The Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) can trace its origin back to the royal library founded at the Louvre by Charles V in 1368. Expanded under Louis XIV, the library first opened its doors to the public in 1692. With the seizure of the private libraries of numerous aristocrats and members of the clergy during the French Revolution, the library's collections swelled to over 300,000 volumes. Under the First Republic, the ‘Bibliothèque du Roi’ (‘King's Library’), as it was then known, was declared to be the property of the nation, ending four centuries of ownership by the monarchy. It was renamed the Bibliothèque Nationale.

Following a number of regime changes, it became known as the Imperial National Library and in 1868 moved to newly constructed buildings on the Rue de Richelieu. By 1896, following further expansion, the library had become the largest repository of books in the world (although it has since been surpassed by other libraries for that title).

On 14 July 1988, the French President, François Mitterrand, announced “the construction and development of one of the largest and most modern libraries in the world … (which) should cover all fields of knowledge, be available to all, using the most modern technologies of data transmission, can be accessed remotely and interact with other European libraries”.

It became part of the new generation of major new libraries that were being built around the world, in the United States, Great Britain, Germany, Japan and, of course, in Alexandria. An international jury, chaired by renowned architect I M Pei (architect of the famous glass pyramid at the Louvre), shortlisted four projects, from which, on 21 August 1989, the President finally selected Dominique Perrault to receive the architectural commission.

Construction on the site in the 13th arrondissement of Paris ran into technical difficulties related to its high-rise design and financial overruns, so much so that one journalist referred to it as the ‘TGB’ or ‘Très Grande Bibliothèque’ (i.e. ‘Very Large Library’, a sarcastic allusion to France's successful high-speed rail system, the TGV). However, eventually the major collections moved from the old Rue de Richelieu site, and the new library was inaugurated on 15 December 1996. It contained more than ten million volumes.

The strategic move to online delivery

The BnF began its digitization activities in the early 1990s, when, recognizing the changes in internet user behaviour, search engines and digitization techniques, as well as the implementation of mass digitization projects (such as the European Digital Library, Francophone digital library, Google Book Search, Open Library, etc.), the strategic decision was made to step up digital activities, in particular via ‘Gallica’, its digital library for online users, which launched in 1997.

The BnF digitizes a wide range of materials – printed materials (monographs and periodicals), manuscripts, prints, maps and plans, photographs, sound recordings – though, particularly in the context of the European Digital Library, it has three major current focuses:

  • national heritage (e.g. philosophy, history, literature, religion, science, etc.)
  • international programmes (including comparative collections such as daily press, legal documentation, history and ancillary sciences such as genealogy, languages and language learning, etc.)
  • a corpus of materials dedicated to all aspects of Europe (political philosophy, national identities, history, economics, trade, labour, professions, science and technology, social issues, major cultural events, etc.).

From the inception of Gallica, a detailed charter focusing on national heritage was drawn up to precisely define the criteria used to select the documents for digitization. The library also created a specific OAI warehouse – OAI-NUM – which consists of data exported from the library's native catalogues, the BnF Master Catalogue and BnF Archives et Manuscrits. This approach has the advantage of being technically undemanding and of allowing the library to be able to offer other services linked to the digital collections, i.e. the OAI-PMH protocol enables the BnF to publish its own metadata to the wider community and also to harvest metadata from other repositories worldwide, such as the Library of Congress.

The work that Jouve will be doing in conjunction with the BnF sits squarely within this strategic framework. However, the BnF are aware that any development of online services must include a qualitative evaluation, whether this be the assessment by users of existing services or an exploration of user expectations of new services. Consequently, the BnF regularly carries out usage studies and online questionnaires, interviews individuals and organizes focus groups, with the findings of such studies then documented in highly detailed and instructive reports.

The new digitization project

In a press statement issued on 16 May 2011, the BnF announced that it had signed a framework agreement to digitize copyrighted out-of-print 20th-century French books. The agreement, signed by Frédéric Mitterrand (Ministry for Culture and Communication) and others, including Bruno Racine (President of the BnF), Antoine Gallimard (President of the French Publishers Association) and Jean-Claude Bologne (President of the French Society of Literary Authors), set out an ambitious five-year plan to digitize and make available for sale online around 500,000 books.

The digitization project will centre on the legal deposit collections stored at the BnF, which will retain a digital copy of each title for its own use. Through the Gallica website, enriched bibliographic records will be made available, allowing readers to access excerpts and to be redirected towards online retailers from where they will be able to buy digital copies.

The project has government financial support within the framework of the ‘Development of the digital economy’ programme. This €4.5bn scheme is one of the main components of the €35bn being mobilized by the government for ‘Investments for the future’, and includes €750m earmarked for the development of new ways of promoting and digitizing cultural, educational or scientific content. The digitization of the books will enable content to be exploited by means of a common management structure, guaranteeing publishers and authors a fair remuneration in line with intellectual property rights. It has also highlighted the fact that copyright law may need to be modified.