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Staff strike as new French library opens



Staff strike as new French library opens
                 By Charles Masters in Paris (Daily Telegraph,
Oct.25, 1998)


                 IT was supposed to be Fran=E7ois Mitterrand's final
                 grandiose legacy, a library for the 21st century.
                 But, like its counterpart, the new British Library in
                 London, France's new national library has been
                 plagued by technical problems.

                 Barely a week after its inauguration, the library has
                 been brought to a standstill by a series of hitches
                 that have driven users to despair and prompted
                 normally placid librarians to go on strike.

                 The Biblioth=E8que Nationale de France (BNF) is
                 equipped with the latest computer technology and book
                 delivery systems that are designed to make the 10
                 million works of France's two previous national
                 collections available to readers in one
                 state-of-the-art building. But the =A31 billion library
                 was badly designed from the start. The automatic
                 transport system that delivers books from the
                 18-storey towers is too small for large-format
                 volumes and is unsuitable for fragile works, since
                 they sometimes fall from the overhead trolleys.
                 Instead, the books have to be delivered manually.

                 However, the heart of the problem is the library's
                 central computer. The multi-million pound system,
                 designed by the computer giant Cap Gemini, has proved
                 woefully inadequate. Although the library has been
                 designed for almost 4,000 readers, the system begins
                 to malfunction when more than a few hundred people
                 try to use it at once. The computer controls
                 virtually every function in the building, including
                 consultation of the catalogue, ordering books, and
                 access for personnel and members to the various
                 library floors.

                 Marie-France Eymery, who is among staff who have been
                 on strike since Tuesday, said: "Readers were finding
                 themselves stuck in the building at closing time
                 because the computer thought they still had books out
                 in their names. It took some researchers up to six
                 hours to register. The system was overloaded -
                 everything was blocked. Everything that's visible to
                 the public looks great. But everything behind the
                 scenes has been designed with no ergonomic
                 considerations."

                 Staff say that instead of ironing out the problems
                 before opening, the system is being tested on the
                 paying public. Lack of training has compounded the
                 problems, with some librarians given just two days'
                 instruction on the complex computer terminals. Unions
                 met officials from the culture ministry on Friday,
                 but were not happy with proposals to address the
                 difficulties. They voted to continue the strike until
                 tomorrow.

                 Mr Mitterrand was dying of cancer when he ordered the
                 construction of the new library, and some regard the
                 four bleak L-shaped towers - designed to resemble
                 open books - as his cenotaph. But one thing the
                 library's staff and readers agree on is that the late
                 president left a costly and inefficient legacy.

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