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Focus on Libraries in France

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By Margaret Adolphus

The French library scene is characterized by technological innovation (as witness the médiathèques introduced in the 1980s), collaboration, resource sharing, a strong public sector, and pride in the French heritage.

This article will explore some of the key trends, looking in particular at public, university and research libraries.

Academic libraries

Academic libraries everywhere are being faced with budget cuts and the need to do more with less. France is no exception, but libraries face particular pressures as a result of the academic environment.

The environment

Legislation introduced in 2007 (the ‘Loi 2007-1199 du 10 août 2007 relative aux Libertés et  Responsabilités des Universités’, also known as LRU or loi Pécresse) gave universities more independence, with the intent of complete autonomy by 2012.

As a direct result, there were a number of mergers creating cluster universities better able to compete, it was hoped, in global rankings.

Examples include the Paris Saclay campus, formed in 2008 and comprising 23 academic and research organizations, the University of Strasbourg created out of three universities with 42, 000 students, and the University of Aix-Marseille, with 70,000 students.

Universities however suffer from high dropout rates (anyone with a baccalaureat can gain a place, although the Grandes Ecoles are very selective and hard to get into); there is also wide-scale graduate unemployment with many still out of a job three years after completing their degree.

The teaching method is generally didactic and old-fashioned, with students being “fed” rather than encouraged to discover. However, the Government is promoting a more interactive approach, with an extra budget being offered as an enticement to develop innovative teaching methods.

The Service Commun de Documentation (SCD)

The French “umbrella” term which covers university libraries is “Service Commun de Documentation” – roughly equivalent to the Anglo Saxon “Library and Information Service”.

The term stems from the Government’s desire that all universities should have a “common” service, rather than every department or research centre having its own library.

The “Service Commun de Documentation” links the institution’s libraries together in a network, with a unified catalogue and cooperation of services such as interlibrary loan and document delivery.

As French universities tend to have a lot of libraries, this can be no small task. Especially so for the newly merged universities: the new University of Strasbourg has 36 libraries, and that at Aix Marseilles 61.

Supporting learning

Another challenge faced by libraries is the need to accommodate and assist the new pedagogy encouraged by the Government.

(The Government wanted to call libraries Learning Centres, but the term does not translate. However, the Université de Lille 1 plans to remodel its library as a “Learning Center” – see

Sadrine Malotaux is Head of Libraries and Information Service at the Institut National Polytechnique de Toulouse (INPT), and is facing this challenge head on.

She is determined to put the needs of the student (first year as much as graduate) at the centre of the library experience.

INPT also has a “learning centre” project, which will place the library at the heart of the university as a place of study, learning, and social integration – a “Third Place”.

She and her team of librarians have also remodelled the INPT library website, now name Biblio’Tech.  The old site was very much geared to the needs of the serious researcher rather than the novice student: you needed to know what you are looking for.

Image: The “old” interface of the library of INP Toulouse
The “old” interface of the library of INP Toulouse

Image: The interface for the new library of INP Toulouse
The interface for the new library of INP Toulouse

The redesign has involved the library in trying to think and react like a student, who is probably more used to Google than a multiplicity of databases. 

Instead of offering the user a bewildering choice of catalogues, databases etc., there is a single search box on the library home page.

This will be federated search, powered by Serial Solutions, and will provide a unique access point to all resources. There will also be a list of resources and services by subject.

In general, at the present moment (and based on a brief survey of those academic libraries listed in libweb), few French libraries appear to have gone down this route, and most still require a separate search for databases.

Some libraries, however, do offer the opportunity for refining the search, as in this example from the Université François Rabelais:

Image: A results page from the Université François Rabelais catalogue
A results page from the Université François Rabelais catalogue

Other than re-visioning the website and writing content for it, the new academic librarian must become involved in teaching and must support lecturers with pedagogical resources.

Most libraries offer information literacy courses and some, in deference to the employment situation, also offer help with job search and CV writing.

All academic libraries provide different types of work-space: group work and one-to-one consultation, for example.

It’s not uncommon for French academic libraries also to provide spaces for relaxation, with some culture thrown in: the Université Paul Sabatier has books, graphic novels, films and also writing workshops.