FYI France

File 10.2011a FYI France Essay :



Letter to a francophile librarian

by Jack Kessler,


Introductory note:

The following is a generic response, to a generic inquiry posed by many friends over the years -- the inquiry usually runs,

-- I haven't counted the number of replies to these I've sent... Friends who have received them before will recognize the ideas and even some of the phrasing, here: mes excuses -- my ideas on this topic haven't changed, much, and through much repetition I've arrived at formulaic presentations of them, I fear.

For both reasons, then, I now present the following: it covers only the basics, the way-of-thinking about the problem -- anyone to whom I have written in the past has received a slightly different version, and I will be happy to personalize what I send on this subject to other correspondents in the future. The French may change, and so may their libraries, and so may digital information -- what won't, however, is the general approach suggested here to multi-lingualism and multi-culturalism and getting-along-with-foreigners and being-a-good-guest, none of which ever changes much, in my experience.

So in that spirit the following is offered, more as suggestions just for how to get along generally: for anything more particular, please contact me -- via email to -- and I'll be happy to discuss any & all of the details.




December 15, 2011

Hello XXX,

Thanks very much for your note. France for the future... that sounds like a great project. ALA and LC and the embassies etc. all have extensive formal and official ties with their equivalents in France, yes, but these do not "grow" very much. Exhibitions are occasions for cross-cultural exchange and participation, but these are, well, occasional, and they require a great deal of work. Trade shows, too: Le Web and the Salon du Livre are examples of great opportunities to Party-Hearty in Paris -- M. le président Sarkozy made it to Le Web this year -- but,

a) if you are not in hitech, and if you already are over age 30, and if party-hearty is not-your-scene -- and that last can be particularly hard work, and exhausting, in Paris -- the first option may be out,

-- and,

b) this is a tough time to be getting into printed book publishing, if you are not stuck there already. And I gather your France interests are personal, so --

My first suggestion would be that you embark right away on a thorough reading of back issues of the BBF / Bulletin des Bibliothèques de France -- reading it steadily, closely, regularly, not only will inform you greatly about libraries in France, in a journalistic (short articles) and entertaining way, it also will brush up that college French for you as no Berlitz or Rosetta etc. crash-course in just the language itself ever will -- lots better reading something interesting and useful, for studying a foreign language, than trying to master weird grammar and strange phrasing not even used by the natives, in some "language class" somewhere...

ISSN 0006-2006 (la revue imprimée)
ISSN 1292-8399 (la version électronique)

The BBF is the periodical of the national library school, the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Sciences de l'Information et des Bibliothèques, located in Lyon.

BBF articles, unlike books on their subject, will be short, timely, sometimes-controversial, and written by professionals like yourself, addressing issues with which you will be very familiar: right away you will be in deaccessioning, staffing, preservation, collection policy, chewing gum in the books, faculty relations, funding, and "Google" in all its manifestations, plus "what to do about mobiles"... Seeing and appreciating the differences in France, in all this, will be fun, I suggest: at first things will seem familiar, but very soon you will begin spotting fascinating differences, and those will be the crucial "French différence" which you will be learning about and will need to know.

I'd grab a pile of BBF issues covering one year, and leaf through them: six issues per year -- start with 2011, proceed to 2010, then 2009, 2008, and so on as far back as you can -- if you can get through several such years' readings by the time of your departure you'll go equipped not only with a vastly-improved ability to read French, you'll also have acquired a good working knowledge of things-librarianly and of current library issues in today's France. Once there, then, and sitting in your Latin Quarter café reading your Nouvel Obso or Humanité or Le Monde or whatever -- all of those periodicals being prohibitively expensive to follow from elsewhere, even with the euro dropping now -- you'll be able to spot the library-relevant material in the normal daily news, the way any French librarian in France does.

And don't worry, at all, about your spoken French... In fact no Berlitz or Rosetta or any other expensive program ever will give you spoken French language facility sufficient to persuade, or even tempt, any self-respecting Parisian to try communicating with you in anything but her / his own broken and arduously-accented English.

