Marie Benoit is the widow of Gaëtan Benoît, author of the posthumously-published Eugène Morel: Pioneer of Public Libraries in France. She wrote the following paragraphs describing her husband and the process of writing the book, which was originally his thesis for Fellowship in the Library Association (UK), in the 1970’s.
I must confess that I have found it very hard to write these few words, by way of introduction, to the first thesis which my husband of less than 13 years, Gaëtan Benoît wrote all those years ago, and which he submitted to the Library Association (United Kingdom) in 1977.
He died in 1987 on his native island of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, and when I packed to return to my country, Malta in 1989, with our two daughters, I had to dispose of the vast amount of papers and correspondence he had accumulated, over the years, while he was working on the thesis and other publications. I therefore have to rely on my memory to write this brief introduction.
I met him at the Polytechnic of North London in the early 70s. He was a British Council scholar, I too, was on scholarship from the University of Malta but he was in a course ahead of me. A bi-lingual and a hard worker, in his second year of the course he was already looking into a subject for his Fellowship thesis and started exploring what was available by way of documentation at the British Library, The Library Association and the British Museum as well as other repositories. And slowly his collection of photocopies was steadily growing.
He was able to tackle the life and work of the eminent French writer and librarian, Eugène Morel, as he had a perfect knowledge of French, both written and oral, and his command of English was very good indeed. He was not one to waste time and soon he was reading and translating articles and making notes. He always marked his photocopies heavily, in his small, clear writing and even in those early days he was already drawing up an index with cross-references. He was an industrious man and did all the translating himself, which was hard work, for he had a full-time job as City Librarian at the Municipality of Port Louis, which had an old and precious collection, much of it bequeathed by the French émigrés, who had left France after the French revolution and came to settle in Mauritius. The city library also had several branch libraries and then there was his young family at home. But he managed his time well and was therefore able to bring balance to his life.
Gaëtan was an academic at heart and like the protagonist of his thesis, Eugène, had enormous intellectual curiosity and loved the adventure of discovery through primary and secondary sources. No stone was left unturned to verify a fact, a date, a quotation. He conducted a vast correspondence with various libraries, in France – notably in Tours and Paris, in England and at least one in America. Morel and later his niece had strong ties with American libraries and librarians and France benefited from American know how and generosity in the field of librarianship.
But his greatest help was Mademoiselle Marguerite Gruny, Eugène Morel’s niece and herself a librarian. She wrote him letters of appreciation in her beautiful handwriting and he visited her in Paris two or three times. They took a liking to one another and so, the work seemed to flow and she supplied him with documentation, advise and contacts. She was very pleased that someone was at last writing a substantial document about her eminent uncle.
How much easier all this would have been with e-mail, internet and a word processor. How much less time consuming and arduous. Once we got married and settled in Mauritius acquiring documents was much more difficult and the grassroots typing had to be corrected again and again and revised carefully, especially when it came to the checking of dates and constantly retyped. The first draft was often done by me on my little red Olivetti and then passed on to the typist. If new facts emerged, and this often happened, then that chapter had to be re-typed from scratch.
Thankfully we had generous friends in both the British High Commission and the French Embassy. So chapters sent to London to Dr. Munford, my husband’s supervisor, went through the British High Commission by diplomatic pouch. The French Embassy helped to transport books and documentation by diplomatic pouch, too. We were very grateful to them for their generosity as post sometimes never reached its destination in those days to and from far away Mauritius.
Eugène Morel became part of our household and books about him and photocopies were much in evidence, even on our bedside tables. I grew to like him and admire him, as did my husband. He was a cultivated man but above all, did much to transform the library scene in France and was instrumental in introducing important library legislation which had tremendous impact.
One last word, and it must be one of thanks to Rory Litwin who tracked me down and has undertaken to publish this thesis. This is going to make several people happy. Three of them are no longer with us: Eugène Morel himself; his niece Marguerite Gruny and my husband. The three of them would have been delighted to see it printed and widely distributed, as I hope it will be. My daughters and myself are very happy too and wish to thank Rory from the bottom of our hearts for celebrating a number of worthy people all at one go.