Show Notes for Episode 461: Bibliothèque Nationale de France


There are illiterate owners who have scrolls for show – by now, like bathrooms and hot water, a library is got up as a standard equipment of a fine house (Seneca, Roman Republic)



The Bibliothèque Nationale Mitterand

Quai François Mauriac, 6th : open tuesday-saturday 9h-20h: sunday 13h-19h

The Mazarine Library (the French Institute)

23, Quai de Conti, 6th : open Monday-Friday 10h-18h

The BnF Richelieu

5 rue Vivienne, 2nd: open tuesday 10h-20h: wednesday – saturday 9h-20h, sunday 13h-19h

The Saint Genevieve Library (public and university library of Paris)

10, Place du Pantheon, 5th : Monday – Saturday 13h-19h


The history of libraries goes back to the beginning of writing. The concept of gathering together texts or documents seems to be ancient and was used as a source of information and a source of prestige.There are famous ,mythic libraries ,like the Alexandrian Library founded by the Greek Ptolomeic dynasty and the Great Library of Constantinople founded by Constantine.

In France, the first recorded library is credited to Clovis, the Frankish king who converted to Christianity in the 500’s. He created a library at the Abbey of Saint Genevieve on the hill next to what is now the Pantheon. Because, at that time, all texts were manuscripts hand copied by scribes who took an average of 6 months to make one book, the total estimated number of texts in his famous library was just about 225 manuscripts.

Even as late as the 12th century, when there were many scriptoria all over France, an important collection of texts was never more than several hundred titles: usually Bibles, ecclesiastic texts and works of philosophy from the “ancients”.

The Library of the University of Paris was FAMOUS, in the early 1200’s, throughout Europe for its collection with several hundred works! And it was the Bishops and Abbotts who decided what texts were to be copied and made available. They used parchment and each work was so precious that the scrolls or cunabula (parchment in book form) were attached with  a chain to a desk or wall. It was considered to be a Cardinal Sin to steal a text and a person could be excommunicated for doing so.


Charles V who reigned in the middle of the 1300’s was the first French king to make a special room in the Louvre for his books. At a time when even much of the nobility was semi-literate, he was an exception. It is estimated that he accumulated a collection of over 1200 manuscriptes and scrolls and was very proud of his library. He had texts translated into French so that his subjects could read them, not just the clergy and the nobility.Although time, war and cultural changes have destroyed much of his collection, there are 15 or so still in existence in the famous Mitterand Library


The 1400’s saw a revolution in book making with the advent of the printing press. Although there were still many books copied by hand, it was now possible to produce many more and that made books accessible to those who could read and had enough money to order a book.

In the 1500’s, the king, François I, a cultured and intellectually curious man, decided that he wanted to create a large, prestigious library in his castle of Blois. He made a law called the Dépôt Légal that required that all printers and centers of text – making give 1 copy of every work they made to his new library. This law, the Dépôt Légal existed in one form or another until 1810. It was revised in a less rigid form later on. This was the beginning of the ROYAL LIBRARY


Not to be outdone by  his illustrious ancestor, Louis XIV decided, with the aide of his Finance Minister, Colbert, to transfer the Royal Library to Paris. In 1666 a depot was created in a mansion in the Vivienne area of Paris (behind what is now the Palais Royal) – this is now the Richelieu Library. By 1719 it had become the most important collection of books in Europe, with texts from many other countries and works in all domaines.


The Abbott Bignon, a very learned man, was given carte blanche and he was the person responsible for the framework and organization of the Royal Library that became the standard for all libraries today. Texts were organized by subject matter, with departments for books in different languages as well. He helped gather together a collection of foreign language texts, scientific texts, philosophical texts, etc.

He made the Royal Library accessible to intellectuals and “savant’s for free, and declared that the literate and curious could come and have access to  texts. It is estimated that overe 100 people a day passed through the library, including such intellectuals and writers as Voltaire and Rousseau.


During the French Revolution, starting in 1790, masses of books and precious texts were “confiscated” from noble and aristocratic families.  Thousands of texts were taken from the hundreds of monasteries and scriptoria throughout France. These books were not destroyed but were added to the famous Royal collection which became the National Collection.

The new National Library suddenly regorged with thousands and thousands of new texts. Some were given to museums and other libraries throughout France while the majority stayed in Paris.

To add to this enormous collection, Napoleon I, on campaign throughout Europe, “confiscated”, that is pillaged, thousands of works in Belgium, Germany, Italy and Holland. In Cologne alone, 25 cases of books were taken. These were added to the National Library (which became very temporarily the Imperial Library)

The Legal Dept law was abolished for a short time but then reinstated in 1810 and became the rule of law: all books that are published have an example in the archives of the national library.


In the middle of the 1800’s a commission wrote a report that the National Library needed to be renovated, expanded and eventually moved. The new Emperor  Napoleon III hired an architect named Labrouste to  reconstruct a part of the big reading room for printed matter and he created the huge structure that is still the main reading room today. In 1874 Leopold Delisle created the first General Catalogue of Printed Books. This catalogue was revised every year from then on until 1981

Every year huge collections were added to the already enormous list of the National Library. Sometimes by  personal donation like the huge manuscripts of Victor Hugo, or the legacy of the Duke of Chantilly. Annexes were created in Versailles and elsewhere.


By the end of the 20th century it was time to create a new space to house the more than 20 million texts and documents that are the property of the National Library

François MItterand, President starting in 1981, made it his “life’s” project, to  create a new spacious depository for the monumental collection. The new library, called the Frederic Mitterand Library as part of the B n F was completed and opened in 1996 on the banks of the Seine River in the 13th arrondissement. This space, designed by a French architect named Dominique Perrault, is in the shape of four books placed around a central garden space. This library is absolutely monumental!

The buildings are 22 floors high. There are 400 km of book stacks. The stockage space is 57,000 m2 (513,000 sq ft) and the lecture rooms make for a total of 54,000 m2 (486,000 sq ft). The central garden is 2,2 acres of greenery.

Besides the BnF Mitterand, a monument to the printed word, the BnF Richelieu has just re-opened after 11 years of renovation. It specializes in the Arts, Music, Maps, Coins, Prints and Photography and has research facilities with a museum and a huge magnificent oval reading room, plus a temporary exhibit space.

The Mazarine Library which dates from the 1600’s and has also been renovated,  is part of the French Academy, and is on the Seine next to the School of Fine Arts. It is considered to be the oldest public library space in France as the Cardinal Mazarine turned his “personal”  library into a space open to the public during his lifetime.   Today it holds over 600,000 volumes and has 2,370 incunabula (made before the printing press) including the original GUTTENBERG BIBLE

The St Genevieve Library is the enormous library system of the University of Paris. It is across from the Pantheon. It is open to the public and houses over 2 million text and documents. It is used by students, scholars, and is also accessible to the general  public. It also has a new building made in the 1800’s by the architect Labrouste.

Not only does Paris abound with wonderful bookstores, but the National Libraries are works of art in and of themselves. A visit to one or more of these “temples of the written word” is a great thing to do as part of your trip to Paris!






Subscribe to the Podcast
Apple Google Spotify RSS
Support the Show
Tip Your Guides Extras Patreon Audio Tours
Read more about this show-notes
Episode Page Transcript