February 15, 2000 issue. This file presents an archive copy of the issue of the FYI France ejournal, ISSN 1071-5916, which was distributed via email on February 15, 2000.
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The best regular overview of library news from France is provided by the Rapport of the Conseil Supérieur des Bibliothèques.
It gets read by a lot of folks in France, particularly those who make the central government laws which govern libraries there, in that still - very - centralized governmental system. And its lists of "membres du CSB" and "participants aux travaux" make up an interesting "who's who" of current leaders in French librarianship and digital information work.
The CSB Rapport also makes interesting reading for Internauts and librarians and researchers, both inside France and out, who might be interested in centralized countries in general: most countries are, after all -- or at least most are more centralized, and more government - run, than is the current US which is the origin of so many of our newest digital information ideas -- so, appreciating how the French approach these things may help an understanding of the difficulties of the non - US world in general in dealing with digital information in general. There is an "exception française", but in digital information it may be an "exception which proves the rule"...
The latest CSB Rapport, for 1998-9, now may be seen online at,
in French, with a version in English due out later this Spring.
The CSB says that two major problems loom for French libraries:
The basic worry is that the great efforts of the 1980s and 1990s, well - launched in France, now will decelerate. There still is a need to couple attention to new technologies with preservation, and with basic library collection - building and management.
There also is a growing need for evalution procedures, and generally for greater clarity of objectives in dealing with information overload in all of its manifestations. The Rapport points to three library examples which have succeeded -- the Centre Pompidou BPI, the BM Lyon, and the university library at Paris 8 Vincennes - Saint Denis -- through having clear objectives, the CSB says.
New needs for cooperation among different institutions, and for a toleration of variety, are the products of both government decentralization efforts and educational reform in France: "one size no longer fits all", in libraries or in much else, certainly not as tightly as it did before -- the independence offered by Internet access encourages this as well.
The CSB also wisely makes a distinction which many libraries and Internet users elsewhere have not yet made: "Intermediaries... in the relations between author and reader, libraries have until now largely relied on an economic model which conditioned their offer of information service on their holding a stock of information themselves... the current evolution in media is toward information sources which the library does not and probably never will hold itself... more than ever, the notion of information service will be at the center of what users will expect of their library, which doesn't really change the profession of librarianship..." (Rapport p. 18) But see below...
The CSB and the French generally use "informatisation" to denote "computerization" -- a library which uses computers, albeit only for internal accounting and cataloging with no direct connection to the outside world, is "informatised", while one which does not is not. Historical statistics often rely woodenly on this definition, lumping into the "informatised" category a library possessing any sort of computer, whether or not it uses a modem or other Minitel or Internet or other telephony connection.
So one wonders what such statistics will do with the Internet - enabled handheld telephones which shortly are to become omnipresent -- presumably a library which uses only these and no "computer" will not be "informatised"?
This is the tyranny of definitions... Technology changes, and language -- once thought to "create" technology -- fights hard, and fails, to catch up...
The French are concerned, as is any country nowadays, that all elements of their society become media - savvy. The CSB Rapport presents the latest brave "informatisation" figures for their country, and points out inequities and anomalies.
But what if the fundamental concept changes -- what if the whole paradigm shifts? Technologists have been talking for some time about the minimalist "network" computer, and futurists have been predicting the coming omnipresence of the chips which currently drive computers -- in telephones, and in automobiles and refrigerators and microwave ovens, all not really "computers".
When Nokia and Ericsson and Vodafone and Qualcomm and others flood users with little wireless telephones connected to the World Wide Web -- coming very soon -- what will the "library" role be then? A statistic which requires a "computer" may become meaningless -- certainly for a profession wishing to retain its role as an information intermediary... a general problem, and not just for the French...
The CSB is concerned, too, with cataloging, as librarians are elsewhere -- with both prospective cataloging and retrospective conversion / recon, and with the need for norms. The concern extends now to URLs, the Internet's infamous Uniform Resource Locators, and to vast cooperative ventures both within and outside of France which will pool resources to offer users a seamless web of both cataloging and things cataloged themselves. French participation in all of these efforts is vital, they say -- a "10 - point program" for development of this participation reinforces the general concern, in the CSB Rapport.
This reader is left with a nagging doubt, however -- again not just with the French but with libraries everywhere -- as to whether there will be any "there" there, for this sort of "information service", if the paradigm shifts as radically as it may. As the CSB itself says, "information service" is central -- even information service without a collection, increasingly in many cases. But has thought been given yet to information service once the _computers_ have gone away? A library with a few dumb terminals connected to the Internet won't help, then, much less one which uses a few computers internally but has not even discovered online information with them yet.
