'Libraries have to ask what people want to read'

A freewheeling conversation with the director of Bibliotheque Nationale de France

November 08, 2015 12:27 am | Updated 03:15 am IST

The changing educational, social and recreational role of the library is a hotly debated subject among planners and readers alike. On a visit to Delhi, Bruno Racine, director of Bibliotheque Nationale de France (National Library of France), explains to The Hindu how public libraries need to become more interactive spaces. France and India have signed an MoU for digitisation of old manuscripts in the National Library of France. India is working on a National Virtual Library with French support, and France will be seeking India’s assistance to decipher its collection in Sanskrit and Tamil. There is a possibility that all these will be made a part of the joint digital collection.

Excerpts from the interview with Mr. Racine:

Excluding research scholars, far fewer people are visiting libraries today. What is the French experience?

I have to say, the trend is downwards. But we have to make a distinction between those who read online and the ones who come to the reading room. The libraries have not emptied out. Students do come here; I suppose they like to work from here. They may not borrow books, but libraries offer a quiet place and a friendly environment for the young. To address the young, public libraries have to offer services that correspond to their aspirations and give them rooms where they don’t have to whisper and can work together. We have five million items online, excluding copyright material, and our experience shows that people tend to use online resources and confine their visits to the library for a specific enquiry. So, the answer to your question is, the number of books being consulted and the number of physical readers has decreased slightly because more and more people have moved online.

What is the role of a public library as a public space today?

In France, public libraries are city libraries. There are two state-funded public libraries, one at the Centre Georges Pompidou, and the other which I head. I don’t have recent figures, but I think globally the trend is of fewer people coming to libraries. A lot depends on local factors prevailing in a city. If a city opens a new modern library with reading services, it can become popular. If you go to an opera, it is not cheap. Museums are not free. In France, the policy has been to orient the library to the public. The traditional librarian thinks that if the books are good for the public, they will come. This is not the way it happens now. Libraries have become more interactive now. Libraries have to understand what the public wants. Librarians have to ask people what they want to read.

How does the public funding of libraries work in France?

The library is completely funded by the government. We had to raise money on our own for heritage acquisition, where the access to the public is not free. Ninety five per cent of the budget of the National Library is funded by the Ministry of Culture. This has always been the case, which is quite different from museums in France, which have millions of visitors and can rest a little less on government money. We have about one million visitors each year to the library. The digital library gets 15 million visitors and is growing very fast. The library in France is a very old institution whose origins can be traced back to the 14th century, the time around which kings built their library of books, which became a permanent institution at the beginning of the 18th century. The practice of acquiring books was established in the 16th century, structured in a very systematic way at the beginning of the 19th century. Whenever a book is printed, it could be audiovisual records too, it has to be deposited at the library as well. Until a few years ago, the publisher had to deposit four books with the library. Now we have simplified the process, as we don’t have the space. We ask for only one copy by the publisher. There is a law since 2006 that gives us the mission of archiving books. The paradox is, when they are online they are free; once they are in our collection, you require authorisation to access them.

What kinds of readers visit your library?

We have two kinds of readers. We have a public library which youngsters, young students and college students visit, for which the fee is very nominal. I have proposed to the government to make it free. On the other hand, for the digital library, we get an annual grant for digitisation of printed material and journals, which allows us to digitise 10 million pages every year. We get six million euros a year which is quite significant.

What brings you to India? What are your plans?

Digitisation knows no boundaries. We are interested in countries that are looking at digitisation, and we are trying to understand their priorities. We have an Indian collection which we can share. If we want to have a single digital portal, for instance, for France and India, which is what I would like to discuss, our formats have to be compatible. Exchange of information is always useful, in particular in the area of long-term preservation, which is a big issue for digitised heritage. Another area I am looking forward to is cultural cooperation, because in France, we are interested in Indian collections because of our shared history. Since we know that India is working on a national digital library, we have some material which could be of some interest, which would require expertise from India for cataloguing it. We have 2,500 miniature paintings, and paintings which are not the most beautiful in the world but interesting, and over 1,800 manuscripts in Sanskrit and Prakrit in our collection and over 1,000 manuscripts, in diverse Indian languages, which we refer to as the Indian collection.

How should the state go about funding public libraries? What should be the terms of engagement?

There are over 2,500 public libraries in France. The majority of them are run by professional librarians. Every few years, a contract is drawn between the government and the libraries, which defines goals and measures performance. Libraries are cultural institutions and they have to conduct their policy within a clearly established framework drawn between the government and the libraries.

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