Stella Hughes takes a look at onscreen multimedia facilities and behindscreen polemic at the Biblioth que Nationale de France
French president Jacques Chirac was paying an inaugural visit to the new national library in Paris, last December when he stopped, transfixed, in front of one of the new multimedia workstations.
It was not some cybernetic novelty which had drawn his attention, but the mouse. "What's that?" he asked, confirming a widely-held suspicion that the use of computers starts somewhere below presidential rank.
So it is not surprising that in 1988, when his predecessor Francois Mitterrand announced plans for a national library "of an entirely new kind", the phrase never meant a virtual library with decentralised networks.
The advanced multimedia research facility which is being phased in may have a revolutionary personalised audiovisual indexing and footnoting system, but you still have to take a train, bus or plane to make use of it.
No one is more outspoken about the missed opportunity to create an online digital library than Senator Pierre Laffitte, author of a senatorial report on the future of France's libraries in the age of multimedia.
"They may have digitised 30 million pages, but two millennia on, it is still the same kind of library that Alexandria had," he argues. "The idea of an intranet between French university libraries using a specific, dedicated network, like the National Digital Library in the US, was never even considered".
The library's multimedia director Gerald Grunberg believes the library as an actual place remains important. "I was never hostile to having a new building. You can put whatever you want online but libraries play an important role as places," he says.
Grunberg insists that putting the library's digitised resources online would lead to copyright problems. "The catalogues go on the Internet, our finest illuminated manuscripts are on our Web site and it is technically feasible to offer text, images and sound but that poses a real legal problem and publishers and other copyright holders are worried that it would make piracy easier."
Laffitte disagrees: "The copyright issue is the same whatever the distance between the server and the terminals available to the public, and piracy would be no greater or lesser a threat."
But Laffitte acknowledges the option chosen at the outset is no fault of the library's managers, some of whom, he says, agree it is absurd not to have a university network.
Senior librarians such as Grunberg who have worked on the project since the outset have weathered this and other battles. "Many people saw the creation of public reading rooms as heresy. It is in fact a real democratisation of our national heritage. For the first time, the public can access digitised works when they would never have been allowed to consult the original."
The public rooms, opened in December to all over 18 or who has the baccalaureat, form an advanced level study library, with 78 multimedia workstations. The library's 155-megabits-persecond ATM network has the capacity for expansion to include videoconferencing. "It's the biggest French site with such a high-speed network," says Grunberg. "Development of the audiovisual department fell behind schedule but that was beneficial because the technology was not up to the applications we now offer."
The digital video bank follows the MPEG 2 standard, designed to store near broadcast quality video in compressed form. It is the first library in the world to do so, according to Grunberg. The server can deliver video to up to 80 workstations simultaneously. Around 500 hours of video have been digitised. A user can call up film, still image or audio material from the same workstation, changing to dedicated terminals for CD-Roms. The multimedia and print catalogues will merge late next year. The tender for putting all French library catalogues into a single system is at the shortlist stage. The unified catalogue will give a boost to links between university libraries and the national library, which have stepped up acquisitions and digitisation. Multimedia users in the public study library can use a video indexing system or order cassette or CD recordings.
Grunberg explains: "The audiovisual indexing is revolutionary. By clicking on chosen points in a film or audio tape and creating an index and footnotes for those points, the user can work on audiovisual material just like written material; it will become an integral part of the world of learning."
Users of the research library will be able to order video copies of audiovisual archives. If legislation were passed to allow researchers to "cite" film in the same way as print, then excerpts from film could be integrated into texts.
The research library will allow users to create their own files of still images from a collection of 300,000 which have been digitised. Users will be able to zoom in and blow up parts of a picture, picking out a face in a crowd or an inscription on a monument, taking away a paper copy of the resulting edited file.