La Bibliothèque Nationale et Toute la Mémoire du Monde

“Because he has a short memory, man amasses countless memory aids.”

Since I don’t have tons of time to spend writing a detailed post this week (first semester is coming to an end and everything is due – give me a break!), I decided that I’d give you a video to a watch instead. This short film, Toute la mémoire du monde (1956) was directed by Alain Resnais and is narrated by Jacques Dumesnil. According to Wikipedia, the film is actually “an essay on the potential and the limits of dutifully archived human knowledge, masquerading as a documentary on the organisation of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.” Uhuh. Sure it is. The important thing for me, though, is that the film shows things like card cataloguing systems, which aren’t in use much anymore, as well as various methods of preservation and conservation used by the Bibliothèque in the 50s, all of which are still used today alongside contemporary digitization efforts. In short, I’m looking at what was shown directly. Sorry for being so superficial.

(If you don’t want to watch the whole video, just skip straight to 20:14. A warning, though: you may have trouble sleeping tonight.)

This video discusses the “fortress” that is France’s Bibliothèque Nationale, in which books are “imprisoned.” This notion of books as imprisoned is further promoted at 10:23 when, as the process of adding a new book to the collection is explained, Dumesnil states that “the prisoner awaits the day it will be filed,” and the video shows a book being put in a barred cage. This metaphor doesn’t seem to go anywhere, though, and left me kind of confused. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just too dense to get it, whatever “it” is.

French law requires that publishers give the Bibliothèque Nationale a copy of every work published in France, so that there exists a comprehensive collection of French memory. It should be noted here that repositories don’t just store books – they store maps, artwork, medals, artifacts… Like the video says, they’re more like museums than libraries. A lot of countries have repositories. For example, Canada has its Library and Archives, and America has its Library of Congress.

You can probably guess that an institution charged with the responsibility of collecting all that contributes to a country’s memory is going to need a heck of a lot of space. Indeed, the film does a good job in illustrating the issue that many libraries and archives claim to experience today – that is, lack of space. If you’re interested in learning more about how libraries are dealing with this issue, check out Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper. Not only will you learn a lot, but you’ll have a blast laughing at Baker. Not laughing with him, mind you. Laughing at him.

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