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What space for the library? A discussion on the library building
Jacqueline GASCUEL and Marie-Françoise BISBROUCK
From now on, one can fairly say to all those wishing to be involved in library construction, 'Don't forget your Bisbrouck and Gascuel!' Two handbooks by these authors, published in spring 1984, have filled what had in recent years been a notable gap on the bookshelf.
The Bulletin des Bibliothèques de France (BBF) asked authors Jacqueline Gascuel and Marie-Françoise Bisbrouck to go further and compare their viewpoints on the problems of library construction. For example, how are free access and activities in the library actually organized? How should a library network be constructed? At a more general level, what makes up the service of which the building must be the embodiment? Questions of viewpoint will play as large a part in the discussion as questions of construction. And if a number of questions are left open at the end, this is because the debate over what a public library should be has not reached any final conclusion.
BBF: Today's debate has been occasioned by the publication of two books on public library construction.(1)
There had been virtually no literature available on the subject for years, and now two books have been published within a few weeks of each other! They are two very different books: Un espace pour le livre is presented as a handbook and as a stimulus for debate on the question while La Bibliothèque dans la Ville, published by the Direction du Livre et de la Lecture, is a coffee-table edition (large format, glossy laminated cover, with a wealth of very varied illustrations). Why two such different contributions? Could you explain your respective approaches? What kind of book was each of you trying to produce?
Marie-Françoise Bisbrouck: The origins of La Bibliothèque dans la Ville go back a long way, to discussions in the working group on municipal library construction which the national public library service set up in 1973-1974. One of the first results of the working group was the publication of guideline standards in 1975. A further factor was that over the past 12 years, 400,000 m² of municipal library space has been brought into use, three quarters of it in new buildings. It was important to take stock of these recent developments. It was the intention of the Direction du Livre for the book to be of interest to librarians, architects and local councillors alike, these, indeed, being the three groups you encounter in working meetings. We therefore wanted to produce a technical book which would provide them with a certain number of ideas we were constantly having to repeat, but without the book being too dry. We have therefore tried to make it an attractive book as well as a work of reference, and we have thus taken particular care over the general presentation and the indexes.
One part of the book is more 'political' and is aimed mainly at local government representatives. This is a statement of what a library is, how it works, who uses it, the necessity of providing adequate numbers of adequately qualified staff, etc. Another part of the book is aimed more directly at architects and provides technical information on such problems as lighting, floor coverings, working loads on floors, etc. We have also provided a certain number of reference points, giving complete data on 20 recent central and branch libraries which can be compared with each other in terms of completion time, building costs, etc. For each project we have listed the initial schedule, the technical solutions chosen, staff numbers and their respective qualifications; and of course we have included all the plans. Finally, all the factors that may have a part to play both prior to and after any library building scheme have been examined, viz. technical factors (furniture; mobile library), administrative factors (building regulations, grants), political factors (guideline standards and programmes per population group).
We were particularly keen to make this book a genuine instrument for library planning. Planning here means detailed consideration of the function of a library within the town and what one hopes to do, not merely to keep in line with official standards but also to mould the library as closely as possible to local conditions, as they are now and as they may develop in the future. I must say that on this point I have often been very disappointed. Tripartite teams (local councillors, librarians and architects) rarely manage to think up original projects taking account of each situation's specific features, and they hardly stray from the schemes suggested by the Direction du Livre. But libraries have changed over the past ten years and they will continue to change considerably in coming years.
Our book is, of course, a stock-taking of the present state of library development and it will one day be outdated. In view of current decentralization, in particular, I think it will need updating every three or four years; and other material should also be published which will show how the buildings have evolved, how the users have made the buildings their own and how and why, over time, they have changed the interiors.
Jacqueline Gascuel: It is no accident that our two books came out at the same time. Both are the result of joint discussion by the 1973-1974 working group, of which I too was a member. When I saw nothing had been published I set to work; I made a plan and submitted it to Jean-Pierre Vivet and Françoise Bony, who gave my project immediate encouragement and agreed to publish the book. In fact the book had been brewing for a long time, ever since the opening of Massy public library in 1971. At the time, this was one of the first purpose-built public libraries. It represented a particular view of reading by the general public and it was much visited by local councillors, librarians and architects. It was from these conversations in 1972-1974 that the book was born. The actual writing was done much later, and was spread over several years. Writing this kind of book on your own is like ploughing a field - you plough half a furrow a day, and then three years later when the last furrow is ploughed, you can see the weeds growing again in the first one!
