Bibliotheque Nationale de France – Foundation

Bibliotheque Nationale de France
Seen from the Esplanade

The  Bibliotheque Nationale de France or BNF is also known as Bibliothèque François Mitterrand.

The French National Library is one of the largest and most modern libraries in the world.

It opened to the public in December 1996.

The late President Mitterrand initiated project in 1988.

The plans, designed by the architect Dominique Perrault, were selected at the international competition held in 1989.

His design was recognized by the European Union Contemporary Architecture Prize in 1996.

The contemporary architecture of the library is, however, not to the taste of all.

Dominique Perrault’s contemporary architecture

The Bibliotheque Nationale de France is indeed composed of four glass towers representing gigantic open books.

These towers stand at the four corners of a large esplanade covered with wood imported from Brazil.

Bibliotheque Nationale de France
Detail architecture

This wood is indeed known for it exceptional resilience to weather.

The esplanade shelters 7 office floors and 11 floors of book stores located near the reading and research rooms.

A gigantic circulation network allows the books to be transferred between the stores and reading rooms.

The Bibliotheque Nationale de France has two main entrances, one to the east, the other to the west.

The eastern entrance, located near the Metro station Bibliothèque François Mitterrand on Line 14, is obviously the most popular!

The esplanade riverside of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France is also accessible by large steps.

On sunny days, these boast great views of the Seine, Passerelle Simone de Beauvoir and Parc de Bercy on the opposite bank.

The glass and steel contribute to the towers’ light, balance and symmetry; these two elements also contrast with the interior decoration based on woven steel and concrete.

However, these silvery and cold colours are complemented by red carpets and exotic wood furnishings.

The end result is an atmosphere conducive to relaxation for those who come to do some research work.

One of the largest libraries in the world!

Bibliotheque Nationale de France
Detail architecture

The Bibliotheque Nationale de France has over 10 million books and manuscripts.

This public institution is placed under the supervision of the Ministry of Culture.

Its role is to gather all publications made in France and list them in catalogs.

The Bibliotheque Nationale de France owns also 5,000 Greek manuscripts divided into 3 groups:

Ancien Fonds Grec, Fond Coislin and Fonds du Suppplément Grec.

A digital library, Gallica, has been made available to online users since 1997.

Such an organization needs a lot of staff.

2700 employees therefore work at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France!

Bibliotheque Royale

The national library is not recent though.

In the 14th century King Charles V indeed regrouped the important collections of manuscripts accumulated by his predecessors.

He then founded the first ‘royal library’ in the Grosse Tour of the Louvre fortress.

These manuscripts were recorded by the King’s valet, Claude Mallet, who can be considered the first French librarian!

Bibliotheque Nationale de France
Open books

Other lists were created afterwards in order to duly record the royal collections.

The Duke of Bedford acquired these collections in the 15th century after the death of Charles VI.

He took them back to England, where they were (alas!) scattered after his own death!

The invention of the printing press in 1415 allowed King Louis XI to gather new collections, which his successors kept enriching.

Francois I, the great patron of the French Renaissance, added his private collections during the 16th century.

The royal collections were kept in various institutions over the following centuries.

They were also constantly enriched under the supervision of informed librarians.

This unprecedented expansion led Colbert, the minister of Finance of Louis XIV, to transfer the library in a large mansion situated rue Vivienne.

This ‘new library’ was opened to the public in 1692.

The Abbot Bignon, who was the librarian in the early 18th century, revolutionised the recording system.

He indeed created catalogs, where all items were recorded as the collections increased.

Bibliotheque Nationale de France since the Revolution

A true miracle happened during the French Revolution.

Indeed, the librarians Antoine-Augustin Renouard and Joseph Van Preat saved the library from destruction!

Bibliotheque Nationale de France - Seen from Passerelle Simone de Beauvoir
Seen from Passerelle Simone de Beauvoir

Van Preat even managed to increase the number of books and manuscripts by threefold (from 300,000 to 1 million).

He indeed recovered many books from the library of Abbey of St-Germain-des-Prés library, which had been converted into an arsenal and burned after an explosion.

He also recovered countless books from the private libraries of the mansions, chateaux and religious institutions that were then declared ‘State property’.

In 1792, the ‘royal library’ was fully owned by the State and was renamed Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

Napoleon largely contributed to the expansion of the collections during his military campaigns.

However, the books he ‘brought back to France’ were eventually returned to their countries of origin!

He also recovered many books from small provincial libraries.

As a result, the Bibliotheque Nationale de France contained some 650,000 books and 80,000 manuscripts when Van Preat died in 1837!

From Rue de Richelieu to the 13th district

It was then transferred to more adequate premises especially designed by the architect Henri Brousse in Rue de Richelieu.

It became known as Imperial National Library during the reign f Napoleon III then reverted to its current name.

The architect Jean-Louis Pascal enlarged the premises in 1896.

This turned the Bibliotheque Nationale de France into the largest library in the world!

In 1920, it contained 4.05 million books and 11,000 manuscripts!

The collections were steadily reconstituted despite the losses suffered during WWII.

They also needed larger modernised premises!

It was at this point that the rehabilitation project of the industrial district located along the Seine in the 13th district was pooled with the construction of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

The extensive collections, crammed until then in the buildings in rue de Richelieu, were eventually transferred to these new premises!

Directions: 13th district – Quai François Mauriac 
Metro: Bibliothèque François Mitterrand on Line 14
Coordinates: Lat 48.834046 – Long 2.376823

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