October 23, 1998 issue. This file presents an archive copy of the EXTRA issue of the FYI France ejournal, ISSN 1071-5916, which was distributed via email on October 23, 1998.
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Received this morning, after several days of rapid events and rumors: [tr. JK]
"As you no doubt realize, the BnF has been on strike, completely, since Tuesday, October 20. The sites at Tolbiac, and today on Friday at Arsenal as well, are closed. The reception desk at the rue Richelieu site also is closed.
"A serious and strong continuation of this effort has been decided upon, for the weekend of October 23-4 as well as for Monday the 25th [sic]. The library at Tolbiac therefore remains inaccessible to readers.
"You must know as well, from the newspapers, that the problems (temporary, we hope) of the information system, and of the very painful opening of the Bibliothèque de Recherche, were the key issues in the decision. But we do not believe that the main reason for this situation, which concerns all of us so deeply, is the system. We feel that the faults of the system above all are faults in the management of our establishment. It is the methods which have led us to where we are which we wish to see, as quickly as possible, profoundly reformed..."
-- and there is a website -- if it is on the Ouebbe it must be true --
There are strikes and there are strikes... In France as elsewhere there are labor actions which are just "symbolic": negotiation agenda items thrown in "just for effect", events staged simply for their media "photo - op" potential, one day "strikes"...
But the current BNF "strike" action already is more than just symbolic. Had it been less I might not have bothered to report it here. But it is more: the Tuesday walkout -- friends tell me it really began on Monday -- has extended now a full week, there was an Archives Nationales labor incident recently which if it was not connected at the time surely will become so now, already the situation is earning national and even international headlines.
France has needed things to be proud of, recently, and the BNF has been a leading one of these: perhaps at last, perhaps sadly, this leading French cultural icon may now be under some threat.
Also, in France as elsewhere, things never are entirely what they seem in a labor strike. Originally the purpose of the current BNF strike was to protest poor conditions for the users: long waiting lines, poorly - prepared reading rooms, inevitably computers and information systems which don't work right -- librarianship is a "service" profession which always puts its users first, even in a librarians' strike.
Over the last few days, though, the issues appear to have loosened. Now one sees, in addition to the "user" issues, murmurings about the "working conditions" of the librarians themselves. One expects that this theme will be developed and extended, perhaps so much so as eventually to overtake the original "user" issues -- if the BNF strike comes to resemble most labor actions elsewhere. Librarians' working conditions and users' unhappiness are not unrelated issues, after all.
All this prompts two general questions:
1) How much of this strike might be attributed to workforce changes in the transition between the old BN and the new BNF?
The BNF, throughout its development, repeatedly has announced that more jobs, not fewer, would be provided -- on the order of thousands of new employees, to more than "replace" the perhaps hundreds which might be lost.
But this raises one of the oldest of labor issues, one enjoying a renaissance in these days of hi - tech and "downsizing": are the jobs gained / lost equivalent, or were highly - paid professional "librarians" in fact replaced by many more but much more poorly - paid clerks and support staff, at the BNF? Could this be at the bottom of much of the current problem and unhappiness?: wouldn't be the first time in a hi - tech "transition" -- "skilled" are being replaced by "cheaper" in a lot of places nowadays.
The "youth employment" issue adds another wrinkle. In France, where national unemployment has been running at 12% for too long, various proposals for employing the highly - unemployed young have met much resistance. French parents, and the youths themselves, do not want to see the young turned into scabs for the positions of their elders, to solve the nation's political and social problems.
Could this "youth employment" issue be involved at the BNF, directly or indirectly? Are there, among those "thousands" of BNF new - hires, significant numbers of under - trained and inexperienced "jeunes"? If so, that might have something to do with the current strike.
And a second general question:
2) How common are "librarians' strikes"?
Would someone please offer examples -- from France, the US, elsewhere -- of occasions when librarians have walked out, for these or any other reasons? The Information Age is global, it is said: well, so might be the problems faced by its information workers -- it might be very interesting to compare and contrast the approaches taken by librarians in various situations to what may be common problems. Or are these French at the BNF the first?
Thinking the unthinkable: people in Britain might consider the impact of a librarians' strike at the British Library -- those in the US might think of the effect of a "labor action" at LC! Has same or similar ever happened at these places, or elsewhere?
The effect of the Web, finally: there is a W3 site, mentioned above, for this BNF strike. One wonders what the effect of Web presence / usage in this strike might be. Most of the messages which I have been receiving and seeing have been anonymous. Anyone suspicious of this is naive -- anonymity is a necessary part of politics in most places, so the Web and email may be a new tool, like the 18th century pamphlet, enabling political organization and action to take place anonymously.
My own guess is that France will be able to resolve this immediate crisis. The BNF has a new director, and much of what is going on may be nothing more than "trying the new boss out". And ultimately the Jospin government will be sympathetic and reasonable: the profession and the country all desperately want to preserve and improve the BNF, of which they would like to be proud -- and into which they have put so much already.
But the general, underlying issues will not go away. If users and librarians are getting short shrift at the new BNF, if new digital information systems are serving their users worse than print information systems used to, if information workers themselves are becoming casualties of the Information Economy...
There is a massive and growing literature out now about the most general aspects of this -- from Manuel Castells to Kevin Kelly to Régis Debray -- most of it largely begging the question of the human costs of this particular "industrial revolution / transition in media"... how do 60 year old redundant autoworkers become Website designers?... while everything is "ramping up" to the Information Superhighway, and until it gets there, who is going to help the users obtain information, if not the libraries and the librarians... and what if they stop?
Perhaps, once again, someone should study the French...
Jack Kessler, email@example.com
ps. all this about a BNF strike comes on the heels of a plaintive econference posting by a French librarian, noting France Telecom's (government - owned, primarily, still) latest ad,
"Oh! I have an essay to write, I've got to get to the library..."
"Why? You don't have to go to a library any more -- just go online, on the Internet!..."
-- librarianship everywhere seems to be, as the old Chinese curse puts it, "living through interesting times".
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