In July, I spent a week at the Université Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris, a Science & Medicine University, through the Erasmus Staff Mobility scheme. It was a fantastic opportunity that broadened my perspective on academic librarianship, and I cannot recommend participating in this scheme enough! It took a lot of time, effort and back-and-forth emailing to arrange everything, but it was definitely worth it. As a result of spending a week at the UPMC, I have developed a broader view on the profession, a keener insight into the ethics that we as librarians share no matter what country we are based in, and several worthwhile and exciting ideas to try out in my current workplace and in my future career.
I attended various presentations and Library tours, and got the opportunity to speak to many librarians at the UPMC, all of whom where very helpful and generous with their time. This is a summary of the various themes that were covered and the various libraries I had the opportunity to visit.
The library system in France
The profession of librarian is governed by the state in France, and librarians are directly employed by the state. They need to pass a highly competitive public exam in order to be employed in a library for any other job than shelving. There are four levels of exams:
Candidates need to submit a portfolio prior to the exam, and it consist of an interview, written tests (incl. essays on current affairs and general knowledge), and for the concours A, a translation exercise to demonstrate proficiency in a foreign language. To prepare for the exam, they can do a two year vocational course, or a highly selective master programme, but these are not essential for entry to the profession.
The governance of French libraries is also much more centralised than it is in Britain. Public libraries, including heritage libraries (“bibliothèques municipales classes”) are governed by the so-called “collectivités territoriales”, and there is a general library inspection (the I.G.B. or the Inspection générale des bibliothèques), which university libraries are also subject to (created in 1822). This is organised by the Ministère de l’enseignement supérieur et de la recherche (Ministry for Higher Education and Research), which is responsible for university libraries, inter-university libraries, and libraries of big public establishment (such as the library of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle), and libraries of research institutions. For each inspection round, they focus on a particular mission, such as new services or e-resoures, and evaluate libraries according to this aspect. They also publish reports on national progress being made. The national libraries in France, such as the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the Bibliothèque publique d’information (which acts as a laboratory for new services for public libraries), are also governed by the ministère de culture.
Libraries in Higher Education are managed by Mission de l’information scientifique et technique et du réseau documentaire (MISTRD), part of the Ministère de l’enseignement supérieur et de la recherche, a body charged with managing scholarly information and the information resource network. One of the institutions that supports academic libraries is the agence bibliographique de l’enseignement supérieur (ABES), which compiles the SUDOC, the union catalogue of French university libraries, shares bibliographical records, and “implements the national strategy defined by the French Ministry for Higher Education and Research”. Their responsibilities also include setting up a thesis portal and negotiating national licences. They are also supported by the Centre Technique du Livre de l’Enseignement Supérieur (CTLES), whose mission it is to formulate and carry out a conservation strategy for France’s university library collections. They provide temporary and permanent storage space for university libraries.
The Libraries of the UPMC
A few facts about the University and its libraries:
- There are 31,000 students (of which there are 10,000 medical students, and 21,000 science students). 17,000 students are registered readers.
- There are 27 libraries at the BUPMC, overseen by a senior Library management team
- The libraries are divided by level and by discipline. Thus, for each discipline, there is a “bibliothèque enseignement” (“teaching library”) and a “bibliothèque recherce” (research library). The former are used by undergraduate students, the latter by postgraduate students and researchers. In addition, there is a Bibliothèque Licence 1 & 2 (L1L2) scientifique, which serves first and second year science students. They are in the process of regrouping the libraries on the Jussieu campus (the main campus) into one big teaching library, one library dedicated to first years, and the various research libraries.
- There are 15 associated libraries, all of laboratories and institutions, with which they collaborate
- There are 140 Library staff
- Surprisingly, most libraries close at 5. Only the L1-L2 library is open until 9 on weekdays, but it is closed on Sundays.
Many of the objectives for the UPMC libraries for the following years will sound familiar to British academic librarians: extending opening hours, opening a learning centre, further embedding information literacy training into the University curricula, developing the e-library, setting up an institutional repository, adopting a discovery tool, introducing RFID, making the catalogue accessible to Google and various web 2.0 related projects (setting up a Facebook page, setting up a virtual reference librarian service). They are also looking to extend their collection of foreign language materials, and they want to evaluate services more regularly (they undertook a libqual survey two years ago).