The book is aimed at a many-sided type of readership. Firstly it is aimed at local councillors and all those involved with them in library building. But above all I was writing for librarians and architects. For librarians, the approach is more subtle. I have tried to make the book educational. It's a guide for librarians faced with a building problem and it also pleads a cause. It may constitute an argument that will make local authorities decide to build. That is why the tone of the book is in parts somewhat impassioned. Given the practical objectives adopted, it was hard for me to do much with the presentation. There are photos, obviously, and there are also diagrams and drawings that say more than lots of words. I have staked most on readability and humour, with eye-catching chapter titles and headings and an amusing choice of illustrations.
New and different
BBF: In a word then, one book is a work of reference and the other a guide. But despite this difference, both have been equally successful and their first editions will soon be out of print. What we find particularly interesting is the 'new look' that comes out of both books - free-access layout, organized activities, a children's service and record libraries. These all make up a fairly original pattern of organization. In most cases they are departments which are compartmentalized and sharply differentiated. Can one speak of French library design as being different from design in Scandinavia or the English-speaking countries, where all these different parts are generally brought together in one area?
JG: I wouldn't put the question in those terms. What counts first of all is the size of the library - you do not treat 500 m² of floor space in the same way as 5,000 m². The first stage in arranging the departments is obvious. You begin by separating the child and the adult reader. The next step is to divide according to the type of material - a record library for example or, more and more often, an audio-visual library. This is basically for ease of management. I know, of course, that some people argue for a multi-media classification, but let's not deceive ourselves all the same. In the Pompidou Centre library, records are classified under 780, which is music. There may be a few in other places - records of birdsong under Zoology for instance - but there are very few like that. But we shouldn't be talking about the Pompidou Centre library. It doesn't lend and is really more of a documentation centre than a library. At Cambrai, which is organized along similar lines, I don't think the multi-media classification has fundamentally changed things.
MFB: I agree absolutely. I'd like to add one thing, though. In the guideline programmes proposed by the Direction du Livre there are indeed these three sections, but no-one has ever said they should be separated or compartmentalized. In point of fact in most cases they are, but this has never been a point of doctrine or in any way compulsory. On the contrary, I have often put up a fight on the problem of the adults, section, to get rid of this paralysing separation between lending and reading.
But while there is no doctrine, there is a certain logic. To bring the adults' library, the children's library and the record library together in the same area, you have to spend a lot on the acoustics and sound absorption devices (ceilings, flooring and wall coverings). If you just slap on a coat of paint, you create a vast echo-chamber and you head straight for disaster. Personally, rather than have all three sections in a single area I think you should create a visual unity between them. You should create a building that is very easy to interpret and consider the signposting question in detail. This is because the different readers have their own different ways of using the library.
Free access v. reserve stacks
BBF: What is clear from your two books is that free access is now the key concept where public libraries are concerned. Could you give us your views on what type of organization of free access follows logically from your approach? To begin with, do you think there is a quantitative limit to free access?
JG: I am sure there is. It isn't possible to have free access to everything. You have to watch how many books and how much other material you offer the public, how relevant they are and how you can help the readers to find their way. That, incidentally, is why I am not against setting up young people's sections which would have lively easily-accessible books certain to attract them. When you provide free access to your collections you have to provide a certain number of reference-points. And once free access reaches a certain scale, it becomes necessary to distinguish different levels of accessibility. At the Pompidou Centre, new publications are all together in a separate 'Salle d'actualité'; the Part-Dieu library in Lyon does the same, though its selection is different. Big English libraries I have visited are often split up into departments given over to one subject or a group of related subjects. I have also seen paperback corners there, and what are called the near stacks - a store-room open to the public where less frequently-consulted books are kept. Different levels of access, then, and not an undifferentiated mass of books, which some readers would find baffling.
MFB: I am not sure there is an upper limit to the amount of reading matter you can have freely available. I think it is more a question of architecture and interior layout and design. Within the free-access area there must be varied zones and areas and they must be clearly signposted. I have always been struck by the poor presentation of the collections in English libraries I have visited. They have an enormous amount of material, but they really are like walk-in warehouses - miserable places.
BBF: So how do you see periodicals and information services being handled?
JG: No magazine room! I'm against that.
MFB: So am I. I've never seen them as necessary.
BBF: What do you do with periodicals then?
Newspapers, journals, magazines, etc.?
JG: To put it simply, let's say there are three categories of periodicals. There are the dailies, which are a way of bringing people into a library. Then there are the magazines, which I would include under the lending section, and then you have the scientific journals, etc. Not to mention the children's comics. This doesn't all necessarily have to be in the same place.
