France's brand new national library: a fitting tribute to a president or folie des grandeurs?

It was conceived as the "biggest and most modern library in the world". As its four towers grew out of the urban wasteland by the Seine, it was scornfully referred to by Parisians as theTres Grande Bibliotheque (very big library) or TGB, a play on the name of the country's super-fast inter-city express, the TGV (Train a Grand Vitesse), a name which has stuck.

Now, its enemies say, it is a white elephant, old before it is finished; its friends laud it as a modern asset for a modern city. But from this evening, when President Jacques Chirac performs the official opening before a crowd of national celebrities and city dignitaries, it will be the Francois Mitterrand Library, the national library of France, and the second biggest library in the world after the United States Library of Congress.

Yesterday, however, less than 24 hours before the official opening, this great national project seemed far from finished. Workmen were hammering, painting and wiring in the depths of the broad, wood-lined corridors. As the library's chairman, Jean Favier, and its architect, Dominique Perrault, shepherded groups around the inaugural exhibition on encyclopaedism, trade union representatives put on a rival show to complain about inadequate safety facilities and staffing.

It was an appropriate conflict to herald the library's opening. Everything about the project has been controversial since the late President Mitterrand announced it on the first Bastille Day of his second term in office (1988). Everything, that is, except its purpose. Existing national library facilities were universally acknowledged to be inadequate: even academicians had to queue from early morning to get a seat and no one knew exactly how many books it possessed. For a country that regards itself as highly cultivated the need for a new library was unquestioned. The French were also much impressed with the American practice of outgoing presidents founding libraries.

But that is where the agreement stopped. Mr Mitterrand saw his project as providing state-of-the-art library facilities for all. But experts asked whether storing great numbers of books might be a thing of the past, given the widespread use of computers. The library now combines on-line facilities with the national library collection.

Then there was the design. It is a gigantic rectangle, with towers at the four corners in the shape of open books. A central courtyard with pine trees provides space for "contemplation". Criticisms have ranged from "compact and cold" to "monumental on an inhuman scale". Distances are huge, prompting questions about how long it will take to obtain a book. Vast staircases lead to the entrance, leading one local resident to ask how anyone but the hardiest would make the climb.

Supporters of the building say that the design had to be adapted to the demands of a library. The towers were planned to be transparent and to accommodate the book stacks - but the glass is now dulled by wooden blinds to keep out the sunlight and protect the books.

When it was decided that the building would house the national library collection in addition to new facilities, capacity had to be increased from 5 million to more than 10 million volumes. The towers had to be reinforced to carry the weight, and their height reduced from 100m to 90m. This, say some, makes the ensemble less impressive - or, to quote another local resident: "they're not beautiful, not ugly, just squat."

The location, in a wasteland of eastern Paris was also questioned. An urban development plan was supposed to revive the whole area, but this has since been pared down and is now frozen. A new metro line was planned to link the library site with the city centre, but this will not be ready now until the summer of 1998 at the earliest. So it stands, wind-swept and alone, awaiting its first readers. The public reference rooms will open their doors on Friday. The specialist research section, however, on the "garden floor", will not be completed until 1998.

Since last year, when the interior was a cold, empty shell that looked more like a theatre for totalitarian rallies than a library, there has been progress. The computers are (mostly) wired up, there are books on open shelves and there is a massive tapestry, designed by Roy Lichtenstein, in the main hall.

But when he pronounces the edifice "the Francois Mitterrand library", Mr Chirac will be delivering a backhanded compliment. Whether it becomes a flourishing cultural centre or a lavish eccentricity, as its opponents believe, it will forever bear the late president's name.

Malcolm Bradbury, page 13

Scale of two cities' grandiose plans for a national centre of learning

BIBLIOTHEQUE NATIONALE

Announced: By President Mitterrand 14 July 1988. Building started in 1991. Mitterrand opened bare buildings on 30 March 1995, shortly before end of his second term. Completed: Public areas completed December 1996. Today, President Chirac officially opens library. On 20 December, first areas open to public. Capacity: Originally designed to hold 5 million volumes, but it was soon decided that this was far too few; it will start with 10 million and will eventually be able to accommodate 30 million. Cost: Ffr8bn (pounds 950m). Size: 7.5 hectares (18.5 acres).

THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Announced: In 1978 by the then Secretary of State for Education, Shirley Williams. Building work began in 1982. Architect Colin St John Wilson has been working on the design since 1962. Completed: The first books were moved in on 2 December 1996. Readers will be admitted in November 1997. The library will not be fully open until June 1999. Capacity: Scholars demanded capacity for 25 million volumes. However, because of cuts, there is now only room for 12 million. Cost: Shirley Williams' original budget was pounds 116m. It now stands at pounds 511m. Size: 13 acres.

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