A Very Big Library

Library: reading room

Encyclopediac Opening Expo:
'Tous les Savoirs du Monde'

Paris:- Monday, 16. December 1996:- The very first report I did for the Web was about the Salon de Livre in 1995. I covered the Salon de Livre again in late March of this year, and both times I visited the stand of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

For a long time I did not know anything about the BNF on the rue de Richelieu - and, in addition, two major changes have been a long time coming to the institution as a whole: the construction of the monumental new 'Trés Grand Bibliothèque' and the gradual wiring and putting online of the whole shebang.

The BNF is at once France's national library, while also having the ambition of being the grand Library of Alexandria. One copy of everything published in France is supposed to be deposited at the BNP and this is called the 'dépôt légal,' so this should mean that somewhere within its precincts, a copy of the original publication is lodged. Besides books, this includes music, maps, photographs and now, audiovisual and multimedia publications.

Library: hall

The collection resulting from this hoard has outgrown the onetime Bibliothèque Royale, started in 1720 on the rue de Richelieu. In 1988, President Mitterrand ordered the construction of the new 'trés grande bibliothèque,' not to replace the rue de Richelieu location, but as sort of a huge expansion.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, the TGB will be inaugurated by the current President of the French Republic, Jacques Chirac, who will name it the 'Bibliothèque Nationale de France François Mitterrand,' and on Friday of this week the 'BNFFM' or 'TGB' or 'Tolbiac' will open to the public for the first time, eight years after the idea was launched.

When President Mitterrand ordered the new national library, he said that it was to be, 'an entirely new type [of library].' I think this was supposed to mean that the public could go in and select books on shelves, pick one and sit down and read it.

How Richelieu Works

Off and on over the years, I have heard about how forbidding it is to deal with the library on the rue de Richelieu - so I visited there last week to find out how it works.

Today, at the rue de Richelieu location of the BNF there are ten million books, 350 thousand periodicals, 880 thousand maps and plans, eleven million stamps, engravings and photographs, over three million manuscripts, half a million pieces of money and medals, over two million musical documents plus another million audio recordings and audiovisual publications, and nearly seven million posters, models and manuscripts concerning arts and spectacles. You can not just walk in and browse the shelves.

Carrying a piece of identification, I turn to the right after entering and I take my turn to wait to be interviewed at one of several offices, which, in today's case, happens immediately. I get information about where to go and would have gotten a pass to get in there if I wasn't on an exploratory mission. If it is to the general reading room, I would go there - right opposite the main entry - and take a ticket like at a butcher shop and wait until my number comes up and a reading post is available.

Once inside, I believe you consult one of the librarians, and they arrange to have the request filled. You take a seat in a room with a high ceiling, with green shaded reading lights at all the places. The rest of the room is dim, and old, with polished wood everywhere.

How the BNFFM - TGB - or Tolbiac - Works

If it is not Press Day, when you enter you pay the fee and then you go to the particular reading room you want. You make a reservation for a place to read - there are only so many reading posts in each hall. You can browse the shelves and if you find the book you are looking for, you take it and sit down and read it. If you can not find it, you consult the computers which are connected to the electronic data base, and this returns a book number - and you can ask a librarian to get it for you if it is not on the shelves. Touching real books on shelves seems to be the 'new' part.


Although the TGB will be open when you read this, it is by no means finished. The shelves in the particular reading rooms are not full. The electronic index is having the usual sort of start-up problems. And, perhaps most importantly, only a very tiny - 180,000 titles - stock of books available for reading are on hand - the majority of titles are still being transferred from Richelieu. The 'big division' continues - between what stays there and what moves here.

Impressions of a Trés Grand Bibliothèque

The new library is on the edge of the Seine, in the south-eastern 13th arrondissement of Paris - facing the omnisport grass-sided Mayan-style palace of Bercy, which is a little upriver from the 'Trés Grand' new finance ministry building. They are all right by the Pont de Bercy, but the library is on the Tolbiac side. If streets were normal in Paris, I'd say the nearly rectangular site covers about six city blocks.

The library sits on sort of a plateau, stepped on all sides like a low pyramid. At each corner of the plateau there are L-shaped 20-storey high buildings, sort of like book-ends. In the centre of the plateau, there is a courtyard, about three floors deep and about two blocks long by one wide - filled with a pine forest.

To enter, I climb the steps, and walk across the 60,000 square metre plateau into the wind, to the courtyard, where there are moving paths going halfway down to the entries - and these are at either end of the courtyard.

This level is called the 'Haut-de-Jardin' and there are big halls at either end for public services. There are wide corridors along the length, on the glassed courtyard or garden sides, which pass all the various departments, such as literature and arts, science and technical.