MFB: Yes, that's true. You have to look carefully at the different kinds of periodicals. The daily press and light magazines I would tend to put at the library entrance. The more serious periodicals, on the other hand, can be kept with the books under the same subject. In my view, the information service ought also to be near the entrance, but that said, I think a distinction must be made between quick-reference material - telephone directories, railway timetables, etc. - and access to reference books like bibliographies, dictionaries of all kinds, catalogues, etc. An appropriate location also has to be found for old stock and specialized reference material.
JG: I think in fact you have to make an assessment of the different kinds of reading matter and find a point of balance where they intersect. Documentary research requires a modicum of quiet, the information service is by definition noisier and more animated, and the reserve stacks where press files and a variety of instalment publications are kept are different again. In fact there is an increasing tendency for libraries to become documentation centres which search periodicals and build up files. This was an aspect that was barely taken into account at all before the early 1970s. In my opinion, it is no coincidence that in 1975, the Direction du Livre had to re-assess the amount of room allotted to the stacks in its suggested library plans, and that amount will have to be increased again!
BBF: In a word, what is happening is a rehabilitation of the stacks?
JG: Yes, of course. That's how history works! In the 1970s we started off with such a catastrophic situation for the public libraries that we had to proclaim the free-access principle loud and clear. Many of the libraries opened at that time had no reserve stacks, or only very small ones. Since then they have increased their collections and filled all the shelves in their public-access areas. It's only now that the question of bringing the free-access stocks up to date is becoming acute - hence the resurgence of interest in reserve stacks. For my own part, I think there is a future for intermediate-access 'near stacks' - even if very few have been scheduled to date - and for reserve stacks in general!
MBF: Yes. In the 1970s it was essential to change the image of the library and you have to remember that in the preceding period it was not unusual to schedule a stack capacity of 400,000 books, not including old stock, for a town with a population of 50,000! Obviously, there has been quite an abrupt change of course!
Taking the long view, a library clearly cannot be geared purely to consumption, like the Pompidou Centre where the collections are disposed of after five or six years. On the other hand, so long as there is no concerted national or regional policy on disposal and conservation, the libraries at the bottom of the system still have to face the problem in its entirety. It must not be forgotten that their tasks nevertheless include conservation.
BBF: The corollary to free access is often theft. Do you think anti-theft arrangements must be provided for right from the planning stage of a new library?
MBF: We never make it compulsory. We inform the decision-makers - the local authorities - and they are the ones who decide. This type of decision does have to be taken very early on. A surveillance system affects the whole organization of the areas open to the public and means they have to converge on one point near the entrance. One thing must be said. When detection systems began to be discussed a few years ago, librarians were quite against the idea. They thought the introduction of these systems could only tarnish the image of their libraries, which was based on attractiveness, openness and the welcome extended to the public. Now, with anti-theft systems a commonplace in many shops and stores, I think these objections only come up occasionally. You can mention the idea of installing these systems now without the idea being rejected.
JG: Personally I don't think anti-theft systems are very effective, although I have at times recommended them. I think they only have a limited effect, on a few irresponsible people. I doubt if they ever stopped any real thief.
MFB: That's a bit sweeping! These systems must be effective to some extent; the best proof of that is how widespread they are. And after all there are fewer determined thieves than you think!
JG: They exist, though... and for them there are a thousand and one ways of getting round these systems! Personally I have great faith in the compulsory cloakroom on the way in, where bags must be left. There are other possible dissuasive measures, it seems to me, such as having a photocopier available to the public; having the toilets accessible only from the entrance hall and not from the reading rooms - a position which can make it easier to cut books up. In any case, with or without a detection system, theft prevention is quite a complex issue and must be considered right from the planning stage. In addition, that is the stage at which it could get subsidies!
The shift towards a variety of purposes.
BBF: Along with free access, the other feature that has come out on top is organized activities, with a whole range of areas given over to them: multipurpose rooms, rooms for group work, auditoriums, children's areas, entrance halls, etc. But this multiplicity of areas perhaps hides a degree of uncertainty as to their use, especially where the multipurpose rooms are concerned, which are far less multipurpose than their name suggests if we are to believe Jacqueline Gascuel.
