The Bibliothèque nationale (Mitterand), Paris

The Bibliotheque nationale Francois Mitterrand

Chris Millington

BNF website

BNF catalogue

When arriving at the BN for the first time, I was struck by several things.  Firstly, the four towers hardly matched up to the description in the guidebook – ‘designed like open books’…. Well, I suppose if you squint they might resemble heavy, yellowing tomes.  Next, I learned a valuable lesson while making my way to the entrance: the wooden decking becomes greasy even in fine drizzle.  Finally, and most worrying of all: why are the plants in cages?

On arrival, the first stop is the Service d’orientation.  The registration process requires a short interview with a librarian, at which you may be required to produce a form of identification and proof of address.  It always helps to have a letter from your home department to prove that you are who you claim to be – makes sure it’s in French, and has an official-looking stamp on it somewhere.  You should also be able to tell the librarian which level of the library you need to access.  There are two levels – the ground floor, and the garden level – the ‘rez de jardin’.  Most graduate researchers will need a card that permits them to access the garden level, which is where the documents, newspapers, and most books are available.  It should be enough to explain your research a little, in order to justify your request – and the departmental letter will help too.  You may also be sent away, as I was, to compile a short bibliography on a library computer, containing sources only available on the ‘rez de jardin’.  Print it off, and then show it to the librarian.

Once you have registered and paid at the ‘caisse’ for your subscription, you’ll have your card.  You now need to book a seat.  This can be done at any of the computer terminals in the foyer.  The library system is pretty self-explanatory.  You may not be able to book a seat in the room you want – salle L is for history – but I’ve never had any trouble getting a place.  On your next visit, you can book your seat – and some items – in advance by logging onto the BN’s internet site.

Before descending  to the garden level, you must leave your bag at the cloakroom.  Put everything you’ll need into the plastic briefcase that you’re given, and put your ticket in a safe place.  There must be some things you can’t take with you, but I’ve never been told an object was forbidden.  Laptop, laptop case, laptop lock, MP3 player, food, water, my own books – everything (within reason) seems permitted.

Head through the turnstile and into…. well, it looks a lot like a Bond villain’s hideout.  Go through the two heavy doors (pushing one and pulling the other – what’s that all about?), and then down the two steep escalators, before going through two more heavy doors.  A bald man stroking a white cat would not be out of place here.

Having found your seat, you can now order an item.  Though some books and journals are available on the shelves in the reading rooms, chances are that what you require is not.  You can order anything in the catalogue from the computer terminals.  Once this is done it will take a short while for the item to arrive.  You can check the progress  of your request on your library account.  When the document has arrived, go to the issue desk in your room, handover your card and Voila!, you can get going.  Unless….

…you get one of several replies, all of which amount to a NO.  The item may be out of use, or in a poor state, in which case your request will be suspended.  Luckily, you can make a special request to see the document.  This is done at the issue desk.  I have made such a request several times and been allowed to see what I wanted – but I have had to wait 48 hours while a librarian checks the state of the document.  Making a special request does require that you speak French to the librarian.  I’m sure some of the librarians speak English, and probably deal with Anglophones on a daily basis, but always try speaking in French first.

If you need a break, there is a cafe on the rez de jardin.  It is hated by most people I know, but I quite like it – makes me feel nostalgic for my days as a PhD student….  That said, it’s small, has too few seats, and can get stuffy.  On the plus side, you can eat your own food in there.  Other than the cafe, there are also two rooms where you can eat your own food.  Should you decide to leave the library for lunch, make sure you register your departure at the computers near the bottom of the escalators on the way out.  You can leave for up to two hours without losing your seat.

At the end of a hard day’s work, make sure you return the books to the issue desk in your own reading room – if not, they may be misplaced.  If you need to consult a document the next day, ask for it to be put to one side, and the library worker will book you a seat, asking what time you plan to arrive.  Wish the kind person Au revoir, pick up your things at the cloakroom, and take Metro line 14 into the sunset……

Some words of advice….

1. Check the library’s online resource Gallica.  It contains scanned newspapers and documents, especially the interwar press.  No membership is required to access it.  Guess what?  You may not need to go to the library at all!

2. Don’t go on Monday before 2pm – it’s closed.

3. Some seats will mean you are sitting in direct sunlight.  Unless you want to get a tan, take note of which ones are in the shade and book them for next time.

4. Choosing a reading room near to the cafe or the toilets is a good idea.  The BN corridors are long and there are no ‘trottoirs roulants’ down there.

5. The coffee in the cafe may be a little expensive, but the stuff out of the machines is terrible.  The best place for a pre-library coffee is Exki – and you get a free chocolate with it.

6. As of September 2012, there is no wifi connection at the BN (gasp).  Some seats, but not all, have a wired internet connection.

7. If you book a seat, you can arrive half an hour early, or half an hour late, but after then you will lose the reservation, and your orders.  So if you book your seat for 10am, and you’re keen to get reading, you can arrive at 9.30am and access what you requested.  If you’re finding it hard to get going that day, and arrive at 10.35am – tant pis!


One comment

  1. Chris,

    This is a great post and more entertaining than one I wrote recently on the same subject. I was frustrated that there weren’t any resources like this when I first visited the BnF and vowed to remedy that. My post () covers some of the same ground but also includes information on fees for reader’s cards, hours, links to the other BnF sites, some more detailed information on getting to the BnF, and local eateries. It’s part of an academic blog I’ve recently begun that focuses on settler colonialism, gender, and indigenous history. (My dissertation is a comparative study of the origins and early development of settler colonialism in the American Midwest and French Algeria.) Although my research focuses on pre-1871 French colonial policy, I look forward to following your blog nonetheless. Thank you for filling this important gap!

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