I go into the reading room for French Literature, identified by a large quadrilingual sign. Just inside the large room, of which the opposite wall has high windows, there is a counter for librarian services. Beyond this there are several banks of computers. Bookshelves, not so high, stick out at right angles to the walls on both sides of the room. The bookshelves I see are no more than a third full. The centre of the room is filled with reading tables and their lights. All the furniture is blond wood. The reading posts offer ultra comfort. The ceiling is high, giving a feeling of air-space.

The public library is open to everyone older than 18, or under if with a BAC, and there is a fee. There are 1,697 sit-down reading stations, plus there are 60 audiovisual stations divided among the four sections on the public floor. When fully stocked, there will be 300,000 titles on the bookshelves and 5,000 periodicals available. In addition, there will be microfiles, computer data bases and audiovisual documents.

I think there must be a difference between 'audiovisual stations' and computer posts, because the latter do or will number 180, with 145 presently in place.

In addition, besides information services, there are all the services needed for comfort; such as restaurants, cafés, boutiques and bookstores - plus coat and bag checking. There is also an exhibition space of 1,400 square metres and a 350-seat auditorium, and several smaller halls.

The whole 'public library' floor is more of less duplicated one floor further down by the research library, on the 'Rez-de-Jardin,' where access is restricted, but I can not find out exactly how - this being 'Press Day' on the public floor. This 'professional' library has more places: 2,100 - more books: 400,000, and also contains the rare and antique books and rare documents.

The high L-shaped towers, mentioned earlier, are the book-storage silos. Elsewhere I have read that they are fully automatic and you can order a book not on a shelf, in the public library for example, and it gets whisked to you in twenty minutes. Critics have mentioned that the air-conditioning costs for this type of storage will be immense and to no good purpose; while I wonder what kind of heatwaves may be generated in the central and possibly airless courtyard.

The 10 million titles forseen - from Gutenberg to our time - will fit into half the space available; the 200 kilometres remaining is for the new books, and is expected to be filled within 30 years.

My impression today is that the building is well-done, if somewhat subdued - but it is very large. Public transport access is not plentiful, but I was told that the bus line 89 would be extended from Austerlitz, and that line 'C' of the RER would have a station for the library built, as it passes right by it.

While the grand library is open - and filling up with books - one could say that it is really still 'under construction,' because all of its jewels are not yet in place. The quarter around the library is an even bigger question mark, because it is entirely 'under construction' with wet concrete still being poured.

The Richelieu is downtown and when you leave it you are in the centre of Paris, on a street opened in 1634. Tolbiac is in sort of in an urban unknown, unbecome; after immersion in an antique book culture shock may be right outside the door.

Bibliothèque François Mitterrand

11. quai François-Mauriac, Paris 13. Tel.: 01 53 79 59 59. Open: Tuesday to Saturday, 10:00 to 19:00; Sundays from 12:00 to 18:00. Métro station: Quai de la Gare; Bus 62. Entry fee: 20 francs per day; 200 francs per year. Students, half price.

Available in mid-January 1997: online catalogue of 180,000 titles - the remainder is due in 1998. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, URL: http://www.bnf.fr/

Tous les Savoirs du Monde


This exhibition, dedicated to the public opening of the 'Bibliothèque Nationale de France François Mitterrand,' is a celebration of the idea of the encyclopedia - the attempt to gather all knowledge within the covers of a book, or set of books.

As one is supposed to follow the sense of the exposition, I started off looking at Mesopotamian tablets, inscribed with lists. This is followed by some original documents of Egyptian papyrus, Alexandrian tablets; some very old reproductions such as Homer's Iliad, Metaphysics by Aristotle, and so on.

With the Renaissance printing arrives, with an original edition of Rabelais. In parallel, there are 50 documents in Chinese - followed later by L'Encylopédie de Diderot and of Alembert, along with all the working documents necessary for their production. On view: 17 volumes of text and 11 volumes of illustrations.

Window 2

While the exhibition at Tolbiac is a over-all general history of the encyclopedia, the concurrent exposition at Richelieu is more thematic, with encyclopedias dedicated to natural sciences and the world's marvels.

The exhibition runs from Friday, 20. December until Sunday, 6. April 1997, and will be divided between Richelieu and Tolbiac.

Besides an exhibition catalogue of 440 pages for 395 francs, there is an Exhibition CD-ROM for 295 francs, an album for 59 francs, an Agenda 1997 for 140 francs, and another CD-ROM, entitled 'Les Natures de Johann Walter,' for 195 francs.

BNF - Richelieu, 58. Rue de Richelieu, Paris 2; métro Bourse or Palais-Royal. Info tel.: 01 47 03 81 26.

BNF - Tolbiac, 11. Quai François Mauriac, Paris 13; métro Quai de la Gare, line 6. Info tel.: 01 53 79 53 79.

Every day except Monday, from 10:00 to 19:00. Reserved for scholars Tuesdays from 10:00 to 13:00.

Entry price is 45 francs and reduced, 30 francs.

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