JG: The organization of areas for wider activities depends first and foremost on the size of the building. That said, I don't have much faith trying to house a varied range of activities such as lectures, film shows, exhibitions, music and drama in the same area. They all have different technical requirements in terms of natural or artificial lighting, acoustics and equipment, not to mention arrangements to allow for movements of the public. Furthermore, when there is a lecture and an exhibition, they often happen at the same time on the same topic. They can hardly be accommodated in the same area, however multipurpose it may be. Whenever I discuss variety of purpose with a colleague I am aware of the problems it raises. The outcome is that multipurpose rooms are under-used or else converted to one specific use. This applies to the group-work rooms as well. They are included in the plans because they are in the Direction du Livre programmes, but once the building is up, nobody knows what to do with them. I know of a number of cases where rooms have been converted to other uses.
MBF: Converted from what to what?
JG: In one case a group-work room was converted into an office, in another into a periodicals store-room, although that meant using the storeroom for group work! I have also seen children's workshops turned into offices. Many changes occur which we do not know about. There really ought to be some surveys carried out to assess the use of new library buildings after five years.
BBF: One thing is striking there. The conversions you describe were to meet the library's internal needs. Is that symbolic in some way?
MBF: Of course these changes of use should be studied more closely, but I'd like to stress one obvious but little-noticed basic point. Given the time lag between the planning of a building and its public opening - four or five years at least - it is rare for the same team to follow the operation through from start to finish. Only too often there is no librarian at all involved in the first phase, the planning and design. Hence the hesitations, misunderstandings and inadequate discussion and dialogue at this stage. In the final stage, the team then in place assesses what has been done. Inevitably, it has different ideas as regards organization of work, office layout, activities policy. And imagine how things are when there's a change of team at the town hall!
JG: That observation has far-reaching implications. When a new team takes over a building, it wants to make its mark. Every change in management means a change in use patterns.
MBF: A partial change, I hope! But there is another point I would like to emphasize. Libraries are often planned by local authorities with completely unrealistic estimates of the staff numbers required to run them. Completely unrealistic. To mention just one example. One day I was told that things had been done on too big a scale in building an 850 m² branch library for a district of 20,000 people. I then discovered, however, that there were only three people to run the branch whereas at least twice that number were really needed. In cases like that, even if there was no planning error at the outset, assessment errors can only lead to poor functioning - especially in those departments the local authority has least understood: record library, multipurpose rooms, children's activity rooms, etc.
JG: I am even more pessimistic. I think that of all local authority amenities, the library is the one the most acutely understaffed. I often notice that small communes manage by some miracle to find the money for community activities organizers, but never for librarians!
BBF: Perhaps that's symbolic too...
JG: Yes, no doubt it is. It has to be admitted that the librarian is a distributor first, an activities organizer only second. We generally have no training in organizing collective activities. We do not have the time and we are not always attracted by it. This is certainly another reason for the under-use of areas allocated for activities. The first thing to do is to organize activities jointly with other teams in the cultural field, break out of the isolation of the library and create integrated cultural centres.
Isolation in integration
BBF: In that case, a solution to the problem is on its way, since a quarter of new libraries are already installed in integrated facilities. You can find arrangements of all kinds: facilities simply sited next to each other; juxtaposition, with the different facilities opening off a common entrance hall; or certain shared and jointly run areas. In your view, what degree of integration is most desirable? Should a brake be put on the fashion for integration or should it be encouraged?
MBF: It's true, there is a lot of talk about integrated facilities and a large number are being created. As a rule this means a cultural centre with library, theatre, exhibition halls, a museum, and perhaps even a music school or workshops. You can also find examples of integration with administrative offices or shopping centres. At the end of the day, I suspect each facility is in fact run more or less autonomously. There are no doubt opportunities to exchange halls or organize exhibitions jointly, but I don't think there is any systematic organization, several times a year, of major collective events.
On the other hand, integration with a school seems to me a far more difficult issue. Whether it involves working more closely with a middle school library or the documentation/information centre of a technical school or high school, it's generally the public library that loses out. Unfortunately there have been a number of examples where, bit by bit, one lot of readers has driven out the other until the library has become completely integrated into the running of the school and is closed to the public during school hours.
JG: Yes, integration with schools can lead to problems. You just have to think of the experiment at Yerres, for example. That said, I'm still in favour of integration. First of all, it is a way of resolving the under-use of collective activity areas. Secondly, collaboration with other facilities is necessary if you want to renew and diversify the libraries' clientèle. Some people claim that every major organized event brings a new and different clientèle to the library and that's quite possible, after all.
