Art, music and retro concrete at Lyon Public Library

Having said I wouldn’t blog about libraries… I visited the central branch of the Lyon Public Library (Bibliothèque municipale de Lyon) this week and found my visual antennae twitching.

The facade is ‘Municipal Moderne’ with grey cladding and diagonal angles that would look at home in Melbourne.

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Near the entrance, a temporary exhibition showcases some of the library’s treasures, which are indeed remarkable. France is unusual in that after the national library, it is the city libraries (rather than university libraries) that hold the most significant collections of rare books. Lyon is France’s second largest metropolitan centre and its library has a venerable history, with collections dating back to the 5th and 6th centuries. I didn’t take many photos in the exhibition; the lighting was dim and my phone’s camera wouldn’t do justice to the beautiful books and artwork.

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The death mask of French revolutionary Marat.

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Illuminated 1001 Nights.

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I love these metal die used to stamp ornate gold embossing into leather book binding.

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A metal plate used to print sheet music covers.

Moving into the library, the theme is concrete brutalist, all hard surfaces and slabs. There’s a lobby area with some modern seating, street-art inspired murals and a wall of PCs.

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My first impression was that the architecture is harsh and institutional. But as I moved into the heart of the building, I started to get it. This is a 1970s building that was cutting edge in its day. It’s a little shabby around the edges, but I started to see and appreciate the structure, the ‘101 decorative uses for concrete’, and the warmer timber details. I later did some research; opened in 1972, Lyon’s new library was the first of a wave of major building projects that radically modernised municipal libraries in France in the 1970s and 1980s.

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The library is furnished with colourful modern seating and tables. I like the shelves, which are open, matte black or silver, with an industrial vibe. One space has curved shelving.
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Having come to the library with little knowledge of its collections, I was surprised at the size and prominence of the arts and music collections. At the conference in Lyon, a speaker from Lyon Public Library mentioned that 20% of the city budget is spent on cultural initiatives – an astonishing percentage by Australian standards. The value placed on culture is evident at the library.

The first thing I spotted was the large lending collection of original artwork.

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There is an extensive collection of hardover graphic novels.
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The music collection is massive – more like a specialist CD shop – and includes sheet music, libretti and instructional books. A touch-screen listening post lets users sample CDs from the collection.

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I heard later that there is a children’s area in the basement, but unfortunately I didn’t see it as I was winding my way up via the central staircase. At the top is the heritage centre, complete with the card catalogue of a 500,000 item collection donated by the Jesuits (the catalogue is also available online).

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Although I found the library hard to ‘read’ at first, I came away intrigued by its architecture and impressed by its commitment to enriching the cultural life of its community.