The view from the senior Library management staff offices. Only slightly jealous!
The Jubilothèque is the online library of digitised materials. It was set up in 2007 using the open course software pleade. It only contains items no longer in copyright, and includes:
- Classic texts of the 19th century in Physics and Chemistry
- 18th – early 20th century monographs on Geology
- 19th century regional Geology works
- All 19th century theses written at the Paris Faculty of Science
- The Charcot (a 19th century neurologist and bibliophile) collection, consisting of his publications and personal papers
- The Giard (a 19th century French zoologist) collection
- The publications of the Société géologique de France
The Library collaborated with academics to set up the Jubilothèque, and they provided the explanations of the collections. Half of the budget for the digitisation effort was received from the Bibliothèque nationale de France, and the UPMC are currently in the process of putting in a bid for funding from BSN5, an institution set up by the Ministry for Higher Education and Research whose goal it is to create a digital scientific library. The University pays to have all content preserved by the Centre informatique national de l’enseignement supérieur, which acts as a data repository for permanent archiving. The content can be accessed through various channels: the Jubilothèque, Gallica, Medica (an e-library for medicine students), and Sudoc (the union catalogue) and they are in the process of putting links into Wikipedia articles.
The Jubiloteque homepage
Information literacy instruction
The information literacy instruction at the UPMC is coordinated by five référents, who do this alongside their other responsibilities:
- Sciences Licence (= undergraduate)
- Sciences Master
- Sciences PhD
- Researchers and lecturers
I spoke to Guillaume Delaunay, who is the référent for Medicine. As such, he contacts lecturers to arrange teaching sessions, designs lessons and develops teaching materials, and organises training sessions for Librray staff who want to teach these sessions (this is done on a voluntary basis). They also employ PhD students to teach these sessions, and they count towards the hours of teaching they have to complete as part of their PhD.
Library staff, having found that the traditional lecture format, which is prevalent in French universities, does not work well for info skills sessions, are seeking to make them more interactive. An approach that they have tried is learning through teaching, which was also discussed at LILAC 2013 by Thomasson & Wernbro at the University of Chalmers in Sweden. Students are divided into groups, and each group has to complete a number of exercises on a topic within their discipline, and then do a presentation on the research process to the rest of the group. The Librarian then comments, and provides a summary at the end of the session. Overall, although a lot of work is involved, the staff at UPMC have found that it works well, and that it is much more enjoyable than lecture-type sessions. Moreover, students who had attended these types of sessions scored significantly better in the tests that they have to complete at the end of the session (they have to research a topic and complete a bibliography) than students who had attended traditional sessions.
The information literacy sessions that they designed follow a constructive approach in a series of workshops that is much more structured than the ad hoc training that is usually provided at UK university libraries. For example, this is the training that is on offer for medicine students:
- Introduction to literature searching and medical information (3 hrs)
- Using catalogues of medicine libraries (1hr 30)
- Using Jubil, the UPMC library catalogue (1 hr)
- Databases for medicine (1 hr 30)
- Medical information and keeping up to date (includes Open Access and RSS feeds)(1 hr 30)
- Evaluating medical information on the internet (1 hr)
- Referencing and creating a bibliography (includes Zotero) (3 hrs)
- Scholarly communication in medicine (includes bibliometrics, copyright, Open Access, repositories, creative commons, the publication process) (3 hrs)
One of the things they do that struck me as particularly helpful was the collation of statistics for how many students and staff received information literacy instruction. These can be used to show discrepancies, and help the Library to prioritise and focus efforts. These numbers can also be used to demonstrate value to the wider University community.
For some courses, modules like these are obligatory, but librarians are finding it difficult to get students to attend for whom it is not a requirement. In order to increase attendance rates, information skills sessions are also offered as part of the Certification Informatique et Internet (C2i), another initiative from the ministère de l’enseignement supérieur et de la recherche. This computer skills and digital literacies programme, at the end of which students receive a nationally recognised certificate, is aimed at students and teachers in Higher Education. They are also looking at several options for offering online information literacy modules.
