Only a half kilometer from our auberge, Bibliothèque municipal Joseph-Roumanille (BJR) in the historic center of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence (SRdP) can be accessed by either of the two streets it borders. The book return is in back of the old mansion they moved into in 1990.
But the Boulevard Gambetta entrance is more impressive. A zebra crossing funnels you passed gigantic planters and stone pillars flanking the open gate of a wrought iron barrier protecting the gravel courtyard. Towering sycamores, ubiquitous in the district and often turning two lane roads into peaceful green tunnels, provide shade to review the events promoted in the twin frames attached to the spears forming the railing.
Beyond this formidable fence, trees, rosebushes, the shiny leaves of flowering foliage and a graceful nude statue form a pocket sanctuary. Tall hedges, vines and a pastel graffiti “Book” smother the stone walls, so high on one side it touches the bottom of the roof.
Formerly belonging to a family of seed merchants, it’s a splendid building. Clay tiles top a row of fretted fenestrations and white wrought iron balconets above the lowest level’s pale blue shutters and coach lamps.
Enchanted by the architecture, I examined the exquisite molding and glass transom with stylized “B” over the heavy wood door while waiting for BJR to open. Closed Thursdays when classes are held for schools, the library is available four days a week.
In the luminous lobby, marble accents, recent acquisitions in a sparkling vitrine and the brass and wood banister of an enticing stairway immediately impart a sense of calm.
Natives seem to have a distinct flair for design and this table’s inventive containers are typical of external adornment for sheds and shops in the vicinity.
Rays spill in via a skylight and from the garden through enormous ancient windows.
A futuristic black and white theme dominates the space to the left where a large curved desk allows up to three people to be available for questions.
I was fortunate to meet three of BJR’s four employees. Welcoming, friendly and informative, I spoke to Magalie when she wasn’t busy helping patrons. Though serving a small commune of less than ten thousand, they are rapidly modernizing and have wifi, two public computers and eight iPads for use in house. The collection totals about 30,000 items and a thousand books, large print titles, movies and audios are added annually.
Everyone was interested to hear Monaco would be profiled the month before this post as Princess Caroline’s children were raised here after their father’s death and had assisted in the renovation five years ago.
Appropriately, considering the assortment of CDs, the section sports a sound system, and across from Circulation, seats slot so neatly into this surface I thought it was just an intriguing display block.
Established in 1885, but unfunded for over a century, the bibliothèque’s paid staff started in the late eighties. Named for renowned regional writer Joseph Roumanille who lived nearby, BJR stores community documents spanning the centuries from medieval times to the Seventies (records after this are kept at the city hall), including parchments, charters and 1000 plus items on Provence. Historic holdings are enhanced by valuable donations from generous citizens of materials like manuscripts and probate papers. Town council deliberations go back to 1620 and present a fascinating portrait of the daily lives of ancestors. Genealogists consult civil and church registries that, in accordance with French law, are more than seventy five years old.
I was charmed by the juvenile area. Awash in preppy pink and green, comfy chairs and striped cushions on little rugs invite kids to sprawl comfortably inside, or, since their retractable awnings will shield tots from the sun, drag an egg shaped cocoon out to the mini park.
Cupboards of manga, pop-ups and racks of nouveautes sit near a hanging quilt whose tiny stuffed figures seem to be celebrating the rural nature of the environs. Elsewhere, painted lines on glass covering a picture create a three dimensional forest and appealing scenes of wood cut African animals add to the decor.
The website links to twenty livres that will change your life, new DVDs and books by category, the catalog and Cadavre Exquis (Exquisite Corpse), a participatory literary mystery generated in honor of their twentieth anniversary in 2011.
Facebook has shots of students meeting a famous illustrator, book discussions, craft sessions, group yoga, cello recitals and holiday parties. Video of a painting workshop vies for attention amidst announcements of jazz concerts, an egg hunt, a lecture on herbs, photography contests, author appearances and a Shakespeare conference. Playful banter between workers and customers is interspersed by advertisements for star gazing and poetry programs, toddler shows and a comics forum. Banners publicize storytimes, films and monthly technology help classes for the internet, social media, tablets and email.
Despite the limited hours, the team obviously manages to do a lot for users. In a joint venture with a local social center, they offer home delivery for those unable to come in, be it due to mobility issues, a temporary infirmity or an infant.
Gaelle, the Head Bibliothécaire (librarian), took me around, pointing out Provençal style cabinets showcasing recommendations. Some of the glowing pine stacks are so tall that the scattered footstools are a necessity to reach the higher volumes.
Shelves of graphic novels have wheels so can be pushed back to save space and by the foreign language dictionaries, colorful flags and posters of faraway lands tempt the traveler to take off.
Antique fixtures and oils of Arles mesh surprisingly well with contemporary couches and consoles of magazines. By a PC, vivid red and purple walls complement rather than clash.
Offices are on the top floor, as is the archive which Salome unlocked so I could appreciate its stunning interior. Casement windows reveal exterior ornamental design and gorgeous old chests cradle reference sets best perused perched on Louis XIV armchairs upholstered in velvet.
Salome spoke excellent English and we chatted for quite a while. Potential bibliothécaires in France take a two year course for the DUT (diplôme universitaire de technologie). They specialize in bookselling, editing, librarianship or publishing to get the professional license in information and communication. We talked about the wonderful concept of “library as the third place” (home is first, work second…). She reminded me how thrilling it is when you first start a job in public libraries and realize their vitality and importance to society – discovering what you thought was a quiet haven is actually a shimmering, vibrant asset to the community.
Close to the Alpilles mountain range and boasting a pleasant Mediterranean climate, SRdP is a popular tourist destination, so the library is a welcome oasis with lovely facilities for visitors feeling a bit overwhelmed by the crowds. But for lucky residents, transplants and expats, Bibliothèque municipal Joseph-Roumanille truly is the ideal “third place.”