April 15, 1999 issue. This file presents an archive copy of the issue of the FYI France ejournal, ISSN 1071-5916, which was distributed via email on April 15, 1999.
Versions of the following have appeared online regularly, since 1992, as a feature of the FYI France ejournal, ISSN 1071-5916, which is distributed for free via email every month except August. Ejournal subscriptions may be obtained via email request to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Many of you have asked about the results of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France strike, arguably one of the earliest "digital information labor actions" to have taken place anywhere, so far.
The strike occurred last Fall, in October. One of the original and always central issues was the inability of the new digital information systems to live up to expectations -- defenders crying "unreasonable" expectations, and detractors contending "minimal" -- digital information thus finally reaching the bar of labor action and history: see FYI France, Oct 23 and Nov 15, 1998
So here is what the French did: a committee was established -- I can hear the groans already, many of them French -- a report was issued, recommendations were made...
But this is how these things are done. Even the "corporate" types who read this will admit that private firms look a lot less efficient from the inside than out, and not just in France. And the BNF after all is a giant, public, and ancient institution: Yale University's Bart Giamatti used to complain of having to "run a 20th century enterprise using 16th century methods". Public institution governance does require patience.
After patient waiting by all concerned, then, the national Ministre de la Culture et de la Communication, Catherine Trautmann, issued the following instructions for resolving the BNF strike and crisis, on March 16: (tr. JK)
Monsieur Jean-Pierre ANGREMY
Président de la Bibliothèque nationale de France
11 Quai François Mauriac
75706 Paris Cedex 13
Monsieur le Président,
As you know, the difficulties encountered by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in opening its "lower - garden" level to researchers hold a significant place in my current concerns.
These difficulties should not obscure the considerable work which has been accomplished by your organization, and all of its successes: the computerization of your printed works catalogs, the opening of your "upper garden" level to the general public, the open access to much of the collection, the launch of your Gallica Internet site, the move of the Richelieu collections, the improvement of the Dépôt Légal outside of Paris as part of the "Pôles Associés" project... The list of all of the actions and achievements already accomplished by the BNF is long, and has produced a first - rate cultural and scientific resource of great value to the nation.
Nevertheless, certain steps remain to be taken to improve the functioning of your institution, and the extensive study which just has been undertaken on this subject to me appears to have been particularly positive.
In conformity with the agreement established as a result of the strike of October - November 1998, between representatives of the staff and the management of the institution, nine working groups completed their analyses at the end of January, and based on these M. Albert Poirot, Inspecteur Général des Bibliothèques, recently submitted his summary report to me.
I would like to tell you how much I was struck by the enormity of the task which has been accomplished in so short a time by all of the members of the working groups, and by M. Poirot, as well as by the quality of M. Poirot's report.
On reading the report, important recommendations emerge clearly, and it appears to me imperative -- considering the long period of waiting by both the staff of the BNF and its readers -- that they be applied quickly to the principal problems which the report describes, taking into account the financial implications of the solutions which have been proposed.
I know that you already work constantly to optimise the information systems and the communications network in order to enable the direct delivery of documents to users, a task which I consider as you do to be a primary objective, and I can assure you that you yourself as well as your services have my entire confidence in this undertaking.
In addition, so that the establishment which you direct will function in the most coherent and efficacious manner possible, using to their very best advantage all of the skills of your personnel, I wish you to undertake a series of measures immediately. Some of them will come from your organization directly, others require cooperation with the central administration of my Ministry: specifically the Direction du Livre et de la Lecture and the Direction de l'Administration Générale.
These measures are the following:
Thank you for seeing that all of these measures are put into place with the least delay, and that personnel regularly are informed of their development.
I wish to be informed myself by the Direction du Livre et de la Lecture of the progress of this work.
I am convinced that at the end of this current initial period the "lower - garden" level will reach all of its objectives and will be able fully to satisfy its users. Nor do I doubt that the BNF will be able to provide the distance services which it offers using its internal network and the Internet. Thus the entire nation will be able to obtain the greatest part of the exceptional achievement which your institution represents.
Je vous prie d'agréer, Monsieur le Président, l'expression de ma considération distinguée.
[The original French as of today may be read online at,
listed as, "Rapport de synthèse sur les réflexions conduites par les neufs groupes de travail de la Bibliothèque Nationale de France Paris, le 16 mars 1999". JK]
Others will be more adept than I am at interpreting the languages of diplomacy and bureaucracy which are involved here.
It seems obvious that the personnel problems have impressed the Minister. And she continues to feel that the information systems, and specifically the Internet access, must have the highest priority at the BNF -- if, that is, "primary placement" in her letter gives these matters the same priority which they would enjoy so - placed in a similar letter in a US context -- but then things are not always obvious in France.
To the very American question, "show me the money?", there seems to be no answer offered here. But then this was not the occasion, perhaps. Still, budget is an ongoing problem, particularly with information systems: the Minister acknowledges this in her polite but chilling reference to "implications financières des solutions", at one point -- the "no - free - lunch clause", they call this in corporate America -- one hopes that personnel, and information systems, will not get starved and certainly not see one robbed to benefit the other at the BNF, as happens so often in corporate "reorganizations". But then money thrown at problems does not resolve the, either. The new BNF formula for this balance will be watched carefully by many others.
Recent visitors to the BNF assure me that conditions still are as difficult as they have been but that the attitude of the staff is much, much better. Now comes the critical period, when concrete progress must be shown in all areas -- not too much, lest mistakes be made, nor too little, lest the cynics nod their heads in resignation and unfurl their banners once again or, worse, simply give up and go home. Mme. Trautmann knows this, as do M. Angrémy and any of the BNF staff with experience in management and administration. The enthusiasts and cynics do not -- those inevitable folks -- but then they are not running the place.
The BNF now has, at least, gone through its labor movement "baptism of fire" -- hopefully learning from its experience and even perhaps providing valuable lessons to the rest of us on how human institutions are going to cope, or not, with digital information. It ain't easy. One question for the rest of us is whether / when / how "labor movements" elsewhere are going to begin taking on the questions of the digital information age?
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