The low number of academic staff that were reached led to the introduction of the Midis de la biblio in 2012-13, which consists of lunchtime sessions covering topics like Open Access, bibliometrics, Zotero, and the advanced use of databases. This programme has been much more successful, and struck me as a great way to engage academic staff with the work of the Library.
The 2012-13 programme for the Midis de la Biblio
Library visit: the bibliothèque de Mathématiques-informatique Recherche (Maths & Computer Science Research Library)
I was given a tour of the Mathematics research library, which was recently refurbished. I was impressed by the size of the collections: they hold 81,700 volumes, and subscribe to 1,266 journals. Throughout the Library, they had used a consistent colour scheme, and the usability of the Library was much enhanced by clear, consistent and professional-looking signage. The study spaces all had individual desk lights and power sockets, and even though the Library is located partly below ground floor level, the lights and windows that the architects had designed created the impression of a light, open space. In fact, this Library is so popular that it is regularly visited by students of other subject areas as a place to study!
It was also interesting to hear that academics were very much involved in the design of the Library, For example, they requested that a special type of shelving units were bought, which can be easily lifted by a forklift and carried to the safety of a higher floor in case of flooding (the University is situated near the banks of the Seine). There is also a committee of academics who send book requests to the Library – they seem to view it very much as ‘their’ library. This is very different from my experience of the UK libraries where I have worked, which mainly target students. They often lack dedicated services and training for academic staff and researchers, and in my opinion this makes it more difficult to promote our value as an academic library and justify the expenses involved in running the library.
I loved the signage in this library!
Library visit: the CADIST Library for geosciences, environmental studies and maps
The Ministère de l’enseignement supérieur et de la recherche. appointed 25 so-called CADIST libraries in 1980 for each subject area, to create highly specialised research libraries that can serve the whole of France. CADIST stands for Centre d’acquisition et de diffusion de l’information scientifique et technique, and these libraries receive a copy of items published in France through legal deposit, and a direct grant from the government to make further purchases of mainly foreign language material – 80% of their collection is in English.
As the CADIST library for geosciences and environmental studies, this Library has a dual mission:
- As a CADIST, it serves the whole of France as the most specialised research library for geosciences and environmental sciences. In this capacity, they deal with 2000 ILL requests a year, and many external readers visit the Library.
- As one of the 27 University Libraries, it serves the students and researchers of the UPMC. Like in all other research libraries at the UPMC, membership is available only to students from Master level onwards.
As a CADIST library they are also associated with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, who collaborate with them to digitise parts of their collections for Gallica, the national catalogue of digitised work (I highly recommend having a look at Gallica – it is a true treasure trove, and in its vaste scope and ambition unparalled in Britain). I was also interested to hear that they make use of a shared storage facility in Marne-la-Vallée, just outside of Paris, for all Parisian University libraries. I think that British universitity libraries could learn from these types of collaborations to solve problems common to all libraries.
Library visit: Charcot
This heritage Library, which comprises the personal collection of the 19th century neurologist and bibliophile Jean-Martin Charcot, is tucked away in a room in a newly-built commercial institute on the hospital campus. It has been there since 2012. The collection is varied, and includes correspondence with Sigmund Freud, runs of 19th century journals that are now being digitised, and early printed books on medicine and science. Having spent a few months volunteering at the amazing Wellcome Library, this collection really appealed to me, and I could see a lot of potential for outreach activities and exhibitions. The collection is still in the process of being catalogued, and it is not yet very well known amongst researchers. It is not consulted very often, apart from the photographic studies of hysterical patients, which are often consulted by artists as inspiration for their work.
Some of the early printed books
The Charcot Library
Library visit: la bibliothèque de Mathématiques-informatique enseignement (Maths teaching library)
This library had recently been completely refurbished. The signage, the same as in the bibliothèque de Mathématiques-informatique recherche, was consistent throughout, and subjects and disciplines were clearly indicated with signs on the wooden shelves, which created a warm and welcoming atmosphere. Impractical though it may be, I wish more libraries had wooden shelving! A nice detail was the board games corner, which had proved to be very popular with students looking for a break from studying.