Their occasional snobberies and insecurities about their magnificent language are among their major national handicaps -- every culture has a few... Also, their Romance language is spoken in phrases, not in the "grammar & vocabulary" taught in nearly all "language" courses: someone French does not say "I go to the door and then I open it", the way you say it in a class, instead s/he says,

"Igotothedoorand, then, Iopenit..."

-- two phrases, each spoken as a single slurred / elided / run-on explosion of enthusiastic thought -- it's what makes French a "musical" language, but it's learned by sound, and imitation & repetition, the way French children do, not by linguistic rules and vocabulary lists. You can learn those sound-phrases easily, but to do so and in a recognizable accent you have to be in France -- and at least slightly inebriated, with love-of-life or alcohol or both, the way the French tend to be -- so that it's "jevousenprie!", not "je-vous-en-prie", and it's "s'ilvousplaît!", not "s'il-vous-plaît", and so on... You'll get the hang of it easily once you're there, but not until.

The things for an American or any foreigner to remember, about speaking that beautiful and wonderfully-expressive language, are two:

1) There is more to France than just Paris. And anywhere else, within the "Hexagone" as the French put it, the locals will be patient and even polite with your halting college grammar and foreign nasalities, in your earnest attempts to fumble through their argot. Just not in Paris... Paris is the New York City of France, for this: their brusque treatment of fumbling American foreigners, linguistic and other, is directly analogous to Manhattanites' ill treatment of similarly-fumbling French tourists -- for many of the same reasons, having to do with nuttin' personal and more just overcrowding, work pressures, city life, frantic schedules, and somebody just stole my watch / iPhone, than with anything you yourself have committed or omitted. But if you go to Chinon or Limoges or Lyon, Montpellier, Montferrand du Périgord, the French generally will be as sweet as can be, even about your fumbling French accent -- just not the busy Big City Parisians, I am convinced not because they're Parisians but just because they're Big City.

-- and --

2) You'll only learn a really good French accent by doing it the way the French themselves have done it, traditionally: inebriated and enthusiastic -- I'm fond of suggesting to hesitant English-speakers that French is just English with a bottle of wine in you... and Italian two... -- French village life once began daily with a sip or two and ended with a bottle or two, often with several other bottles consumed in-between -- the only way for a foreigner to acquire the phrasing, slurring, élisions & accents, gutturral rrr's, to lose personal inhibitions sufficiently to attempt and master them, is to pursue the route alcoholique, language tapes certainly are no substitute. So don't sweat the grammar or vocabulary or above all the accent, would be my basic advice about the language: I write to my French friends in English, asking that they reply to me in French, and that works OK for all but the most stubborn -- it removes a very unnecessary communication-barrier -- and for spoken French I just make sure all parties become well-lubricated before attempting anything at all serious, and then they tell me I sound like I come from the Dordogne, and we all laugh.


My second suggestion, then, is two small books plus one major reference resource, all of which will give you an excellent overview of and sensitivity for some vital differences which exist between French and US libraries... such as, for instance, that French "academic" libraries are impoverished while their "public" libraries are not, the reverse of the usual US case... or that the collections of the large municipal libraries in French cities and towns hold many of the most valued works of their fabulous early printings and manuscript history, as few but i.e. the NYPL or the Boston Athenaeum might, in the US... or that children's libraries there offer comic books, as part of a proud colporteur / placard / wood block print tradition which has no US parallel at all... or that many of those large city libraries are not "public", with a mandate to promote public reading, so much as they are elegant warehouses designed deliberately to protect the books from the readers... and there are other contradictions, Umberto Eco's favorite being the little sign in the old BN which sternly advises, "reading materials are not to be taken into the reference room! / reference materials are not to be taken into the reading room!"...

So, read the following: both mercifully-brief and written in simple French --


Third suggestion, finally: study-abroad programs... I can't imagine there is much in the way of personal employment for you in France. In 20+ years of following the library situation there closely, 40+ years of following the French, I have yet to meet an American librarian working there, myself. It's a situation about to get much tighter, too, I fear: bad enough when the euro bought $1.40 -- now that it's $1.30 and on its way to $1.20 things are about to get much more tough for the French, for their librarians and library school graduates as much as for anyone else -- I'd say that debt crisis and currency rates alone will make it fun to be a visiting US tourist, but no fun earning a living wage, within the Hexagone for the next few years.