Certainly integration poses a human problem since it's much easier to manage your own establishment in your own corner than to take part in collective management. One of the effects of decentralization on schemes for the provision of facilities might in fact be to create the conditions for collective debate about what constitutes cultural policy, and to foster innovative experiments. In fact, the success of integration very largely depends on local government policy and the personality of the person in charge - who must not at the same time be the director of any of the facilities concerned,- so not the librarian. Collective management on a day-to-day basis can be difficult to live with. Plans and schedules have to be drawn up far in advance to avoid conflicts. And of course the library and the music school will both need the shared auditorium at the same time - on Saturdays, in the evening, or on Wednesdays if you are working with children. It's true there have not been many convincingly successful experiments.
BBF: There are the people, of course, but there are also the premises, and more and more integrated facilities are being built. It's time to express a point of view.
JG: Mine is quite clear. In spite of everything, I am still in favour of integrated solutions and I would add one very simple reason to those I have already put forward. An integrated facility often means a whole army of activity organizers with whom It Is Interesting to work. To quote just one example, the Pierre Bayle Cultural Centre in Besançon has created a whole documentation centre with searches of periodicals. If something like that could be put alongside the library, it would be of enormous value!
MFB: But you say 'put it alongside'. In fact, it's no longer a question of integration here but of juxtaposition, with, of course, the possibility of collaboration between departments. I have far more faith in that, finally, than in the physical integration of different areas. And in my opinion, being neighbours is all the more neighbourly if you can shut the door whenever you choose! Really and truly, the most effective collaboration does not necessarily stem from bringing the facilities together. It depends first and foremost on the personalities of those involved.
JG: Juxtaposition makes it possible to do without certain things such as the children's workshop. If there is an art and crafts workshop next to the children's book section, run by an activities organizer, that organizer will do much more effective work than a librarian could. Every time I take part in some group activity I have to acknowledge the activity organizer's technical skills - or, only too often, I have to regret that we have no activities organizer. Where organized activities are concerned, integration seems to me a good way of providing for the future.
Development: from theory to practice
BBF: Providing for the future when you are putting up a building also means ensuring a degree of flexibility, a real possibility of converting areas at a later date. After what we have already said, I think this is vital.
JG: But don't be misled - flexibility is never total. The Pompidou Centre library planned for absolute flexibility - but it's never really the case. Too much flexibility produces very unwelcoming areas of space. One can, however, plan for limited flexibility e.g. recovering part of the stack space if it is not self-contained, increasing or reducing the different sections by a unit here or there.
I have spoken of developments due to changes of team. There are also time-related developments. Collections grow, there are more shelves and more people working in the library, and so on. You have to bear that in mind and avoid setting up over-specialized areas that will make the library inflexible right from the planning stage. It seems to me this aspect has been grasped better in municipal cultural centres, where the facilities offer greater possibilities for adaptation.
MBF: I think we simply must go for maximum flexibility, but I also think this is only possible if you are building from scratch. Converting existing or old buildings raises a problem we have already seen and will see again, of libraries that cannot be adapted because two-thirds of their walls are load-bearing walls. It has to be realized that this kind of inflexibility is one of the main limitations on conversion schemes.
Sometimes there are other reasons why a conversion scheme cannot be carried out. For example, it may not be possible to convert the stacks to public-access space because it would mean making doors and windows and would create visibility problems. So there is a whole series of external restraints limiting the opportunities for development or extension. They are complex factors involving both 'internal' elements connected with the construction (layout, communications between floors, ceiling height, floor load, stacks) and external elements concerning the site (site configuration, town planning restrictions, the architectural choices made). All this needs to be closely examined from the start of the scheme.
BBF: Do you think systematic provision should be made for future extension?
MFB: I wouldn't put the question in those terms. Of course there are times when you plan a scheme in two stages, but the question seems to me to arise primarily in terms of land. It's rare, especially with central libraries, for there to be any real possibility of extending the site since libraries of this kind are sited in the busiest part of the town. There is also the architectural side; the architecture of some buildings does not allow of any extension.
I know few libraries which have been planned on a two-stage basis and still fewer in which the second stage has actually been carried out. There may be perfectly good reasons for this - demographic reasons for instance - but the basic question is a political one. The deciding factor is the political will in the town hall at the outset.
JG: There is another problem that has to be solved. Is it better to extend an existing library or, once a certain threshold has been reached, is it not better to build a new one somewhere else?
Library networks: myth and reality
BBF: Exactly. We would very much like your viewpoint on the library network, its organization and the role of branch libraries. Which service, in your view, should be closest to the public? How can a genuine network be created? At the present time there are many different kinds of branch library.
