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Focus on Libraries in France

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.

Interlending and document supply

These rather dry terms denote the very important mechanisms whereby documents (both print and electronic) are accessible across institutions.

Schopfel and Gillet (2011) sum up the situation as follows:

    Our study reveals a contrasting landscape. On the one hand is a rapidly growing access to online resources through library gateways, digital libraries and open repositories. On the other hand are the rising (legal) protection of rights-holders (e.g. publishers) and declining ILL and document supply activity.

French copyright law is highly restrictive: although copying is allowed for educational purposes, this is in very limited circumstances, for example for a particular lecture or seminar.

A further law (HADOPI) restricts digital use, by making it the subject of individual negotiation. (For more information on the French copyright situations, see Schopfel and Gillet 2011.)

All this makes it very difficult to exploit digital rights commercially, because each document has to be the subject of individual negotiation.

As an example, INIST (see below), along with the French copyright agency, came up against the High Court of Paris when it tried to sign an agreement for commercial document supply without the author’s permission.  Their latest appeal was turned down in June 2011.

The situation has, however, given rise to a number of initiatives on resource sharing, which are described below.

  • ABES (Agence Bibliographique de L’Ensiegnement Supérieur, was formed in 1994 by the Ministry of Higher Education and Research, and has developed a number of bibliographic tools and services for the academic and research community. Recently it negotiated, on behalf of the French Government, two major national licenses with Springer and Proquest.  One of ABES’s main products is:

  • SUDOC (System Universitaire de Documentation, is a union catalogue for all types of material located in academic libraries. It also facilitates inter-library loans and in some cases, full-text access, and provides bibliographic tools for librarians’ own catalogue records.
  • INIST (Institut de L’Information Scientifique et Technique, is the document delivery and bibliographic arm of the CNRS (Centre Nationale de Recherches Scientifiques). Established in 1988, it is currently heavily involved with electronic resources, including negotiating license deals with publishers. One of its main products is ( which is a one-stop shop, single search box for access to bibliographic information and purchase of documents.
  • COUPERIN ( is the major French academic consortium which negotiates with publishers on behalf of all academic and research libraries, with the exception of the CNRS, which negotiates separately.

Open access

One way of getting round a restrictive copyright situation is open access, where the author simply deposits a copy of his or her work in an institutional archive.

France has 65 repositories, according to OpenDOAR (, which provides an up-to-date worldwide listing.

Many of these are maintained by individual institutions, although France has its own national archive – HAL, or Hyper Articles Online (

HAL was created on the presumption that authors would upload their work to a national system, as distinct from other countries such as Australia or The Netherlands which promote individual repositories (Hitchcock, 2006).  (It is also possible to create an institution-branded portal.)

However, many universities have set up their own repositories, feeling that this better promotes the institutional publishing efforts. An added incentive is provided by the new legislation on universities, which mandates the latter to disseminate research outputs.

INPT was the first to set up its own repository: see

Image: The OATAO repository at the University of Toulouse
The OATAO repository at the University of Toulouse

To date, Science-Po, Paris IX, Toulouse 1, and Université de Lorraine have also set up their own repositories.

Public libraries

Public libraries in France are funded by the State on setup, but local government subsidises 97 per cent of operational costs (for staff, acquisitions, and building maintenance). Thus local districts are virtually free to run their libraries according to their own preferences (source:

The médiathèques

French public libraries have faced the same pressure as those in other countries to move away from books, and now offer audiovisual and digital content along with print, as well as cultural events, art shows, book readings, spaces for free access to computers, sections for particular demographic groups, and heritage resources.

The mission of the Bibliothèque de Reims is probably fairly typical of what French public libraries are trying to achieve:

  • To promote the book and reading.
  • To place at the public’s disposal a large choice of books and multimedia documents
  • To conserve, enrich, display, and restore its stock of ancient, rare and precious documents
  • To develop its store of regional stock
  • To develop a reference stock to support study, research, and lifelong learning

In promoting other media, however, French libraries have one problem: the term bibliothèque, which is etymologically linked with the book.

Hence the growth of the term médiathèque, the use of which started in the 1980s with the addition of audiovisual to the collection, and which continued into the 1990s and beyond with digital.

Many French towns have médiathèques, often as part of the district network of libraries. Roubaix’s médiathèque for example is situated on the third floor of the library building, and offers not only multimedia resources (including reference works and databases) but also special desks where the user can access the Internet and use word processing and other forms of software, as well as printers, scanners and webcams.

Another example is the Médiathèque de Rouen, which is situated in a fine modern building, and offers a wide range of software including that for language learning and educational games.

Image: Médiathèque de Rouen
Médiathèque de Rouen

La patrimonie

French public libraries consider themselves to be the guardians of their local heritage. Whilst in Britain, there is some move towards local studies in public libraries, it is in general a minority interest; in France, however, most libraries of any size have considerable archive collections of manuscripts, incunabula and books, whilst ‘patrimonie’ is one of the key headings on their websites.

Aix’s Cité du Livre for example has a considerable collection comprising manuscripts and early printed books, as well as noteworthy archives, including that of the 18th century French bibliophile, the Marquis de Méjanes, and the 20th century author Albert Camus. Part of the collection is online, and there are virtual exhibitions.

The Bibliothèque Valenciennes has a considerable collection of manucripts, incunabula and books especially from the 16th century, marking its importance as the capital of the French province of Hainault.

And the the French National Library, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, has its own online heritage library: Gallica (, which contains books, manuscripts, images, maps, periodicals, sound recordings and scores, and is now part of Europeana, the European heritage collection.

Reaching la France profonde

Another feature of the French system is the Departmental Library, or Bibliothèque Départementale de Prêt (BDP). Developed in the years after 1945, initially to enhance stock in rural areas, the 96 BDPs can be found in every department apart from those covering urban areas.

Existing uniquely for librarians and never open to the general public, they hold stock to complement local collections, put on training events for both volunteers and paid staff on library management and development, and provide general help and advice.

As in Germany, and as is beginning to be the case in Britain, volunteers play an important role in maintaining the library presence in rural areas. In one small village in Maine-et-Loire, for example, the library (housed in the village hall) opens every Saturday morning, manned by two volunteers (or bénévoles – there are 12 in all).

The stock consists of 400 books, supplied by the local BDP and replenished every six months. The library has also held exhibitions and events: a ‘graphic novel’ created by local schoolchildren, a session making Christmas decorations, and even a disco.


Equal access to culture is enshrined in French law. In this article, we have shown plenty of evidence for this, from the national initiatives on document sharing to the volunteer libraries in small villages.  The French heritage is in safe hands.


Colinmaire, H. (2010), "Science and technology at the Bibliothèque nationale de France: a new policy, a new electronic library and a new access to information", Interlending & Document Supply, Vol. 38 No. 1, pp.22-25.

Steve Hitchcock, (2006), ‘French national archive HAL adds twist to repository architecture debate’, available online at…

Schöpfel, J. and Gillet, J. (2011), "A review of interlending and document supply in France: 2010", Interlending & Document Supply, Vol. 39 No. 2, pp.76-83.