And "informatisation" statistics which merely count computers won't cut it, for this increasingly - imminent world which will have "banalised" even the "computer": something more functionally - oriented will be needed -- "information service", entirely "virtual" with a vengeance...
The trials and tribulations of the BnF -- the new Tolbiac building, the strike there, the move of materials from the old BN Richelieu site and the functioning or lack thereof at the new -- all are very much on the mind of the CSB, but reasonably and supportively so.
The BnF has plenty of critics. The CSB very responsibly accepts many of the criticisms -- long reader - registration waits, conflicts in the double mandate to serve both researchers and the general public, the great strains imposed on the staff -- but simultaneously praises the BnF for a job well done nevertheless. They urge the BnF to improve conditions for the staff, and to keep its focus on the users: more online periodicals are needed, they say, as already are available at university libraries. The BnF has, despite inevitable criticism, been a solid recent achievement of French librarianship: keeping it that way is the next challenge.
The BnF also may be in the forefront of yet another new change -- the longing, in a digital universe of "telework" and "tele - commuting" and "virtual reality", for a "sense of place": an old architectural concept meaning a need for a physical building, even when a physical building "functionally" no longer is needed -- my own suggestion, bound to get me in trouble I guess / hope, see my just - published "The Bibliothèque François Mitterrand, of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France: Books, Information, and Monuments", pp. 197 - 230, in Building Libraries for the 21st Century ed. T.D.Webb (Jefferson, North Carolina & London : McFarland, 2000) ISBN 0-7864-0665-8.
Much remains to be done for French university libraries, however, according to the CSB. The historical retardation of French "academic" libraries compared to their "municipal" counterparts apparently continues. French university libraries tend to be newer, smaller, and greatly underfunded, occasional exceptions like the Sorbonne library notwithstanding and in direct contrast to the reverse situation in the UK and US.
The problem now is not so much that efforts have not been made to help "academic" libraries in France -- much has been done -- but there has been an explosion in student population, stretching the university libraries far beyond any limits previously deemed imaginable.
Where 460,000 students used them in 1984, 1,264,000 use them today (Rapport p. 57). Simply to get back to the .73 square meters per student of 1970, French university libraries today would have to build an additional 300,000 square meters of space. And now Internet and other "remote access" possibilities are adding all sorts of new cabling and infrastructure demands and expenses -- remote access expense "tradeoffs" do not happen quickly, as US and other university campuses also have discovered.
The demographic increase, coupled with great increases in book production and other information available, rapid changes in educational policy and approach, and large price increases for everything, have contributed to a general situation for French university libraries which today is very unstable. The "hybrid library" has developed, says the CSB, offering both physical resources to onsite users and virtual resources to users off - site -- double costs for doing double duty, rather than savings, in too many situations -- a painful and so far prolonged transition into the digital age.
In spite of the pain, however -- perhaps because of it? -- some gains are being made. The Rapport praises new professional services which have been developed: for example CERDOC at the Bibliothèque Cujas, for outside attornies,
and similar services for medical professionals which the CSB says are to be offered by the BIUM / Bibliothèque Inter - Universitaire de Médecine.
The CSB also praises user - education efforts, of the sort promoted by FORMIST / FORMation à l'Information Scientifique et Technique,
and URFIST / Unités de formation à la recherche de l'information scientifique et technique.
How many of us, in France and elsewhere, learned our Internet skills in computer shops, and from $5 (or much more costly) correspondance courses -- it would have been nice to have had some formal campus classes...
And the CSB worries over the greatest university libraries in the country -- Strasboug, Clermont - Ferrand, Montpellier, Lyon II (which saw a major part of its collection destroyed recently by fire), also the Sorbonne, the Sainte - Geneviève, the Cujas, or the BIUM -- all of which have over - crowding and other problems similar to those of most university libraries, but coupled with the additional burdens of maintaining world - class collections. Projects, support, and new energy are needed: "Le statu quo serait mortel". (Rapport p.60)
The bibliothèques municipales are one great source of justifiable pride for the French. Anyone who has worked in a great "BM classée", or in the children's room of a bright and friendly little "bibliothèque de quartier", for that matter, can join the CSB in their praise -- particularly of the progress which has been made in keeping these libraries up to date with both technology and the latest general library developments.
The greatest problem appears to be inequality. The CSB points to the perennial "diagonale de désertification qui partant des Pyrénées rejoint les Ardennes selon un axe sud-ouest / nord-est", which characterizes so much of French development. Paris et le désert français (Jean - François Gravier, Le Portulan 1947, Flammarion 1958) is a famous book - title from French "aménagement du territoire" history -- but it seems that there are significant inequalities even within the "désert". The CSB Rapport points to existing programs, and calls for others, designed to spread the wealth a bit out from the tremendously well - endowed libraries in certain areas to other parts of the country which have few if any services.
