Society

Portrait Of A Young Parisian Custodian Of Old Books

Paris's BIUS boasts some 350,000 books
Paris's BIUS boasts some 350,000 books
Sandrine Cabut

PARIS – He first visited libraries as a researcher, before crossing on to “the other side of the mirror.”

That's how Philippe Galanopolous describes his life as a curator for the Inter-University Science Library of Paris (BIUS), one of the world's best collection of science texts and documents.

BIUS was created after the merger between the Inter-University Medical Library and the Pharmacy Library in 2011. It kept both sites, one in the Odeon neighborhood and the other at the Pharmacy Faculty. It is in this second site, near the Luxembourg gardens, that Galanopolous has been working for almost three years.

Galanopolous' line of work, like everything else in the publishing world, is in midst of a transformation. Book and journal digitalization and the explosion of electronic journals have changed the job of a library curator, which is now more about workflow and database services than about managing a storehouse.

“There are fewer and fewer of us who work with paper,” says Galanopoulos, who, at 36 sees himself as a dinosaur.

He is responsible for the BIUS biology-cosmetology-pharmaceutical heritage funds, and presides over 350,000 volumes, periodicals and monographs. Nine linear kilometers, spread out over different storehouses.

“My mission is to maintain, recondition, restore, enrich and enhance,” says the curator, the enthusiastic guide of a maze he knows like the back of his hand. From one storehouse to the other, ranging from the entire collection of issues of the journal Chemical Abstracts since 1907 (which occupies 300 linear meters but is now fully accessible on the online database) to old books on botany, chemistry or the history of fish.

More than 6,000 works, some of them single-copy volumes, including several incunabula printed before the 15th century. He shows his visitor a parchment in perfect condition, with a pigskin cover and elegant metal clasps. Galanopoulous then points us to other manuscripts: medicine books, prescription ledgers from a pharmacy, alchemy treaties.

“It took me a year and a half to get a clear idea of the collections, which I was also able to discover thanks to researchers that contacted us,” he says.

Weeding out and pounding

Every day, management and maintenance of this titanic heritage is a meticulous and painstaking job. He must regularly sort out, or in a librarian’s lingo, “weed-out” (assign less relevant items to other libraries) or “pound” (destroy).

Like his colleagues, Galanopoulous must also fulfill public service missions: welcoming new library users, advising students on bibliographical research – a culture shock for this scholar.

“For this generation that grew up with the Internet, their first instinct is Google, not looking up the information in a catalogue. Since they find so many of their answers with a search engine, if they don’t find answers, they assume it is because it does not exist.”

What interests him most, “is to highlight collections, through collaboration with researchers for their work: writing books, designing exhibits…” He also continues his own research activities and publishes articles, notably in medicine history journals.

Main reading room of the BIUS - Photo: BIUM

Galanopoulos learned his craft at the elite Ecole des Chartes, the famous University of Paris institution where France’s top archivists and librarians are trained. He was taught about the importance of knowing who purchased a volume, and who annotated it.

For this book lover, the content is not always what’s most important. Sometimes he can be pulled in by a book’s unique typography, a beautiful cover or a good dedication. For his own personal use, he only buys used books, loving to find an old postcard, business card or dried flower between its pages. They are the little ties that bind a book to those who bought or read it. “People think that a book is a document reproduced thousands of times, but each copy is unique because of its history and is irreplaceable,” he says.

“His relationship with books is very emotional, but he is also a friendly person, who is very interested in people,” says Claire Nguyen, head of periodicals and electronic editions at BIUS.

Galanopoulos also admits to having a strange compulsion: picking up discarded objects and pieces of paper on the street. A romantic side that does not prevent him from being a modern and pragmatic man.

“I’m against anything that goes fast, but I scan and digitize books,” he said, smiling. Colleagues still remember his boyish excitement when he showed them to the scanner he customized to fit every book size in the library.

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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