Group study rooms on the left, lovely wooden bookshelves on the right
Library visit: la bibliothèque de Licence 1&2
This is the Library for first and second year undergraduate students. Again a modern, bright library, with a lot of colourful furniture. This library stocks textbooks, books on study and career skills, and fiction, comics and DVDs to help students relax (this collection is very popular!). The librarian remarked that lecturers are not very good at creating reading lists and sending them to the Library, so they buy copies of all French textbooks in their subjects. This collection policy seemed ineffective and possible wasteful to me, but of course many fewer textbooks are published in French than in English. Nevertheless, it has become clear to me during my visit that the UPMC libraries could benefit from dedicated liaison roles, such as have become common in British university libraries.
Library visit: la Bibliothèque nationale de France
I could not go to Paris and not visit the BnF, the French equivalent of the British Library. The main site of the BnF (site François-Mitterand, opened in 1996), with its bewildering architecture of four towers connected by walkways, was a fascinating place to visit. It houses a myriad of subject-specific reading rooms, exhibition spaces, a bookshop, a cafe, and even a massive urban garden. The dual structure that I encountered at the libraries of the UPMC is also present here: it is divided into the Reference Library, housed on the site I visited and accessible to the general public, and the Research Library, housed at the François-Mitterrand and three other Libraries in central Paris. Applicants for a reader’s card for these collections must provide their motivation for wanting to consult the collections. I was particularly intrigued by the multimedia space, in which visitors can test a range of technologies to access texts, such as tablets with Gallica loaded onto them, an Xbox and a range of ereaders.
The multimedia room
Two of the four BnF towers. I must say I prefer the architecture of the BL!
Library visit: la Bibliothèque publique d’information
The BPI, housed in the iconic Centre Pompidou, is the biggest public library in France. It serves as a laboratory for all public libraries in France, regularly testing new services and even employing researchers to analyse user behaviour. It seems that public libraries are valued much more in France than they are in Britain, and they remain very popular with the general public. I was told that people queue to around the corner in the mornings at 10 when the BPI opens its doors! Their collection comprises general works as well as academic works. They are also one of the only providers of free internet in Paris, and there was a long queue of those unable to afford the internet, waiting to make use of one of the BPI’s computers.
I picked up several common themes during my visit to the UPMC. Here as well as in Britain, change is one of the only constants in libraries, and being an effective librarian requires above all a high degree of flexibility and a willingness to experiment and innovate, something which I felt the UPMC was particularly good at. One of the main differences between the UPMC and the universities I have worked at was that the UPMC libraries lay a much greater emphasis on supporting researchers. The large majority of their budgets is spent on research materials, and their research libraries are modern, bright buildings that attract academics from the UPMC and beyond. The distinction they make between teaching and research libraries, which as far as I am aware does not exist in Britain but appeared to be fairly common in France, is one way to solve the issues associated with serving a diverse community. The information needs of students and academics are very different, and academics are disinclined to visit a Library that they perceive to be a study space for students. I think more should be done to engage academics and to promote what the Library can do for them. I also encountered the same issues with the promotion of the importance of information literacy, although France seems to be further ahead in this aspect with the incorporation of information literacy into the curriculum for the Certification Informatique et Internet. National initiatives such as this go some way in supporting academic libraries in France, and it is a pity that no such system exists in the UK,
Indeed, it struck me that the direct involvement of the government in funding, creating and inspecting academic and public libraries ensures that libraries are held in high regard in France. In academic libraries, the centralisation of the higher education system means that there is much less duplication of effort and of stock through concentrated collaboration efforts. This stands in stark contrast to the situation in the UK, where increasingly corporatised universities view other institutions like competitors rather than partners in the creation, diffusion and furthering of knowledge, an evolution that is set to become even more pronounced in the future thanks the disastrous HE reforms that were pushed through by the current government. In a culture in which libraries are considered to be part of the public good, like they are in France, it is easier for librarians to not only support the community they serve, but to reach beyond the walls of the institution and fulfill their potential by contributing to society at large.