For "school" libraries, fundamental structure rather than inequality is the CSB theme. The Rapport notes that while 30% of school librarians in Québec are "documentalistes diplômés", in France the librarian most often is a teacher and can be merely a parent or a student or a volunteer. It sounds like San Francisco... Acquisitions budgets in France are insufficient, the CSB says, as are other resources and services: greater cooperation with other libraries would help this, they suggest, "school libraries, documentation centers, bibliothèques municipales, lending libraries... one can only regret the excessive insularity which exists among institutions." (Rapport p. 74)
The "meat and potatoes" of the CSB Rapport, however -- in a time of such fundamental change for libraries and all aspects of society's handling of "information" -- has to be a revision, needed not just in France but everywhere, of the concept of what it means to be a "librarian":
The CSB is very aware of the general issues. "'Librarians or cybrarians?'...much library education in the US has become really nothing more than an education in computer science", says the Rapport... (p. 76)
In addition there are specifically - French problems, such as youth unemployment and a general national unemployment figure which for several years has hovered at 12+%, which have imposed additional strains on the profession. Central and local government pressures to hire youth and the unemployed generally have been great, and very often have been pursued at the expense of maintaining continuity of service and even high levels of professional expertise. Such general labor problems are felt in other countries as well, in Europe and elsewhere.
Even in the US, where the general employment situation has been favorable, libraries and "downsized corporations" at least can empathize. And rapid turnover can produce the same labor and professional uncertainties which downsizing can: a number of US libraries and commercial firms wonder now how to maintain standards and provide continuous service, given all the new faces in the shop. And in the US the "library" schools have been closing...
The CSB answer for France, for now, is at least to find out what really is happening. "Librarians or cybrarians"... some greater methodological clarity than this is needed, they very correctly perceive, and some hard statistics. So they are launching three studies of the profession in France --
The same questions can / should be asked of information professionals elsewhere. If there is a "profession", one should know where it is and what it really is doing -- particularly nowadays, given all of the radical changes which are taking place in the underlying "media" foundation of the library profession's activities. Merely "computer science"?...
First knowledge, then action -- the hope being that by the time one "knows" there still will be something left to "act" on... "things digital" are moving very quickly...
The Rapport includes 4 very interesting addenda: a Deutsches Bibliotheksinstitut "open letter" regarding horrendous price increases which all libraries now face from major publishers; an update on standardization activities in the field; a short and very interesting history of the Direction du Livre; and a report on French National Bibliography and Dépôt Légal activities.
Finally, some numbers: the CSB offers valuable current statistics on,
(Additional recent statistics appear in the very interesting article by Aline Girard - Billon, "Les bibliothèques à Paris: une nouvelle approche des statistiques", pp. 13-19, in the new Bulletin des Bibliothèques de France, tome 45, n.1, ISSN 0006-2006,
Two observations on these latest CSB Rapport statistics:
Staffing, however -- as the CSB says in its Rapport -- is a major issue for French librarianship going forward, at the BnF as well as generally. Pressures have been great, folks have been unhappy, change has been too fast and too dramatic. Yet it seems that more change may be needed. Perhaps there are too many librarians at the BnF now... or perhaps there are too many "staff" but not enough of them "librarians". One way or another the perennial "people problem" of librarianship is suggested by the statistic, and by the CSB Rapport generally -- what to do with a "service" profession in a "downsizing" situation, what is a "library" without a "collection", what will the new "professional" roles be -- all the good things brought about by the new digital technologies cannot disguise the fact.
So, "Qui aime bien châtie bien"... The French have been doing librarianship for longer than many other nations have been in existence, and probably will continue to do it very well for a very long time...
But for a foreigner, the point of reading the CSB Rapport is not so much to criticize the French -- they do this very well themselves, and neither appreciate nor have any great need or desire for outside assistance in self - criticism -- as it is to appreciate how another nation is handling the disruptive and very often painful "transition in media" through which all of us now are going in this "digital age".
France is close enough in character -- to the US and the UK and the other English - speaking countries which have spawned the "digital revolution" -- to provide valid comparisons as to how libraries and their professionals are operating under the new challenges. Yet France is different enough -- it has different governmental and other traditions, and importantly for an "information" revolution it uses a different language -- for some of its more unique problems hopefully to shock digital information workers, particularly in the US, into realizing that their experiments won't "scale up" smoothly in application in the "outside world".
...It may be a "global village" out there, but there are going to be one awful lot of very important differences among the villagers...
A correction to the January 15 issue on Vitrolles: the population figures shown there refer not to the town but to the much larger region, the "Communauté de Communes du Pays d'Aix-en-Provence".
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