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making history at france's new national library

Lately, French presidents have tended to emulate their royal predecessors (and the Egyptian pharaohs before them) by initiating and erecting monumental public buildings. While these grands travaux (great works) have been paid for by the taxpayers, they have for the most part been well inspired and appreciated by the local, national, and international communities.

President Georges Pompidou, a modern-art lover, commissioned what was named after his death Centre Pompidou, a strikingly modern building opened in 1977 in the center of old Paris. It currently houses a new museum of modern art, a public library, a center of architecture and urbanism, and IRCAM, a musical-research resource.

President Giscard d'Estaing transformed the unused Orsay train station into Musée d'Orsay, a vast museum of nineteenth-century arts. d'Estaing's rehabilitation of the east end of Paris began by commissioning the Citeé des Sciences et de l'Industrie, on the site of the old slaughterhouses at La Vilette. After the opening of the Science Museum and of La Géode, an Omnimax movie sphere, last year the center added a Cite´ de la Musique and an adjoining museum. (I'll talk about that in an upcoming report.)

In his fourteen years in office, President Francois Mitterrand has surpassed his predecessors by enlarging the Louvre museum and adding a glass pyramid ("Grand Louvre"); by erecting the Grand Arch at La Défense; by building a new opera house at La Bastille; and by initiating the construction of a giant new national library at Tolbiac.

Predictably, a number of these Great Works have been embroiled in controversy; the new library, which opened last December, is no exception. For the project, Mitterrand chose 36-year old Dominique Perrault from a final group of four architects selected by a jury from 250 applicants. In a simple but monumental arrangement, Perrault chose to erect four 250-foot towers shaped like open books. These rise high above a rectangular base that harbors an enclosed garden of exotic trees. Highly opinionated Parisians have had a field day criticizing this unconventional design.

The second controversy concerned the books to be transferred from the current national library, rue de Richelieu. A noted expert and director of library facilities at Stanford University claimed that conditions in the new building could jeopardize the collection. The towers were shortened somewhat; protection from the sun was increased, and air and temperature variations were diminished. Lately, the controversy has been reduced to questions of whether or not the Tolbiac library is a pleasant or inspiring place to visit.

Still under construction, the site is surrounded by cranes, bulldozers, and fences. Climbing the huge stairs to the base of the towers while being buffeted by a strong wind, I couldn't help but wonder if the critics didn't indeed have a point (or several). Closer to the central rectangle, a glimpse of the cloistered garden and the two glass floors and wooden galleries surrounding it did quite a bit to calm that first unfavorable impression.

The two major benefits of this new library -- a much larger storage space and half of the reading rooms open to the general public -- have been sought for a long time. Royal book collections can be traced back to Charlemagne, in the ninth century, but it wasn't until the fifteenth century, when Louis XI began to amass collections which would grow into a "national library," that they opened to scholars.

The real boost came in 1537, when Francois I decreed a "legal deposit of books" whereby a copy of anything published in the kingdom had to be sent to the national library. The library began to offer limited access to the general public beginning in 1720. But from then on, the service was regularly threatened by lack of storage and reading space. Proposals to move or replace the library began as early as 1830. Piecemeal purchases of adjacent buildings in the rue de Richelieu offered temporary solutions, but the public reading room was finally closed in 1935.

More than sixty years later, the new first floor haut-de-jardin (upper garden floor) offers seating for up to 1,600. "Public use" requires that visitors be over eighteen or in possession of a high school diploma. The current book count stands at 200,000 volumes (in five years, it'll be 350,000). From the terminal-equipped booths in the mezzanine of each reading area, users can access all or part of one million microforms, 100,000 scanned books, 80,000 hours of animation, 1 million fixed images, or 600,000 hours of audio documents. In 1998, when all of the books have been transferred from Richelieu, scholars will have 2,000 additional seats in the rez-de-jardin (lower-garden floor), along with personal access to 500,000 volumes and to the complete collection of 10 million volumes, delivered through automated facilities.

Admission for a single visit is $4; a year's pass is $40 ($20 for students). The fees are modest, considering that the undertaking has cost a hefty $1.5 billion and will continue to incur $250 million a year in operating expenses. Even though the French citizenry was not consulted by the princely President Mitterand before this lifelong tax burden was placed on them, it is arguably something that we will very willingly continue to support. As my American wife Gena says : "French taxpayers are proud to contribute to the spreading of culture." She adds: "We're all little Mitterrands at heart!"


shermozle said:

Minitel really is an amazing device. The French government's foresight and laissez-faire attitudes to censorship should set an example for other world governments contemplating new technologies. Because Minitel is ubiquitous, it's still immensely useful. You can book trains, see what's on at the movies, chat--just about everything that you'll be able to do on the Web someday soon. But it's all there now in all it's coloured ASCII glory! Until everything is online and everyone has a terminal, we won't see the amount of usefulness you get from Minitel on the Web.

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Even though the French citizenry was not consulted by the princely President Mitterand before this lifelong tax burden was placed on them, it is arguably something that we will very willingly continue to support.

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