The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 22, Number 4

Bibliothèque Nationale: A Building Hostile to Preservation and Access

The spectacular new Bibliothèque Nationale building at Tolbiac in southeastern Paris, with a glass tower at each corner, and computers everywhere inside, has been well publicized over the last few years. After it went into full operation on October 9, however, major problems became apparent. The librarians went on strike on October 20, and did not settle until November 3. Although their demand that open hours be reduced in 1999 was met, some of the problems that drove them to strike in the first place will remain unsolved, because they are built into the building.

The original grievances of the 800 strikers (who shut down not only the Tolbiac site, but the Arsenal as well, and closed the reception desk at the Richelieu site) were: poor conditions for the users (long waiting lines, poorly prepared reading rooms, computers and information systems which don't work right) and a flood of untrained temporary workers hired to rush the facility into service. Poor working conditions for the librarians were another complaint.

According to newspaper reports, the library's new computer system broke down after only a few hundred entries. Although the library is designed for 4,000 readers, the computer system malfunctions when more than a few hundred use it at once. Some researchers had to wait six hours just to register. The Dernières Nouvelles d'Alsace reported several problems October 28, including water leaks near the stacks.

Eric Fenster's scathing report of his visit to the library went out over the PADG discussion list ( November 7. He says that the design of the building has destroyed function. "A simple glance at the building reveals much of the story: four 18-story towers, about 800 feet apart, at the corners of a rectangle. Getting from one to the other can mean traveling as many as 36 floors down and up on a limited number of elevators that don't always work, plus an endless trek."

The wooden steps, which run the entire length of the building, get dangerously slippery in wet weather, and the steel bannisters are too few in number and freezing to the touch in cold weather. (Now there are some narrow paths leading up the steps where "nearly invisible skid-resistant covering" has been added, he says.) Wheelchair patrons have to mix in the street with cars to find a ramp they can use, because no access has been cut into the high curb; once they do get inside, they have to find a downramp in order to approach the entrance at the other side of the esplanade--but there are no directional signs for anything. "The building is completely open to the elements," Fenster says, "and cold wind, rain and snow follow readers into the main hall."

The four towers are all glass on the outside, but someone apparently reminded the architect that sunlight streaming through glass was bad for books, because protective wood panels were added inside, each about three feet wide, reaching from the floor to the ceiling. They are pivoted so they can be moved to shut out the light. There are about 8,000 of them. (Fenster calculates that this wastes at least 8,000 square meters of space.)

He lists more follies: a ventilation system with inadequate pipes that alternately cooks and freezes people, water from the Seine River constantly seeping into and flooding the building ("by design of the architect"), and insufficient space for staff and books.

He says the building project was implemented without consulting librarians. The four towers represent the division of the library by themes; will technical services and readers be divided into four parts too?

At least there are no windows in the stacks, and the lights are turned on and off by motion detectors. Fenster complains about this because the people who shelve and retrieve books have poor and intermittent light for their work because he is thinking about the welfare of the workers rather than the books. The compact shelving has an automatic moving system, but it doesn't always work, and the units can't be moved by hand.

The computer system does not permit multi-criteria searches and the staff were not sufficiently trained in its use. It has bugs: the number of books a researcher may request has been reduced to a fraction of that promised, because the books take so long to arrive, if they do at all. Frequently, Fenster says, researchers' library cards falsely register books they have never seen, blocking them from leaving the library until the guards can remove the suspicion of theft and use a special pass to release them.

In some rooms of the public (non-research) section, people who want to access the catalog have to compete with the people who came in to surf the Net.

Photocopies are expensive in the library, and so is the cafeteria. Readers are charged admission although "they have already paid four times the initial cost estimate in taxes." (It is hard to tell which monetary unit he is using, but the library cost 241.5 billion something--probably pounds, dollars or French francs.)

In its announcement of the strike's end in its December issue, American Libraries concludes by saying, "French President Jacques Chirac has called the multibillion-dollar building, designed by Dominique Perrault with four glass towers shaped like open books, an 'extravagant folly' unfit for its purpose."

Another summary of this situation comes from Jack Kessler (, who publishes a monthly electronic journal called FYI France that is archived at four different web sites. He said, in a message to the ICA/CIA list October 24, "My own guess is that France will be able to resolve this immediate crisis. The BNF has a new director, and much of what is going on [the strike] may be nothing more than 'trying the new boss out.' And ultimately the Jospin government will be sympathetic and reasonable: the profession and the country all desperately want to preserve and improve the BNF, of which they would like to be proud--and into which they have put so much already."

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