Don's diary

November 13, 1998

Day 1

The Bibliothe que Nationale de France Francois Mitterrand opened 1,600 places to the public in the summer. The garden level (2,000 places) opened to researchers on October 9. I arrive a week before for a preview.

Dwarfed but impressed, I clamber up the exterior wooden stairs, a vertiginous plinth along three sides of the building, and reach the esplanade, a bleak open rectangle amid mud and concrete, where blocks of flats and offices are mushrooming.

From the esplanade I descend a steep outdoor walkway called un tapis roulant, a "rolling carpet"; then down not one but two steep escalators, through a windowless and colourless vertical cavern to the garden level. I am dazzled by the sheer scale. Vast reading rooms, expanses of shelving with thousands of new books and dozens of computers.

Day 2

I am ready to start work. I complete the ascent and the first descent; but before I can go farther, my belongings must be transferred to see-through plastic containers. Why? The books in the library are all tagged.

Clutching my overflowing container, I go through a turnstile and the first of many pairs of giant steel doors that open with muffled screeching, like phantom animals.

I am becoming less impressed, more disgruntled. The corridors that frame the garden are meant to be like cloisters. But these flame-carpeted corridors alongside the reading rooms are not areas of silent meditation: people move along them, chatting and laughing. But at least they move, unlike the aviary of fetchers and carriers of books waiting inside the reading rooms for deliveries.

Day 3

I have ordered books and reserved a desk in advance. Some books arrive, after two hours. I decide to use one of the gleaming microfilm readers instead. They have been installed cheek by jowl. Where do I put my note pad and reference book?

Day 4

Would it not be reasonable to expect a catering service in congenial surroundings? Instead, the millennium library has provided just two stark enclosures - for smokers and non-smokers - each with vending machines and a "bar" selling expensive sandwiches, chocolate and viennoisserie, and coffee and other hot drinks in paper cups.

Day 5

Entrance to the library blocked by striking staff and sympathetic but grumbling readers. The building is finished. The library is not ready. Many teething problems will be sorted out, but what of the enduring defects?

The garden-level reading rooms do not have adjacent toilet facilities. Readers must trail back along the corridor, through the screeching doors, to the cavernous area at the foot of the two steep escalators.

This library is unworthy of the human ingenuity and energy that built it and transferred 11 million books across Paris in a few short months. It is not even a trustworthy custodian: some rare books have already been damaged by the mechanised delivery system.

I go home and write in my diary: "The TGB is a triumph of the aesthetic over the human."

Gloria Cigman Senior research fellow, University of Warwick.

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