The Bibliothèque Alexis de Tocqueville, Caen's new library

Caen, 3 June 2017

Geneviève was anxious to show us Caen's new showpiece, the Bibliothèque Alexis de Tocqueville which stands by the port – at present rather remote from the town centre.

Bibliotheque Alexis de Tocqueville. View from port basin, Caen, France.
We had heard much about its planning and construction and it had not been without controversy. One friend told us that it was a library for a town of 2,000,000 people rather than for a community of 200,000. Certainly it was a structure of the type of Grand Designs that France tends to go in for. It does not shout library – perhaps supermarket or hotel – but it is certainly impressive, so we were anxious to see inside.

Bibliotheque Alexis de Tocqueville. Model of library, Caen, France.
It is in the form of a Saint Andrew's cross and the ground floor still gives little impression of it being a library. A large part of the ground floor is taken up by a restaurant, open longer hours than the library and rather expensive, and also meeting halls, banks of lockers and a few scattered chairs and periodical racks – making up the newspaper and periodicals room, also open longer hours than the main library, which is reached by an escalator.

Bibliotheque Alexis de Tocqueville. Entrance hall, Caen, France.
The main library is on the first floor, a massive room taking up most of the floor area. Each of the arms of the Saint Andrew's cross is designated a different pole: arts, human sciences, literature and science and technology. Within each pole lending and a few reference works are integrated on the shelves and enquiry desks are scattered in each of the poles, as are computer catalogues and seating.

Bibliotheque Alexis de Tocqueville. Main concourse from second floor, Caen, France.

Bibliotheque Alexis de Tocqueville. Pole of literature from tiered seating, Caen, France.
Some of the seating is very relaxing, hexagonal boxes with cushions, ideal for curling up with a book smartphone. The computers were well used for consulting catalogues and reference materials playing wargames. At the far end of the literature pole there were tiers of seating with cushions along the lower levels where users could sit and discuss literature curl up and sleep. In fairness, though this was seen, the library was well used and the majority of visitors were intent on accessing books or CDs and other materials.

Bibliotheque Alexis de Tocqueville. Regional fiction in the literature pole with tiered seating behind, Caen, France.
But Ian was intent on testing this magnificent library as a mystery shopper. Where was the local studies collection? In the human sciences pole an exhibition on Samuel Bochart, an 18th century Caen academician, was scattered among the shelves beside a long white wall, with cases showing early books from the collection. This might be a clue.

Bibliotheque Alexis de Tocqueville. Exhibition of early books, Caen, France.
At one end of the white wall was a small gap beside the massive floor to ceiling glass windows. This led into a short passage with no signs of any kind, then a corner and another passage leading to glass doors behind which was a small room, its shelves largely empty but with a few general reference books and three or four shelves filled with a few bibliographies and reference works relating to Normandy. There were a few study tables and an unstaffed desk.

Bibliotheque Alexis de Tocqueville. Local studies reference collection, Caen, France.
Back in the human sciences pole he asked to see the local studies collection. What do you want to see? To check periodical runs to locate articles in the way that was possible in the old library. All material in the Normandy Collection is in store and has to be fetched out. There were local items, mainly lending material, on the open shelves, but these were scattered across the four poles of the main hall.

Bibliotheque Alexis de Tocqueville. One of the four lending collections of Normandy books, this one in the arts pole, Caen, France.
He went to another enquiry point to ask to see the Encyclopédie Larousse. "Interesting question", said the librarian, tapping the keyboard. A little later she went to find a colleague who said that this too was in the store, which volume was required? The volumes that gave concise biographies of a range of 18th century French writers. To their credit, they did not suggest Wikipedia but pointed in the direction of an encyclopaedic dictionary in the language section.

So, while the library failed these more traditional types of enquiry in a way that the old library didn't, it does reveal many of the same trends that seem to be afflicting libraries everywhere. It had found funding for a grand building, as have public libraries in England – for example in Birmingham, or for refurbishment, in Exeter, but like them Caen faces challenges in funding for staffing and resources, with digital technology the elephant in the room. Gone are the reference section and other special departments – except for children's. Gone is an obvious presence of specialist staff. Gone is the reliance on a single arrangement – good old Dewey with all its faults. It is replaced by confusing categorisation – two layers of mystery to penetrate instead of one - and the dispersal of special collections such as local studies. The reference section has not been replaced by an expert enquiry service that integrates all bookstock and on-line resources. In Caen at least the main thrust of the library project seems to have been to produce a building designed to impress without much thought as to what goes on inside it – a children's section right up on the second floor and dwarfed by the heavy architecture of the roof, the magnificent historical collections without a proper reading room or exhibition area, the periodicals room moved away from the main entrance after it was found that draught through the door scattered the newspapers, the restaurant taking up half the ground floor – it would be better exchanged for the children's section.

Bibliotheque Alexis de Tocqueville. Children's section on the second floor under the roof, Caen, France.
There was certainly not the feeling of envy that Devon librarians felt back in the late 1970s when they visited the library in Caen that the new building has now replaced, more a feeling that the millions of Euros could have been better used than to erect quite such an ostentatious display of civic prestige – Exeter has managed to achieve much the same result a great deal more cheaply. But then perhaps, forty years on Ian has become a grumpy old man.