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Ten Million Books in a Glass House

Ten Million Books in a Glass House

 Ten Million Books in a Glass House


WALKING up the wooden steps onto the windswept esplanade, a visitor cannot help but feel impressed​—even intimidated—​by the four glass-covered towers that loom overhead. This is no ordinary complex. Situated on the banks of the Seine, this is the ultramodern National Library of France. In one sense it was centuries in the making.

Early Beginnings

In 1368, Charles V assembled nearly 1,000 manuscripts in a tower at the Louvre fortress in Paris. But it was really after the Hundred Years’ War that the kings of France began to assemble a permanent collection. Gifts and legacies from those courting royal favor enriched the library, and so did books brought back from European countries and the Orient by voyagers and ambassadors or by soldiers as the spoils of war. Then, Francis I began the legal deposit system by enacting a law in the 16th century requiring that the King’s Library be supplied with a copy of each book that was published.

After being housed in various royal residences in the provinces, the King’s Library was transferred back to Paris, only to be plundered during the Wars of Religion (1562-98). The library found a more permanent home in 1721. In the wake of confiscation of religious and aristocratic collections during the French Revolution, the library received hundreds of thousands of books, manuscripts, and prints. While of inestimable worth, this acquisition also made painfully evident the chronic lack of space in the existing facilities.

Overwhelming Growth

In 1868 a reading room covered by nine glass domes was built and inaugurated. Designed by the architect Henri Labrouste, it accommodated 360 readers and was home to some 50,000 books. Shelves in the adjacent stacks had room for an additional one million volumes. But within six decades, the number of books in this library passed three million!

Numerous refurbishments and extensions could not keep up with the additional one and a half miles [3 km] of shelves that were needed each year for the books and magazines that came flooding in. Finally, in 1988, President François Mitterrand announced a project to build perhaps “the biggest and most modern library in the world.” Its objective was to “cover all fields of knowledge, be accessible to everyone, use the most modern data-transmission technologies, be consultable from a distance, and connect with other European libraries.”

To come up with a design for the new library, an international competition was held. Almost 250 ideas were submitted. Finally, the design of a little-known French architect named Dominique Perrault was accepted. His concept was a huge plinth with a tower at each corner in the shape of an upended open book. Critics scorned the idea of storing books in glass towers​—solar ovens, they  called them—​where the books would be exposed to sunlight and heat. As a compromise, it was decided that wooden screens would be installed behind the windows to protect the books and that the most precious documents would be stored in stacks in the plinth.

A Challenging Move

Another challenge was the prospect of moving over ten million books, many of which are very fragile and rare, such as the library’s two copies of Gutenberg’s Bible. Previous moves had not been free of incident. According to one eyewitness of a move in 1821, many books fell off the carts into the mud in the street. This time, the transfer would be organized on more scientific lines.

In 1998 a team of professionals took on the gargantuan task of moving millions of books. To prevent any damage, theft, or loss, the books were transported in sealed water-resistant, fireproof, and shock-absorbent cabinets. For almost one year, ten trucks, unmarked as an additional security precaution, toiled through notorious Parisian traffic jams to take between 25,000 and 30,000 volumes to their new home each day.

A Treasure-House of Learning

The new library is divided into two levels. The haut-de-jardin (upper garden) has 1,600 seats for the general public and is designed to provide free access to some 350,000 books. The rez-de-jardin (lower garden) level has 2,000 seats, which are reserved for researchers.

The library is built around a miniature forest. The decor of red carpets and wooden wall panels and furnishings further contributes to creating a warm, relaxed atmosphere conducive to concentration and study. There is an audiovisual room where visitors can consult CD-ROMs, films, audio recordings, and thousands of digitized images and books.

The Library of France has enough shelving to accommodate new books for nearly 50 years. One cannot help but reflect on the painstaking effort required to build and preserve such a treasure-house of learning!

[Picture on page 24]

The 1868 reading room

[Credit Line]

© Cliché Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

[Picture Credit Line on page 25]

©Alain Goustard/BNF. Architect: Dominique Perrault. © 2002 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris