The Lamentable Library

French politics often seem to be an extension of French culture by other means. Jack Lang, the minister of culture, was the only prominent socialist to do well in the last elections, and the plans for a new national library, the Bibliothèque de France, have continued to cause intense controversy in Paris.1 A critical report on the new library, by a distinguished, officially appointed group, was finally made public in March, two months after the text had been submitted to the government. It called attention to serious structural problems in the current plan, particularly the original proposal to store books in the four high glass towers that stand at each corner of the building, which is to be constructed on a site overlooking the Seine, to the east of the Gare d’Austerlitz.

It is unfortunate that the publication of this report was held up so long, since changes in the project become more difficult to make with each day that passes. Moreover, Laure Adler, who supervises the project for President Mitterrand’s office at the Elysée, refused in January to discuss the report publicly and dismissed as “informations partielles tout à fait étranges” (biased and completely weird reports), what we now know to be the very accurate account of the committee’s critical views that had been leaked to the press (Le Monde, January 23).

Mitterrand probably would not have allowed this report to be commissioned if he had not been confronted by a petition circulated by Georges Le Rider, a former head of the Bibliothèque Nationale, and signed by seven hundred intellectuals from many countries. In this open letter sent on August 20, 1991, to the president, Le Rider endorsed several aspects of the project, especially its computerized catalog, but he sharply criticized the nonfunctional design of the proposed building as “spectacularly bad.” In Dominique Perrault’s plan, two thirds of the books were to be stored in four soaring glass towers, while reading rooms would be underground, surrounding a sunken courtyard planted with trees. Like Philip Leighton of Stanford, an internationally respected expert on library design, Le Rider was scathing about the inanity of storing precious books under glass.

Responses to Le Rider’s petition—many from readers of this journal—were unexpectedly numerous. Emboldened by this surge of public concern, Jacques Chirac, the mayor of Paris, during the first week of October personally asked Mitterrand to revise the project. Chirac ordered that the work on the site, which belongs to the city, be stopped. On October 9, 1991, at 5:45 pm he explained to the press that Mitterrand had agreed to consider the matter; but at 6:45 pm Jack Lang majestically announced that the project would go on as before. The site was taken over by the state.

But seven hundred signatures from throughout the world cannot just be ignored, and on October 11, Emile Biasini, the Secrétaire d’Etat aux Grands Travaux, asked the body that officially oversees French libraries—the Conseil Supérieur des Bibliothéques—to appoint a committee to defuse “a situation…

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