The Dún Laoghaire-born woman raising millions for France’s national library

Kara Lennon Casanova works in a literary treasure trove

The newly restored Salle Ovale of the National Library of France (known as the Bibliothèque nationale de France or BnF) looks particularly welcoming this autumn evening. Brass and green glass reading lamps glimmer at every desk, though readers have gone home. Book-laden shelves rise on all sides, appearing to warmly embrace the room.

When it reopened after renovations, Le Monde newspaper called the oval reading room “The Holy of Holies” of places of learning.

Members of the French public responded to the initial fundraising campaign for the Salle Ovale and two other rooms with €1.8 million in donations.

“Something about this location speaks to people,” says Irishwoman Kara Lennon Casanova, who created the BnF’s fundraising department when she joined the library and its executive committee in 2008. “We had people calling to adopt a table for their parents or grandparents. We even discovered two couples who met in the oval reading room. They wrote and said, ‘I would like to adopt this table because that is where I met my wife or husband’.”

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The library’s president, Laurence Engel, pinned the emerald green and silver medal of a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters on Lennon Casanova’s dress, to thank her for raising €9 million for the library’s renovation. Half that amount came from foreign donors.

Thanks to you? I ask Lennon Casanova. “Thanks to them!” she says self-deprecatingly, with a smile. “But yes, I went and asked. I knocked on their doors. Japanese, Greek, Swiss and then Americans. From foundations, companies and individuals. One of our American patrons had helped with other projects. He also supports Trinity College Dublin.”

The American is Mark Pigott, an Irish-American industrialist and philanthropist from Seattle who contributed €1.2 million to the renovation.

The French state remains the main provider. The ministries of culture and higher education contributed €255 million to the decade-long renovation.

Engel speaks at length of Lennon Casanova’s commitment and “European vision”, of her “great capacity to find new patrons and help the library find new friends”.

Lennon Casanova was born in Dún Laoghaire. Her family moved to Brussels, where her father was an adviser to the EU Commission, when she was small. She attended a French-speaking Jesuit school, the Collège St Michel, and is bilingual in French and English.

I comment on her indefinable accent. “My cousins in Dublin always call me ‘the European’,” Lennon Casanova laughs. She earned degrees in art history and museum studies in Brussels and Amsterdam, worked for the World Bank in Indonesia and then at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where she met her French-Corsican husband, Pierre Casanova, a lawyer with whom she has two children. He persuaded her to move to Paris.

Lennon Casanova worked at Unesco and the Pompidou Centre, “always on the financial management side of museums and libraries”, she explains. The president of the Pompidou Centre, Bruno Racine, took her with him when he became president of the BnF.

“It was a joy to work with Kara,” Racine tells me after the award ceremony. “To be able to count on someone so intelligent, competent, determined and methodical. We laughed a lot. She is very cosmopolitan, but her Irish patriotism comes through. When Ireland defeated England in rugby, we drank champagne.”

Asking people for money is my idea of hell, I tell Lennon Casanova. How does she do it? She laughs again. “Do you mean do I enjoy torturing people? To be honest, I rarely speak about money. It starts with a project ... The quality of the project is everything.”

Fundraising is relatively new in France, where most institutions rely on state funding. The first project for which she secured financing was the purchase of the manuscripts of the 18th Century Venetian adventurer Giacomo Casanova – no relation to her husband.

Though the BnF is “anchored in the past” it is also “an institution turned towards the future”, says Lennon Casanova. That paradox can be seen in the renovation project, where a futuristic 21st century steel and aluminium staircase unifies constructions from four centuries.

Twenty years ago the BnF decided to digitalise its collection and make it available on the Gallica website. That entailed mass hiring of computer engineers and a huge investment in digital archiving, which must be updated as technology evolves.

Lennon Casanova describes the BnF as “an XXL version of a museum”. It possesses more than 40 million documents and has posted 10 million online. The French King Charles V founded the library for his manuscript collection in 1368. “From the beginning it was a state collection, and it has remained so through the ancien regime, the revolution, empire and successive republics,” she says.

Discussions on the renovation of the historic Richelieu site began shortly after the modern François Mitterrand branch of the library opened in 1995. Lennon Casanova and her colleagues made three big decisions: to open the site with a large, new, airy garden entrance; to restore the upstairs Mazarin Gallery, with its splendid Italian baroque ceiling frescoes, to its original use as a museum, and to reopen the Salle Ovale to the public, after access had been limited for decades.

“We were most surprised by the silence in the reading room,” says Lennon Casanova. “There is something about that room that makes you want to think, reflect and meditate.”

The restored library counted 40,000 visitors in the first six weeks after its reopening in mid-September.

In 1537 King Francis I ordered the BnF to keep a copy of everything printed in France. Storage at the Richelieu and François Mitterrand sites is nearly full. A new conservation site will open in Amiens in 2028.

“We have an unusual relationship with time,” says Patrick Belaubre, head of communications for the BnF. “The library looks back on 700 years of its own existence, and projects forward to eternity.”

The library’s treasures include one of the first examples of writing in the world, a black stone etched with cuneiform, from ancient Mesopotamia. The BnF owns Marie de Medici’s stunning emerald pendant, as well as her handwritten order to the jeweller who made it. The Marquise de Pompadour’s cameos are shown alongside the tiny portrait which her lover, Louis XV, hid on his desk.

The Louis XV room, like the Mazarin Gallery, was restored with funds raised by Lennon Casanova. Louis XV opened it to the public in 1750, two days a week, to show his collection of medals and coins.

One can see King Dagobert’s 1,200-year-old folding bronze travel throne, which was damaged by Napoleon. A 13th century, gold-illuminated psalter belonged to Saint Louis and was brought to the BnF for safekeeping during the revolution. Elizabeth I’s first edition of Montaigne’s essays, stamped with the British queen’s initials, sits in a glass case not far from the original manuscripts of Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris and Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

Visitors can peer through glass windows into storage rooms where endless rows of impeccably organised leather boxes are stacked. I am permitted to enter the area normally restricted to visitors.

Corinne Le Bitouzé, custodian of 18th century prints, opens an archive box to show me the newspaper pages which Jean-Paul Marat was reading when he was fatally stabbed in his bath by Charlotte Corday in 1793. Marat was a Jacobin revolutionary. Corday was from the more moderate Girondin faction.

Waves of reddish-brown stain creep up the pages. “A DNA test revealed the blood belonged to a person from Sardinia,” Le Bitouzé says. “Marat was a Sard. He suffered from a skin disease which was why he took baths all the time. Scientists identified the skin disease.”

My visit to the BnF has concluded with the blood of a revolutionary spilled in 1793. I have touched history with rare immediacy; a history now more firmly secured with the help of an enterprising Irishwoman.

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is Paris Correspondent of The Irish Times