A User’s Guide to the Paris Archives, pt. 1: The BnF

It occurred to me the other day that, as far as I know, there’s no equivalent of this piece on the National Archives in Kew for their French equivalents, so this is a short stab at producing one for people who might be as unsure of what they’re doing as I was the first time I came.

The Bibliothèque Nationale is, for most purposes, split over two sites: the Francois Mitterand site on the left bank of the Seine, near Gare d’Austerlitz, and the Richelieu site on the right bank, near the Louvre. It is in the latter site that the manuscripts department makes its home, and so that’s what I’ll be focussing on.

To get in, first you need to register. Actually, first you need to go through a security check – make sure your wallet, phone, keys, etc. are in your bag and that your bag is open – but then you need to register. To do this, you need different documents based on whether you’re a student, a member of the public or a professional researcher. Everyone needs proof of identity – bring a passport. Students will need proof of student status – a student card will probably do the trick, but just in case it might be worth getting a formal letter from your institution to the effect that you’re legit. You’ll also need a letter from your supervisor. Members of the public will need, basically, a list of what they need and a good story at the reception desk, the former being critical. It’s easier for professional researchers (I must say, pleasingly so comparing this time to the last time I came here) – all you need is a staff card from your institution (although to be on the safe side I bought a copy of my employment contract as well).

Then, you need to get in to the manuscripts reading room. First, drop your bags off in the locker room. The lockers run on money – you need a 1 or 2 euro coin, which is refundable. If you haven’t got one, ask at the front desk – they give out little tokens which can be used in place of coins; just be sure to return them at the end of the day. Bags, pens and jackets aren’t allowed in the reading room – leave them in the locker. Happily, the BnF provides nifty plastic laptop-holders which make carrying computers around much easier.

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Neat, huh? 

To get into the reading room, you first need to pass the front desk by the reading room door. To do this, have your reader’s card to hand. You will have to hand it over. Specify as you do so what kind of material you’re here for – manuscripts, books, or microfilms, and whether or not you’ve already reserved them. Then, you’ll be given a laminated red card with a number on it, and a blue piece of paper which lets you pop out to go to the loo (and things like that). The card is important – that is your place. Sit at that place, and not at any other.

Now you can begin to order the documents you want. (Fun, isn’t it?) There are two main types of form: white and green. The green is for reservations in advance. Various documents can’t be ordered for the same day, and are subject to various seemingly-arbitrary periods of delay – check the website to find out the specifics, but most of them are the regional or erudite collections. The white for is for ordering manuscripts and microfilms. Unless you have a special need to see an actual manuscript, you have to see a microfilm if one is available. Fill it out and hand it in at the desk at the back of the room. Here, you will have to hand over your red laminated card. You will be told to sit at your place. If you ordered a microfilm, they will bring it to you. If it’s a manuscript, you’ll get a little piece of paper which you should bring back up to the front desk.

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The Salle de Lecteur, taken from the issues desk at the back of the room (image source)

As microfilms are, if not exactly self-evident, something the librarians usually explain to how to use, let’s assume for the sake of argument that you’ve ordered some physical manuscripts. Once you have it, be sure to rest it on the cushions at each desk, and don’t use pen while taking notes. If you want to take photos of the manuscripts, you need to seek permission from the head of the reading room. I found they were fairly good-natured about this personally. Taking photos of the microfilms appease to be something you can just do, or maybe the staff simply didn’t catch me at it…

Once you’re done with your manuscript (or microfilm), take it up to the desk at the back of the room and swap it out for the next one. You can order five of each type of document per day. After finishing with all of them, tell the staff you’re done and they’ll give you back your red card. Take both your red card and your blue piece of paper back to the front desk, hand them over to the member of staff there, and your reader’s card will be returned to you.

Congratulations! You have succeeded in seeing manuscripts at the BnF. Once you get used to the system, you learn to roll with it. Most of the staff – despite the horror stories you hear about French librarians – are fairly helpful, and I get the feeling they’re used to dealing with people who don’t speak all that much French and/or understand the system.

The BnF is of course a research library primarily intended for scholarly use. Things are a little different at the Archives Nationales. However, because as of yet I’ve only used the microfilms there, my guide to that will have to wait until later this week once I’ve gone and looked at the physical manuscripts I need to see…

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4 thoughts on “A User’s Guide to the Paris Archives, pt. 1: The BnF

  1. Thank you. I think there is a need for this sort of thing, both for non-historians who want to know more about what we do and for novice scholars who are unfamiliar with the various little obstacles one can encounter at an unfamiliar archive.

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  2. Nice guide to what can be a horribly confusing and intimidating place for newcomers. Can you order microfilm in the manuscripts room now? I’ve always been sent down to the big Salle Ovale downstairs to order microfilms – the seating system is a lot simpler but they’re much stricter on ‘no-photos-of-microfilm’, which meant a lot of notes by hand for me. I’d much rather just see the original manuscript in most cases, especially given the atrocious quality of sum of the microfilm….

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      1. Of course, I forgot they were closed all through the winter (I think) for renovations. It sounds much more convenient in the long run, to be honest!

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