Although both the recently opened British Library and the just completed Bibliothèque Nationale have been criticized for extravagant design, late delivery and cost overruns, London's library now seems to be working to everybody's satisfaction, whereas the French installation has proven to be more faulty than even its worst critics feared. Conceived in haste as a monument to President François Mitterrand and entrusted to a young architect who confessed that he had no particular expertise in library design, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF) opened to fanfare at the end of October-and quickly shut down again. With books stored in glass towers at the four corners and reading rooms at street level, the project presented an unprecedented challenge to those responsible for the conservation and communication of the nation's printed heritage.

The problem of getting those books down from the towers to the ground-floor reading rooms proved all but insurmountable, while the design of the stacks made it impossible to handle emergencies manually. Meanwhile, library staffers found themselves relegated to unheated, windowless work spaces. They quickly leaked reports of the mangling of precious books and manuscripts and of malfunctioning conveyors (apparently hardware and software were chosen because they were French, though not necessarily world-class).,P.In the end, and after a fortnight during which protesting personnel kept the library closed, the nonspecialists at the top yielded to reason. Although the library is expected to reopen shortly, no one really believes it will work as well as the old one; from now on, Parisian library users will have to wait longer for fewer books.