MBF: Because they have all been planned according to their context. There are cases like Charleville-Mézières where functions normally carried out by the central library, such as the mobile library service, the technical management of the collections, and the storage of some of the old stock, were devolved to the Ronde-Couture branch, although in the initial plan this was intended as a temporary arrangement due to the present operating conditions at the central library.
JG: That is a perfectly satisfactory type of arrangement. It's the Grenoble pattern, and it seems to me an excellent one when the central library premises are old or unsuitable but are well-sited and have a certain prestige. Personally I do not see any drawback to running the mobile library or organizing purchasing away from the town centre.
MBF: Yes,, it is possible, but that doubling up can have considerable repercussions! I am thinking in particular of the book processing sequence choice, ordering, recording, cataloguing, indexing, distribution - it is far more economical and rational to centralize all these operations in one place. Bringing all these technical jobs together is vital when you are organizing a network and is one of the prime reasons for doing so. Which does not mean that the branch library staff should have no say in the technical jobs.
JG: Yes, you're right in an absolute sense. But in practice, centralized purchasing is something of a trap. At the present time it is far easier, and can be cheaper, to go and buy the current best seller from your local bookshop and make out a quick card for it than to fill in order forms, check in different files whether it has not already been ordered, purchased or catalogued elsewhere, and then wait for the group purchase and processing to go through. I think the service to the public benefits by local purchase and is more reliable at the end of the day. Of course, I am looking at things only from the point of view of day-to-day purchases, not of establishing a starting stock and still less of real-time automated management. In the future, such management should be able to change things.
MFB: It certainly will change things. I'm thinking particularly of the possibility of sharing cataloguing jobs among different points in the network. But in the immediate future, the autonomy you speak of can still only lead to wate. I'm against it.
JG: But I think centralization right across the board is a bit of an illusion; not can I see very clearly how it could work for the very large networks.
BBF: What about the service to the public? Which aspects should be given priority? Do you see branch libraries mainly as distribution points, meeting places or places for organized activities? Or must they provide all the services a central library provides, but on a neighbourhood scale?
MFB: I would say all three. There is no reason for restricting a branch library to lending activities. It should offer reading space, a record library and even a multipurpose room. In a word, a branch library should be a small version of a central library, on the same scale as its local community.
JG: In my view, this depends primarily on the neighbourhood, the town plans and cultural policy. You cannot have a theory about this.
BBF: But there is a theory! It's reflected in the Direction du Livre standards, even if these are not compulsory. We have already said that the two principles of the library network are decentralization of services to the public and centralization of technical tasks. The whole problem is to identify which of the library's functions should be closest to the public: lending of books, lending of records, an information service, or organized activities? Also, for example, many new branch libraries are much smaller than the models suggested in the standards. In Grenoble and Paris, the children's and adults' departments are separate. Fully independent record libraries have been built.
JG: Personally I am not against setting up small branch libraries of 100 or 150 m² focusing on book lending and organized activities. It is also quite feasible to have a branch for children only. Obviously it is not a very good idea to isolate the children's service, as the librarians in charge will complain they are being kept in a ghetto. But, in spite of everything, it may be the best solution for neighbourhood branches in some cases. Children up to about ten have only very limited autonomy and mobility.
MFB: I'm rather against both solutions myself! If both adults and children are being accommodated in a very small branch library, there is inevitably competition between them and neither is satisfied. Sooner or later a second branch has to be opened, and this dispersal leads to staff wastage and too restricted a choice of books in both branches.
The bookshop model: emulate or avoid?
BBF: Let's consider what the public have to say. The survey on the image of municipal libraries in France(2) shows that 32 per cent of those asked thought the ideal library should be laid out like a bookshop, 26 per cent thought it should be laid out as a place for study and 39 per cent as a place to relax in. What is your view? What is the image you would most like to see projected?
MFB: I don't really know. The basic thing to my mind Is that it should be welcoming, and simultaneously but separately a place to relax in. But you have to provide different areas to suit the different users, motivations: study, information seeking, leisure, recreation, discussion.
In any case, a bookshop design is not what I would think of first! That suggests either the traditional bookshop, which is worse than a nineteenth century reference library, or some very big modern bookstores like FNAC where books and people alike are so crowded it is impossible to find anything without asking a sales assistant, and there are practically no sales assistants. In a word, sheer chaos!
