper strips of the preceding edition – like a piece of lace – then creating double pages, making several photocopies of the new volume, checking the pagination of every copy, and finally having it bound by a bookbinder in the Old City. And this is done for each of the twelve volumes that make up the catalogue, throughout the year.
The catalogue was begun in 1953 and has been revised and improved many times over the years. It’s now beginning its computerised career. The cataloguing department has just received a computer from the CNRS (Centre national de la recherche scientifique), (National Centre for Scientific Research), Paris, but no provision for installing it. So, with the agreement of the School’s authorities, we formed a small team on the premises, with an IT expert and two data processing staff. My work involved analysis, testing, hundreds of hours of typing notes for books and articles, training two data entry operators, typing the thesaurus and finally correcting the entries for the computerised catalogue after three years of operation.
The two librarians – nicknamed the Boss and Marie-Jo, who were both from Normandy – were open to suggestions, with years of encyclopedic study and experience. The team gave themselves another five years of work, and then things went wrong. A large sum of money allocated to the cataloguing team was used for other purposes, even though we only had two computers between six people – we almost had to work night shifts – not to mention the huge amount of work done by the two librarians, which the authorities had been unaware of for years. So everything changed. They left, very disappointed after so many years of hard work, and were replaced by less experienced librarians. Everyone is free to choose who they work with. I didn’t take a new contract at the Bible School, but I stayed in contact with the Boss and Marie-Jo, who made their vast cultural knowledge available to other institutions when they returned to Normandy.
I have never typed so much on any keyboard in my life as I did in Jerusalem. I remember it as the city of typing: the library catalogue at the Alliance Française (ten thousand titles) twice, the catalogue of fiction works at the library of the French Institute in Tel Aviv (ten thousand titles) once, part of the Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem’s library catalogue (some ten thousand titles, difficult to give an exact number), this library’s thesaurus (sixty thousand entries), two theses, a novel, an autobiography, a translation, some brochures, some reports, some projects, some articles, and more. Three years of typing, a good livelihood that also allowed me to write my Master’s thesis. And now it’s time to end on a high point with the final full stop. Don’t ask me to type anything ever again, except my books and articles.
For ten years, I often felt I was working in a shoe box with grey walls. For ten years, I often felt I was expending a lot of energy for not much of a result. I think I’ll change careers.
And I did change careers at the dawn of the new millennium to write about ebooks.