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BIOGRAPHIES

BARBIER, Antoine-Alexandre


1765-1825
 
Principal publications:
- Catalogue de la bibliothèque du conseil d'Etat (Paris, 1803)
- Dictionnaire des ouvrages anonymes et pseudonymes, (Paris, 1806-1808), and still in use today (a second edition of this work was in progress when he died in 1825).
- Nouvelle bibliothèque d'un homme de goût (Paris, 1808-1810)
 
Prior to the Revolution, Barbier was a maths and physics teacher, and in 1789, he was the vicar at Dammartin. He accepted the "constitution civile du clergé" and became priest at La Ferté-sous-Jouarre. In 1794 he was given the job of itemising and safeguarding the huge number of books and papers that had been confiscated by the revolutionaries on behalf of the Nation. These books, many of which were falling apart due to insects and poor conservation conditions, were also taking up offices that were required by the local authorities. Having constructed proper shelving for the books and introduced air-flow systems to allow ventilation between the shelves, the monumental task of cataloguing the confiscated works remained. This task required the assistance of specialists: archivists, curators, bibliophiles and librarians were called in to sort through the books, destroy any considered "seditious", sell any that were no longer needed and replace any considered important enough in the public libraries. A large of number of public libraries benefitted from this process, in particular the Bibliothèque Nationale.
 
In 1795, Barbier was seconded to Gaspard Michel Leblond with the task of reducing the huge book depots in Paris and in Versailles, sorting, cataloguing and selling the books stored on these sites. Barbier was also heavily involved in the creation of provincial public libraries and the cataloguing of the books stored therein.
 
In 1798, Barbier created the bibliothèque du ministère de l'Intérieur, which was designed to hold the collections that formerly belonged to the Académie Française and the Académie  des Inscriptions et Belle-Lettres, as well as any works considered worthwhile that had been seized from libraries belonging to émigrés or those condemned to death. This library became the Conseil D'Etat's library in 1799, shortly after 18 Brumaire, and Barbier became its librarian. Putting together a catalogue for the library, he abandoned the traditional alphabetical classification, instead opting for classification by subject-matter.
 
In 1807, Barbier replaced Louis-Madeleine Ripault and was put in charge of Napoleon's personal libraries at Compiègne, Rambouillet and Trianon as well as the travel libraries that Napoleon took with him whilst on campaign. The first travel library, conceived in July 1808, included texts on a variety of different subjects: novels, history, poetry, and theatre. Barbier was also asked to write numerous reports regarding the history, geography and religious issues of various regions and countries which Napoleon used in his political and military planning.
 
Barbier was also expected to keep the French Emperor constantly supplied with reading material, along with reports, analyses and commentaries regarding each publication. Napoleon, known to be a voracious reader, complained on a number of occasions about the lack of reading material at his disposal, which led to letters being dispatched to Barbier, reminding him of his duties regarding this matter. In his role as "conseiller littéraire", he was also expected to brief Napoleon when the Emperor was back in Paris. He also served the Empress Josephine in a similar manner, and managed her libraries at the Tuileries, Compiègne, Saint-Cloud, Fontainebleau, Trianon, Rambouillet and at her other residences.
 
Between 1808 and 1810, he published his Nouvelle bibliothèque d'un homme de goût, which was based on Louis-Mayeul Chaudon's Bibliothèque d'un homme de goût. This catalogue gathered together various critical and analytical extracts from works and periodicals dedicated to literary criticism, adding to and correcting the original work of Chaudon. The goal of this catalogue was to examine both modern and classical literature and separate the "wheat from the chaff", rewrite any critiques that were unmerited, and ensure that books which did not deserve to be forgotten were not, whilst books that were unworthy of remembrance were removed. The catalogue included entries for both French and foreign literature, as well as offering notes on the best editions and most accurate translations, where necessary.
 
Despite his work for Napoleon, Barbier remained principled and incurred the wrath of the Emperor on a number of occasions: as well as being reluctant to forward any works that he considered mediocre (despite the Emperor's continuous desire for new reading material), he also refused to catalogue a number of books dedicated to or concerning Napoleon and his numerous successes. Works that were omitted from the libraries that Barbier curated included Relation de la bataille de Marengo, Vies de Bonaparte, and Histoires de l'Empereur Napoléon, which he argued were written by "second-rate writers", driven by greed and a desire to flatter the Emperor. Napoleon nevertheless insisted that Relation... be inserted into all of his libraries, despite his librarian's reluctance.
 
During the Restoration, Barbier was put in charge of the royal libraries, but was dismissed from the King's service in 1822, for reasons not listed in his biographies (although Muriel Brot hypothesises that this may have been simply due to his prolonged service for Napoleon). Barbier was severely affected by the dismissal and fell ill shortly afterwards, dying in 1825.
 
Sources:
Dictionnaire Napoléon, "Barbier", p162, Jacques Jourquin
Grand Dictionnaire Universel du XIXe Siècle, "Barbier (Antoine-Alexandre)", pp. 219-220
Muriel Brot, "La bibliothèque idéale d'Antoine-Alexandre Barbier", in L'Empire des Muses : Napoléon, les Arts et les Lettres (dir. Jean-Claude Bonnet), Editions Belin, 2004, pp. 91-109

(H.D.W. March 2009)

 
     
 
 

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