JG: I don't agree with you. Of course you have to draw on all three models, but I think there is much to be learnt from bookshops including FNAC. FNAC's enormous stock is an invitation to be a consumer, and this is done with the simplest of means: dense but varied furniture, the general layout, with those compartments that successfully give a sense of being both open and private; lighting built into the shelving; good signposting. All these are points we should be thinking about. You say FNAC can't be a model for a library. Perhaps it can't, but many people regard it as an ideal place to read in. Crowds draw crowds. Look at the Pompidou Centre too!
MFB: Yes, of course you can pick up ideas like the compartmented structure, but really I don't think FNAC or any other bookshop can be seen as a model for any library! I would almost say it is a contradiction in terms!
JG: At any rate, there is food for thought there.
BBF: In practical terms, what lessons can you learn from it for interior design, signposting, furniture?
JG: A lot. The first is the relationship between furniture and lighting. The lighting system build into the bookshelves, in my view, is a wonderful asset. Obviously it's costly and reduces flexibility.
MFB: It's the only way of providing high lighting quality, though. There ought to be more of it.
JG: As regards interior design - signposting, lighting, colour-schemes, furniture - I think an interior designer counts for a lot. You can tell at once if a designer has worked on a building! In many libraries, the components that make up an interior are not all really under control. The whole thing needs to be thought about by the architectural team.
BBF: Should the choice of furniture be an interior designer's job then? Are there examples where furniture designed by the architect is a success from both aesthetic and functional points of view?
MFB: I don't think the interior designer should be given the job of designing the specific furniture. Obviously both architect and interior designer must be involved in the choice of furniture. They should be consulted repeatedly on all aspects of colour-scheme, flooring, wall coverings, lighting, etc., but you must not ignore the special library furniture that exists on the market and properly fulfils the functions it was designed for.
To have furniture (shelving, record racks, lending desks, filing cabinets) specially designed and made by an architect or interior designer seems to me both expensive - it works out at twice the cost - and dangerous. Incredible catastrophes have been concocted in the name of design harmony, not only on the functional level but aesthetically as well. I know architects who have literally ruined their own building designs with furniture they have designed themselves. I personally know of no example that has been a success both functionally and aesthetically.
JG: I do: the Joie par les livres library in Clamart. The furniture there is functional and well suited to the building. The whole thing forms an integrated whole. Clamart is an exception of course, but I'm convinced there is still work to be done on the furniture question. In children's libraries especially, research has produced results that are amusing but not very functional. Bookshops have furniture that is both.
MFB: Generally speaking, I think present-day library furniture is fairly well suited to its use. It is perhaps on the layout side that a revolution is needed.
Squaring the circle
BBF: Your opinions seem to diverge on that point. The standards recommend 3 metres between shelves, whereas Jacqueline Gascuel prefers 2.10 metres, for example. This is not just a question of centimetres. It also involves the kind of library that you are putting stress on - a place of relaxation on the one hand or the bookshop, model on the other. Could you tell me what you think about the relationship between the architectural layout and the working layout? I imagine floor area is affected first and foremost, since the basic working layout determines the architectural layout.
MFB: Not really. We decided on that spacing in order to have space at last to display our collections - it wasn't connected with the architectural layout. We started out from the principle that the book display we see in French free-access libraries is always cramped. We hoped to make possible an arrangement of space that would allow people to find what they were looking for without trampling on each other.
JG: I don't quite agree there. It is difficult to increase, and still less to double shelving density when you start with 3-metre spacing. But this is what happens sooner or later in all the buildings arranged in-that way, as I know very well. It is difficult when the placing of the light fittings, windows, gangways and pillars has been designed in terms of the shelving density decided at the outset, and this implies a poor use of floor space. It's a waste of floor space and volume which you have to try and put right afterwards.
MFB: But that has nothing to do with the layout. It's only a means of calculation.
JG: Even so, the positioning of the furniture has to take the pillars into account! St Quentin-en-Yvelines has quite a small hexagonal layout and a veritable forest of pillars. This required a whole research exercise, resulting in a very interesting star-shaped layout. The same thing with the Ronde-Couture branch library in Charleville-Mézières where things are arranged in a fan shape in harmony with the structure of the building. On the other hand, if you reproduce this kind of layout in a rectangular building you waste no end of space.
MFB: There is one point I would like to make. Buildings whose layout is circular or polygonal (hexagonal, triangular or whatever) may be very interesting from an architectural standpoint but they call for a greater floor area than a square or rectangular building would need to provide the same amount of shelf space, seating and reception space.
JG: Do you think so? I would have thought the circle was the ideal form for storage space.
MFB: Oh no! It's obvious. A triangle by definition produces a mass of acute angles where you can put nothing but potted plants!
