In the ancient heart of Paris there’s an incredible time capsule that holds a treasury of stories.
Many are made of paper, some of wood, some others of living people, wardens of a secret that just a few know, parisiens or not.
The little Bibliothèque des Amis de l’Instruction (‘The Friends of Education’s Library’) can be found in rue de Turenne, III arrondissement.
This precious little gem, jealously guarded, seldom opens its doors – only on Saturday afternoon, with timetables that can be found on their site here or in the occasion of the fascinating conferences or shared readings.
I can guarantee any literature buff that, once passed through its threshold, they will leave here a piece of their hearts, especially after learning about this library’s unique history, the last of her kind.
France, 1861. France was living the years of the Second Empire with Napoleon III, a period of apparent splendor and permanent misery, at least for most of the Parisians.
The famous Industrial Revolution had had its children: the beloved firstborn known as Progress, and its miserable sisters, the terrible social inequalities typical of the whole XIX century.
Leaving aside the history of the famous insurrections, inevitably born by such a situation, I would better like to tell you the story and spirit of a brilliant initiative, spontaneously sprout right then.
It all began with the birth of the Pro-technic Association – Victor Hugo himself is counted among its illustrious presidents! – that took on itself the task to offer the workers, at affordable prices «an education, adequate to their needs», because, it is known, education is the first step towards emancipation.
Between the Association students, a small group of workmen, clerks, and craftsmen decided to associate to buy the books they needed that still were very expensive.
So, in Paris was founded the first community library kept by and association that let people – and that was new – to borrow books.
That’s not all: even more exceptional, women were admitted, something still very unusual at the time!
These keen gentlemen soon became aware of the reach of their initiative, after seeing the first year’s 300 members straight double the year right after.
The most committed founder of the Bibliothèque des Amis de l’Instruction, was the lithographer Jean-Baptiste Girard (1821-1900), who appears – with his daughter Anna – in the first log of readers.
Having spent his whole youth without knowing how to read or write, Girard defended the right to education not only with passion, but with awareness.
It would be very wrong to misjudge this initiative as a simple “charity” like the many others present at the time.
The Bibliothèque des Amis de l’Instruction was a spontaneous and solid commitment of the Parisian people towards themselves.
Then and now – little has changed – the members choose, through vote, which books to buy.
This implies that just by looking at the library’s old catalogs, it’s possible to get a precise idea of the interests and tastes of the XIX century’s Parisians. And what do we find out?
There’s a pronounced passion for literature, but also an astonishing curiosity towards all the fields of knowledge. So, the readers didn’t only have access to elementary education or “moral” works approved by political authorities, but also to general culture books and, in particular, to the “dangerous” novels, the perfect instrument for spreading new ideas.
Fourteen years later, in 1875, on the wave of its incredible success, the city of Paris granted appropriated funds to the “Community Libraries” that, following the steps of the first one, were sprouting everywhere in France, acknowledging their importance.
To appreciate the worth of these little rooms, exploding with pages, we must set aside our own sensibility: in our eyes, libraries are normal and consolidated realities, offered and attended to by the State.
In Girard’s times, there were none, especially because knowing how to read was not something so usual at all!
The community libraries of XIX century’s Paris are very close to the idea we have of them today and, as such, were an incredibly innovating initiative for their time.
In 1884, two years after a law passed in France to make education mandatory and free until the 13th year of age, an elementary school in rue de Turenne, gave four small rooms to the famous association founded by Girard. Rooms that have barely changed since then.
That law changed everything, Between the stern shelves from Napoleon III’s age, moving memories, today almost forgotten, still echo.
Imagine children, now able to write and read, sharing readings, for the first time, with their illiterate relatives, bringing home books to houses who never have even seen one inside them before. Incredibly young men and women who, side by side with their paper allies, blazing a trail towards new worlds, and towards a future that they couldn’t even imagine before.
The simple interior of the library today is a precious chest of memories.
A couple of tables for reading, covered in greed felt, two little light-wood furniture containing the hand-written sheets with the books’ locations, shelves overflowing with dark-leather volumes with golden letters or – more often – small editions bound in cloth.
There are 20.000 books in the library, with editions going from 1850 to 1930.
Now, cheap editions were often sold without cover or protection.
The collective use and the borrowing system immediately required the adequate bonding of the books, usually in cloth marked with the library’s seal.
In 1984, a gigantic work of bounding restoration was started, and it goes on still today, in a very unique manner: the members itself volounteer, under the supervision of generous professionals, to restore the books.
It’s a library for all and all for a library, Dumas would say!
In the middle of the XX century, with the birth of public libraries, the community libraries disappeared, one after the other.
Just one survives, with its call and energy intact: the Bibliothèque des Amis de l’Instruction.
«Society is guilty of not providing free education; it’s responsible of the night it creates.»