There are around 16,000 public bibliothèques and médiathèques (lending libraries) in France, containing 156 million books, 12.7 million audio recordings and 4.1 million videos.
Some 17% of the population belong to a library, the vast majority of which are managed by local municipalities. This is in addition to university and research libraries.
In many ways, they act as gateways and guides to culture in France.
The government is currently actively supporting moves to extend opening hours of small local libraries, as well as modernising premises and adding new services.
To join, you usually need to show recent proof of address (a utilities bill should suffice) and ID.
It can be well worth the effort, as libraries in France offer a great deal of other services beyond the bookshelves.
1. Borrow art
The brainchild of writer/politician André Malraux (Georges Pompidou’s culture minister), the first artothèque was founded in 1961 in Le Havre, Normandy. Today, there are more than 30 across the country, while a number of private businesses offer similar services.
Working like a normal book library, modern art paintings and sculptures are available for short-term loan for a relatively moderate fee to members of the public, businesses, organisations and schools.
2. Do your admin
Some librarians can offer help with job-hunting or dealing with bureaucracy.
3. Entertain the kids
Access services for children as young as pre-school age, such as storytelling sessions on Wednesdays or weekends.
4. Order books
If you are looking for something specific, many libraries will transfer it from another library for you.
5. Check out the noticeboard
Find out about other cultural events and services in your area. This is the place to discover amateur dramatics groups, painting classes and bilingual shows.
6. Join a grainothèque
A recent innovation is seed libraries. Usually housed in a small drawer, these consist of envelopes filled with seeds.
Simply select the one you would like to grow and, when the plants produce seeds, you ‘return’ them to the library.
7. Do some research
It can be tempting to think everything you need to know is available online, but librarians are trained to help with original research – especially valuable for local history projects, for example.
Libraries have information on CD-ROMS, and will show you how to use them.
Also remember that churches keep records of weddings, funerals and baptisms.
8. Get studying
Most libraries have tables to do homework or essays – even write a book undistracted.
9. Borrow toys and games
Many libraries lend toys, games and even video games, especially those designed to support learning – an ideal way to occupy bored children at home.
10. Join a book club
See if your library runs a book club, which can be a great way to meet like-minded people and discover new authors. Librarians can also help with the latter.
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11. Read all about it
Read or borrow magazines and newspapers.
12. Organise outreach services
Many libraries have trucks kitted out as mobile libraries and will organise visits to prisons, schools, retirement homes etc.
13. Go online
Libraries often have computers and printers to use and librarians can help track down documents and information online.
14. Learn French
Get suggestions for resources to support efforts to learn French, or other languages.
15. Get creative
Some libraries run yarn bombing (tricot-grafitti) sessions, where participants knit or crochet decorations to attach to local street furniture or trees.
16. Find support for reading difficulties
Look out for designated Facile à lire books and other services supporting adult literacy.