France's Jesuit community is faced with tough decisions over the future of the largest private theology library in France.
The Jesuits can no longer provide the staff and money to keep the 450,000 books at the Fontaines cultural centre in Chantilly, near Paris, which closes in August.
At least five proposals for the library's future have been submitted to the ministry of national education, higher education and research. Consultations between the ministry, the Jesuit community and the various bidders have taken place in recent weeks. There is a consensus that the library should be kept intact, but the competition to acquire the library is fierce.
A partnership between Lille's Catholic University and the public Lille III University boasts combined strengths in human sciences and the city's location. Strasbourg's National University Library points to the local theology faculties and its associative status with the National Library in Paris.
There are also bids from Lyons, a city with traditional ties to Jesuitica, from Nantes and from the town of Amiens, north of Chantilly, where the university has a long association with the cultural centre and library.
"It is sad to see the library go, but if more people get to use it that is a good thing," one senior Jesuit commented.
When the Jesuits were expelled from France in 1762 and banned by Pope Clement XIV a decade later, many of the Jesuit libraries were dispersed or sold. After rehabilitation in 1814, the community had to rebuild its foundation. Volumes on European civilisation in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were acquired until the number of books printed before 1830 came to account for more than half of the collection.
Since the Fontaines site was opened to the public in 1970, the library has been used by up to 700 people a year. "We were able to accommodate researchers, and many of them stayed one or two years. We were also able to provide a unique quality of service helping researchers navigate through their work," said chief librarian Jacquelin Diot.
It is difficult to estimate the collection's value. "I've heard a figure of Ffr20 million (Pounds 2 million)," said Gaston Vandencadelaere, president of Lille's Catholic University. "But that is just an estimate for insurance purposes. There is a volume of the Gutenberg Bible from 1452 said to be worth at least Ffr1 million, but if it were to perish, how could you replace it?" Ms Diot said:"You could amuse yourself putting a cost on the rare editions, but this library is worth much more than that. We often ignore the classification system that provides users with a guide to the collections. It represents hours of work and means the books can be located physically and intellectually. When I talk of the wealth of the library, it is not in relation to a particular book - I am speaking of the whole."
Gerard Lettler, director of the National University Library in Strasbourg, believes the Chantilly collection's unique classification system should remain as it is. "We would want to consolidate that intellectual unity with new purchases, but we would keep the approach," he said.