This said there are a few exceptions: the American Library in Paris has our countrymen & women on its staff --

-- and there are volunteer and internship opportunities there, so I suppose if you were to arrange, or better-said land, one of the latter you might work that over time into some sort of paid position.

Ditto at the US Embassy, if you don't mind govdocs and working for the gov.

American Schools, too, abound in Paris and elsewhere in France -- ditto business schools such as INSEAD if you can do US-style business research, also major law firms if you can do US-style legal which is so different from the French legal approach -- French library training is pretty good, if not good enough to offer skills sufficient for highly-specialized US professions operating in France. You'd better have excellent online skills, though, if you want to tackle any of these, online research and reference work competition being as highly-skilled and ferocious in France as it is other places.

Another avenue which may be of interest, though, are US-based "study-abroad" programs. There are plenty of those: most major schools offer them now -- private secondary schools do, although those tend to be "travel" aka "party" adventures, in no need of library help -- but small colleges and large universities all try, at least, to offer more serious fare, and any such program will have participants very much in need of guidance regarding the use of French libraries.

On my first serious-study trip to France, for instance, others had warned me direly of the arcanities of registration procedures at the BN, but no one had told me how friendly and helpful the librarians there would be with all that -- so although yes I did have to bring along my various pièces d'identité, and look presentable, and fill in the tedious forms under the watchful eye of a registrar of some sort, and although my "letters of introduction" did turn out to be very helpful for filling out my fiches and smoothing procedures when special requests had to be made, the registrar in fact was sympathetic and even helped me with the forms, and librarians in the salles and elsewhere at the BN always, then and since, have assisted diligently and competently and with great pride in their professionalism.

But a US student needs to be told about all this, knowledgeably and professionally, before she goes to Paris and tackles it herself. She needs to know procedures, and locations, and resources -- and how and where and when to make requests -- for instance materials increasingly are stored off-premises, as they are in libraries everywhere, so paging-delays can become a problem, particularly for harried foreign visitors on short time schedules, so if she is there to see "the originals" she will have to have learned about all that beforehand.

I expect you might craft a professional niche yourself, then, in offering such assistance to appropriate groups, academic and other, sending scholars over to France. Regular trips there by you would be needed -- situations there change, particularly with the advent of the digital -- but the major work would take place here, speaking to such groups, giving presentations and then doing teaching, coaching. I've done this myself -- for "the Internet", in my case, as that was something new to everyone, back in the 90's -- it can be fun, and it even pays well.

By far the biggest market for this service is just now arriving, moreover. The euro is in the process of dropping steadily -- to that $1.20 parity by sometime next year, they're saying now in the markets -- and the US economy is relentlessly if glacially recovering -- so that travel to France is becoming inexpensive again. My own view is that it will stay that way for some time: the euro-support arrangements being proposed by the EU are not in place yet, and they make no sense, so the European economy will be wobbling with them for some time to come, I believe.

Simultaneously the Baby Boom -- with all our money and over-education and anxiety to avoid the aging process -- is coming to Retirement at last, and is packing into Elder Hostel etc. ecotours and cruise ship fantasies and running off to See France. We -- Bill Clinton and I, he was born in 1945 and I came along in 1949 -- represent one of the largest demographic surges in our nation's history. So the timing for you is propitious: there will be a flood of Baby Boom francophiles surging over to the Hexagone very soon -- as soon as next year, 2012 -- I am convinced, so if you can get over there, master your subject, then come back and start teaching it to some of us, you may be able to assemble a nice career for yourself.

We over-educated Baby Boomers -- everyone had to have a PhD or an MBA or an MD or something... -- are perennial students, there will be lots of "study tours to France" among those Elder Hostel and Alumni Association and AARP tour offerings.

So, learn the French libraries, avoid "language courses", drink lots of their wine -- there is much interesting and remunerative work and great personal satisfaction available for you, in all of this, if you pitch it right -- and France is fascinating, good choice.

Best wishes,


Jack Kessler,







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