The BnF

From the royal book collections to the BnF

The Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), so called since 1994, is the national library of the French Republic; It received as a legacy the royal collections gathered since the late Middle Ages.

From the royal collections to the legal deposit

Charles the 5th and his bookwheel. John of Salisbury (1115 ? – 1180) Policraticus. France (Paris), towards 1372.

Charles the 5th and his bookwheel. John of Salisbury (1115 ? – 1180) Policraticus. France (Paris), towards 1372. Digitized and available in Gallica.

During the reign of Charles the 5th, a special room was fit out to house a collection of 917 books. From then on, the Kings of France were all very keen to gather their books in their own ‘Librairie’.

By order of December the 28th, 1537, King François 1st introduces a new principle that charges all printers and booksellers to deposit at the ‘librairie’ of the Blois castle any printed book for sale in the kingdom. This obligation known as the legal deposit stands for a major phase in the history of the royal library. Brought back to Paris during the second half of the 16th century, it does not easily undergo war religions.

The Library really grows only from 1666 under the direction of Colbert whose ambition is to make it a tool in praise of Louis the 14th. The library is set up in the district where it is still today, the collections that could not be housed in the Louvre being moved. Colbert carries on a policy to increase the number of collections, buying or receiving as bequests numerous private libraries.

The period of famous librarians

Northern façade of the courtyard of the royal library. Robert de Cotte, towards 1734

Northern façade of the courtyard of the royal library. Robert de Cotte, towards 1734

In a few decades, the library becomes the biggest in Europe. The Abbé Bignon, appointed librarian ton the king in 1719, is going to provide the library with an unprecedented reputation. He organizes it in several departments and continues the work of his predecessors in terms of acquisition of documents; all works by European scholars should be part of the library. He is also concerned with the necessity to make it available to scholars but also to simple visitors.

The Revolution’s upheaval

Demolition of the Bastille. Print, 1789.

Demolition of the Bastille. Print, 1789.

The French Revolution has a strong effect on the library. The legal deposit is abolished during three years. Yet, the collections of the Royal Library, that has become the National Library, are considerably enriched because of confiscations carried out in France and abroad: church properties, émigrés’ libraries, princes’ private collections… The private libraries of Louis the 16th, Marie-Antoinette, Madame Elisabeth are so added to the national collections.

From modernization efforts to the 19th century

Photography of the Labrouste room in the 19th century

Photography of the Labrouste room in the 19th century

Because of confiscations, a huge quantity of documents is added to the collections which exacerbates the lack of space already suffered by the library. The first half of the 19th century is a long period of trial and error. In 1858, a commission led by Prosper Mérimée draws up a report about the changes to make in the organization of the imperial library. His suggestions are partly accepted by Napoleon the 3rd who entrusts the architect Henri Labrouste with the reconstruction of a part of the existing buildings at the place. His name remains essentially connected to the construction of the room dedicated to Printed books (1868) for which cast iron is widely used.

Léopold Delisle, medievalist and Librarian general, will carry on the recovery. From 1874, he launches the achievement of the Catalogue général des livres imprimés; the ‘Authors’ part will not be carried out before until 1981. The famous bequest made by Victor Hugo in 1881 encourages the administration to start a policy of acquisitions in the field of literary manuscripts.

A growing number of collections and more and more users

Jukebox ‘Music Maker’. 20th century

Jukebox ‘Music Maker’. 20th century

During the 20th century, the library never ceases to grow: construction of three annexes in Versailles (1934, 1954, 1971), then in Sablé in 1980 and Provins in 1981; opening of various bibliographic information rooms and reading rooms… But this expansion is not enough to solve storage problems due to the rise in the printed production (for example, there 12 414 works received on legal deposit in 1880 and 45 000 in 1993). Collections are more and more numerous and new types of medium (audiovisual materials more particularly) confront the staff with difficult preservation problems. The number of seats available for readers has become insufficient.

Despite the efforts made in terms of modernization and digitization, it is difficult for the institution to adapt to the new context of printed production and to fulfill users’ needs.

Birth of the BnF

François-Mitterrand Library

François-Mitterrand Library

They occur at a time when scientific and technical changes provide new opportunities to fulfill its missions, whether in the field of preservation or in the field of access to documents.

In particular, computer tools and progress in telecommunications offer new opportunities to manage and locate the collections. Combined with the digitization of texts and images, they enrich research and reading practices; they also offer the opportunity to send a document to a remote user. The Bibliothèque nationale de France is part of a new generation of libraries that are born in the United-States, Great-Britain, Germany, Japan and Alexandria.

On July the 14th, 1988, during the usual TV interview in the Elysée gardens, the President of the Republic, François Mitterrand, announces “the construction of one of the biggest - if not the biggest - and most modern libraries worldwide… (that) shall cover all fields of knowledge, be available to all, use the most modern technologies of data transmission, offer remote consultation et work in collaboration with other European libraries.” Users and library professionals are both surprised by the announcement. In fact, a new ‘grand projet’ (major project) has just been launched.

The site eventually selected for the construction is located near the Seine river, in the 13th district of Paris. In August 1989, the project of the architect Dominique Perrault is chosen by the President of the Republic among the projects formerly chosen by an international jury.

On December the 20th, 1996, the Haut-de-Jardin level (Reference Library) of François-Mitterrand Library opens.

On October the 8th, 1998, the opening of the Rez-de-Jardin level (Research Library) marks the fulfillment of this ‘grand projet’.

See also

Le décret n° 2006-1365 du 9 novembre 2006 modifiant le décret n° 94-3 du 3 janvier 1994 portant création de la Bibliothèque nationale de France

Tuesday, March 4, 2014