Portrait Of A Young Parisian Custodian Of Old Books
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.
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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.