Astonishing Tales of French Bureaucracy

This isn’t exactly an intersection of pop culture and the medieval, so it doesn’t properly belong on this blog, but it’s reasonably interesting for people who either 1) want to know what academics actually do with their time or 2) hate the French.

This summer, as part of my summer fellowship at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, I got to go to Paris for two weeks to study a particular manuscript, the Bibliotheque Nationale‘s MS Fr. 95, which is purported to be the first of a three volume set of Arthurian romances, the third volume of which is here at the Beinecke. The three volume set is lavishly illustrated, and my project this summer concerns the relationship between the images and text across the two different volumes. (The middle volume has been lost.)

As my oldest sister once said, “You mean they give you money to do that?” Indeed they do.

To see this 13th century manuscript at the Beinecke, all you have to do is register as a reader and fill out a little call slip. Registering as a reader is a five minute process that involves a letter of introduction*, some ID, and a small form. Both registering as a reader and paging the manuscript are done at the same desk.

Things don’t work that way in France. To register as a reader, you must first have an interview. You wait in line for an hour or so, sit down, and flash your elaborate translated letter of introduction, which they promptly file away without reading. Several forms and several questions follow, and lots of information is entered into a computer. Then you’re sent to another desk on the other side of the room, where a different person will pull up the information just entered into the computer, take your picture, and print an ID card. Then you must take the ID card down the hallway to have it validated and to pay your fees.

To see a manuscript, you now take your ID card to the reading room. There, a person will take your ID card, assign you a seat, and hand you a little green piece of plastic. You then must take this green piece of plastic across the room to another person, where you fill out a call form for the manuscript you want, and hand both the green plastic and the form to this person. Then they will exchange your green piece of plastic for an orange piece of plastic, which you take back with you to your seat, where you wait for your manuscript to be delivered by yet another person.

When you are finished with the manuscript, you take both it and the orange plastic back to the person who is holding your green plastic hostage. If you give him the manuscript, he gives you your green plastic. If you want to see another manuscript, you may shuffle plastic a few times, though if you thought to fill out more than one page slip at a time, you won’t have to.

It’s getting late, so you decide you’re done for the day. This means that you have to go to yet another person who is at a different desk in the middle of the room in order to get a form that will allow you to exit the room. For those of you keeping track, the only thing in your possession at this point is what you brought in (at most, a pencil and paper or a notebook computer) and a green piece of plastic. But the lady at the front door WILL NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES take your green piece of plastic and give you back your ID unless you have the form from the person at the middle desk.

As near as I can tell, the person at the middle desk’s only job is to fill out and sign these exit forms. They do not inspect you to see if you’re stealing anything–which you couldn’t be doing anyway, since you have to hand your manuscripts back to the man at the far desk in order to get your green piece of plastic back.

Now, if you’re like me, your command of French is not the best, so the first time you have to undergo this form-based gauntlet, you’re going to stumble a lot. Fortunately, I was told ahead of time to wear a suit and tie to the library. When you’re dressed nicely, the staff will translate your confused looks into a request for them to slow down or to speak English. But what they’re explaining in English is insane requirements for forms, so your look of confusion won’t go away during the transaction, if ever.

One extra hurdle: When you’re granted entry and given the green piece of plastic, you’re also given a temporary leave form. This is a good thing, because it allows you to go to the bathroom or leave for lunch whenever you want without having to turn in your manuscript or your orange or green piece of plastic. (It also allows you to leave without seeing the man at the middle desk, which further adds to the insanity of his existence, because you can enter and leave all you want while you’ve got unfettered access to the valuable manuscripts without seeing him, but when you want to leave for the day and the valuable manuscripts are all locked safely away, you must go to him to get an exit form.) Now this magic temporary leave form is also a magic keep-you-trapped-in-the-library form, because you must also surrender it to the lady at the front desk who babysits your ID card when you leave, along with your form from the man in the middle desk.

The library staff gets very testy if you do not have your temporary leave form to give them when you want to go home for good. Now, you’re probably thinking that they’re taking these powerful forms up to keep them from being used by people who don’t have ID cards or green or orange pieces of plastic–but the only way to use these forms is if you’ve already given the lady at the front desk your ID card. They’re worthless for entering or leaving the secure area without the other bits; they’re there to let you leave once you’ve established your right to be there.

To sum up: to enter the manuscript room, you have to have seen at least four different people (interviewer, ID taker, cashier, and plastic distributer). In order to leave for the day, you have to have the right color plastic and two different forms to turn in, one of which is given to you by the same person you’re showing it to to leave, the other is given to you by someone whose job is to do nothing other than give the form to you.

Seven people** are doing the job that one person manages here at the Beinecke, and still, somehow, unemployment in France is above ten percent.

*Example — Dear so-and-so: This person has a good reason for wanting to see these manuscripts. Signed, some jerk with a fancy title.**
**On the off chance that either of the two people who wrote letters of recommendation for my BnF trip are reading this, I do not mean to imply that you’re jerks. You definitely are not. You even faxed me new letters when I lost your old ones. You rock. It’s a pop cultural reference.
***The Stupifying Seven: Captain Entrance Interview, ID card Dude, The Cashier, Green Plastic Lady, Doctor Orange Plastic Guy, Manuscript Delivery Boy, and inexplicable Middle Desk Lad. Those people who read this who know the Beinecke (ie none of you) may protest that there are several people who work the front desk there, and you’d be right. But each of these positions at the BnF had multiple people working it, too. There are many Middle Desk Lads and Lasses.

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  • cristysmyromax

    I feel better already! As a public health policy student who wanted to arrange an interview with a representative of the Hotel-Dieu in Paris, I spent weeks prior to my arrive trying to arrange for a letter of introduction. Thank goodness I was able to get some information at the Musee de l’Assistance Public de Paris instead.

    Next time I’ll wear a suit and ask for the green and orange pieces of plastic 🙂

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