Scandal on the Seine

The building for the new French National Library (the Bibliothéque de France) that is just about to be constructed in Paris is a threat to French culture. It is hostile to books, hostile to people, hostile to the city of Paris. It is impractical, indifferent to its site, indifferent to the sensibility of its users. The story of its construction has much to say about the cynicism of modern architects who want to please politicians and bureaucrats rather than the public, and it should be cautionary for other countries, even though French scholars and students will suffer mainly from its effects. It is impossible for scholars to do work on French history and culture without relying on the French National Library, and now it faces an architectural disaster in Paris.

The need to find a new home for the old Bibliothèque Nationale (BN) was obvious. Pierre Labrouste’s reading room in Paris, on the Rue de Richelieu, constructed in 1868, like panizzi’s chef d’oeuvre at the British Library in London, is a splendid work of architectural design; but four years from now, there will not be one inch left on the BN’s 100 miles of shelf space. Moreover it is essentially a library for scholars who must apply to use it. It was right for François Mitterrand to support a project for a new library, even one costing between one and two billion dollars. The problem is that the new complex at Tolbiac on the southeast edge of Paris, which will replace the old one on the rue de Richelieu and rue de Vivienne, is a librarian’s nightmare.

From the first, the project has had two main liabilities. The first concerned its purposes. The socialist government has been understandably keen on the need to democratize culture in a society where, as Pierre Bourdieu has shown, style and savoir-faire are mighty weapons in the social civil war. The government wanted the costly new National Library to serve larger, democratic goals, including wider access of the French public to books, to computerized information, to movies, exhibitions, and other cultural events. During 1989, the French officials in charge of the library proposed that the BN collection should be divided into two parts (with two thirds of its books placed in silos) in order to create more space in the new building for a section that is to be separate from the BN and would be for the “general public” (Grand Public). This was to include not only public reading rooms, for which there is a good case, but also exhibition halls, restaurants, ten movie theaters, and even, it was said, a Turkish bath. Scholars were dismayed; they feared that such functions would crowd out scholarly research. To some degree such fears have been appeased by changes in the original plan. The theaters have been canceled. In late 1990, to everyone’s relief, President Mitterrand wisely decided that the library should concentrate on books instead of on presenting images, although the future internal arrangements both…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.