The library as a beacon
BBF: In any case, it's very fashionable. A whole field of architectural research has developed around libraries. There are ambitious, original buildings that really announce the library's presence in the town. What do you think of this trend? Should it continue or would it be better to integrate the library more into its environment? I think discussion is already going on this issue.
MFB: It must be said that for decades, libraries were never housed in purpose-designed buildings. They were set up in town halls, schools, former municipal baths, churches - never in buildings designed as libraries. Once you do begin to build libraries as such, it seems to me the building ought to have a certain style, it ought to play some kind of role as a cultural beacon. There is no reason to treat it shall we say in a common way, putting up a mere cube or a soap box. I get a real pleasure seeing libraries like Cholet or Belfort. They are buildings that provoke a reaction in everyone.
JG: Those are both libraries that I like too, but that doesn't stop me admiring a good renovation like Nevers. That said, while Nevers is very attractive, I am not sure it is completely functional. That will have to be assessed in a year or two.
MFB: I'm in favour of the beacon library, but on one precise condition. You must not have architecture for architecture's sake, regardless. Unfortunately I know several cases of new libraries which are very eye-catching indeed but have taken absolutely no account of the functions of a library, so that these have to be fitted as best one can into the shell of the building, split up between six floors or even more! Now, of course, I don't agree with that at all.
BBF: What can you do in a case like that, then? It must be fairly common for a local authority to give the architect free rein, with the librarian either absent or bypassed.
JG: Especially in small towns, I've often noticed. Now that the Director of the Bibliothèque centrale de prêt is able to provide subsidies, he can take advantage of this to give some advice as well. The regional authorities can also give advice.
MFB: Provided there is a competent librarian. Central government departments have often acted both as a driving force and as a restraining influence, and I think that, within the framework of decentralization, a study group on libraries ought to be kept at central State level.
JG: But the advisory role must at all costs be decentralized and made a reality. Libraries are being built in masses, with or without government aid.
MFB: Practically no big ones have been built without government aid over the past ten years.
A hazy future
BBF: Since you are both of the view that its architecture must confer a certain prestige on the library, I would like to know what you think of the Pompidou Centre, the most prestigious library of all? What do you think of the way that library is arranged?
MFB: To my mind the Pompidou Centre library plays a thoroughly ambiguous role in that it does not lend and its readers are 60 per cent university people. But oddly enough, local government representatives who visit it don't notice this ambiguity. They notice the free-access aspect, the audiovisuals, the masses of users. In all these spheres it has led the way, but its role is an ambiguous one.
JG: It has also contributed a great deal to upgrading the image of the public library, which until then had been seen as dim and boring. We should thank it for that!
BBF: But as regards the premises and the amenities it offers? It is surely a reference point - for good or ill - for the installation of video services and for a multimedia classification split up entirely among the different subjects.
JG: I'm not against multimedia classification myself. I just say it is not very different from the rest. If libraries want to go multimedia, let them do so. Why not? That won't prevent the Pompidou Centre from being the first to show how a library can fail!
BBF: That's a gloomy view!
JG: The books are never in the right order, it's impossible to find a place to sit and I believe the rate of disappearance for periodicals reaches 50 per cent after a few months. The only solutions to these problems are technological - microforms or videodisks, remote transmission, etc.
MFB: For my part I think that experiments with the new technologies will now be even more interesting and conclusive at the Media Library at La Villette.
BBF: Let's close on this question of new technology. In your view, what impact will the new technologies have on tomorrow's libraries, and how do you see the libraries of the future?
JG: Ask Nostradamus! Seriously, I think it is difficult to answer that question. In the very short term, obviously, library furniture will have to undergo some changes. I'm thinking of racks for compact disks, for example.
MFB: The day we can consult all the world's data banks from home, we will obviously no longer need libraries for information searches. But we shall still be reading novels, and we shall still need places to meet people and for organized activities. I like architecture and I hope there will always be libraries to inspire good architecture.
JG: In any event, architects will inevitably have to build the monuments of their time.
1. Marie-Françoise Bisbrouck, La Bibliothèque dans la Ville, Ed. Direction du Livre et de la Lecture, Paris. Editions du Moniteur, 1984, 294 pp.
Jacqueline Gascuel, Un Espace pour le Livre, Paris Cercle de la Librairie/Promodis, 1984, 332 pp.
2. Cf. 'L'expérience et l'image des bibliothèques municipales', in Bulletin des Bibliothèques de France Vol. 25, No. 6, 1980, pp. 265-299.
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