Friday, June 10, 2016

France’s libraries discovering a new lease of life beyond just books

Seminars, events and cafes are helping some formerly staid institutions reinvent themselves as social ‘third spaces’ beyond work and the home

 Turning a page: the new, Zaha Hadid-designed library in the Pierres Vives Building, Montpellier. Photograph: View/Alamy

Back in the 1950s Juliette Gréco sang Je hais les dimanches (I hate Sundays), but would she have found them quite so dull if public libraries had been open? It is still an open question in France, where museums and cinemas welcome the public on this day of rest, but not yet libraries.
Things may finally be changing, thanks to a bill originally more concerned with shopping than the arts. An amendment, put forward by former arts minister Aurélie Filipetti, to the “growth, business and equal economic opportunities” bill currently grinding through the French parliament, seeks to oblige local councils to organise a debate before introducing Sunday opening for libraries and shops. Her successor, Fleur Pellerin, has endorsed this proposal and asked a member of the upper house to look at how library opening hours could be adapted.
Although it may be some time before it becomes law, a vote in favour of the bill could have symbolic impact. It would certainly draw attention to the role now played by libraries, institutions that have taken on other missions than simply providing books.
Workshops, events, exhibitions, training courses and encouraging public participation in their management have become part of libraries’ roles. In some you may talk without whispering, use a phone, eat and even play computer games. Reading has become a source of sociability and the books on offer are supposed to encourage “social cohesion”. This trend towards greater openness, which started a few years ago, has only taken hold in a few of France’s 3,000 public libraries. But, it seems, it’s spreading. Read more...

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