National Library of France Opens Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The new Bibliothèque Nationale de France continued the traditional research orientation and legal deposit function of the old Bibliothèque Nationale while increasing access for nonresearch visitors and embracing new information technologies.

Summary of Event

The origins of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (National Library of France) go back to 1368, when King Charles V established a royal library in the Louvre Palace. In 1537, King Francis I established the dépôt légal (legal deposit), which required publishers to provide the royal library with a copy of every work printed. The terms of the dépôt légal ensured that every facet of French culture was preserved, not just great works of art or literature deemed appropriate by a government bureaucracy. In the seventeenth century, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, one of King Louis XIV’s ministers, moved the royal library to the rue de Richelieu palace of Cardinal Jules Mazarin, the site at which it remained for more than three hundred years. During the French Revolution, the royal library became the Bibliothèque Nationale and was greatly expanded by the confiscation of collections from princes, emigrants, and the clergy. National Library of France Libraries [kw]National Library of France Opens (Mar. 30, 1995) [kw]Library of France Opens, National (Mar. 30, 1995) [kw]France Opens, National Library of (Mar. 30, 1995) National Library of France Libraries [g]Europe;Mar. 30, 1995: National Library of France Opens[09170] [g]France;Mar. 30, 1995: National Library of France Opens[09170] [c]Organizations and institutions;Mar. 30, 1995: National Library of France Opens[09170] Mitterrand, François Charles V (1337-1380) Francis I Perrault, Dominique

Despite some twentieth century predictions that computers would create “paperless offices” and make the printed page obsolete, the growth of printed documents continued explosively. By the late twentieth century, the Bibliothèque Nationale was running out of space for the expanding numbers of books, periodicals, audio and visual materials, computer software, and esoteric collections of every type housed there. It was also being overwhelmed by increased demands from students and scholarly researchers.

On April 13, 1988, Minister of Culture François Léotard Léotard, François announced that the Bibliothèque Nationale would be reorganized and a second library would be built to house all documents and other covered materials published after 1990 (this was later changed to materials published after 1945). In his annual television interview on July 14, 1988, French president François Mitterrand disclosed his plan to build one of the world’s largest and most modern libraries. The charter of the new library, as defined and articulated later, was to create a library “to encompass every field of knowledge, to be accessible to one and all, to make use of the very latest data transmission technologies, to afford long-distance consultation, and to be linked with other European libraries.” Because the old Bibliothèque Nationale is located in a prime area in Paris’s fourth arrondissement, where it would be too expensive to add the new buildings required, it was decided that the new library would be built a few miles away on the Left Bank of the Seine at the Quai de Tolbiac, in Paris’s thirteenth arrondissement.

In 1989, the plan to divide the libraries’ holdings chronologically between the two buildings was changed in favor of making the two libraries a single entity. The rue de Richelieu site would continue to house the specialized collections, such as manuscripts, coins, maps, and medals, while all books, periodicals, and audiovisual materials would be transferred to the new Tolbiac site, which would also host a bibliographic research department. The Bibliothèque Nationale de France was officially established in January, 1994.

An open architectural design competition, chaired by I. M. Pei Pei, I. M. (designer of the controversial Louvre pyramid), selected architect Dominique Perrault to design the building. Perrault’s design is stunning, but it has engendered controversy: It comprises four twenty-two-story glass and concrete towers situated at the corners of a rectangular site and facing in toward a central garden area; each building is L-shaped, to represent an open book. Stark and modern on the outside, the interiors of the towers are softened by rich hardwoods and carpets. After book conservationists raised concerns that light and fluctuations in temperature and humidity would damage books, an innovative system of shutters was designed for the floors on which books are stored. Many of the books are stored underground at a temperature of 64 degrees Fahrenheit and a humidity of 50 percent. The new buildings also house administrative and support staff and provide exhibition space, lecture halls, restaurants, bookshops, and other services.

The printed materials collection relocated to the Tolbiac site includes not only books and periodicals but also government publications, booksellers’ and publishers’ catalogs, flyers and posters, and pamphlets and leaflets. The rare book collection contains not only antiquities but also books that were condemned as obscene in the nineteenth century and underground newspapers and other publications from World Wars I and II.

The periodicals in the printed materials collection include all journals and newspapers published in France, along with more than eighty-five hundred other periodicals from about 150 countries. The collection comprises tens of millions of issues dating back more than three centuries, providing intimate and detailed insights into the full strata of politics, society, and public opinion in France over the course of the period.

The Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

(Library of Congress)

The audiovisual collection began with the creation of France’s first sound library, Archives de la Parole, in 1911. Under the direction of Ferdinand Brunot, Brunot, Ferdinand the voices of many famous persons were recorded, and ethnographic recordings were made. In 1938, the Phonothèque Nationale (National Sound Library) was established as the dépôt légal for records, tapes, and other sound recordings. In 1975, this was expanded to be the legal deposit for video recordings and multimedia products; in 1977, it became the Sound Archives and Audiovisual Department of the National Library. The department also oversees a collection of four hundred listening devices dating back to the late nineteenth century.

President Mitterrand officially inaugurated the Bibliothèque Nationale de France on March 30, 1995, although only a small number of documents had actually been moved at that time, and the final disposition of the collections was still a few years away.


With the opening of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the French government took a major step toward several goals: reorganizing a massive national collection that ranges from priceless antique books to oddities such as a phonograph that plays chocolate records, making information more accessible to researchers and the general public, expanding its holdings to create a truly interdisciplinary collection, and preparing for the technological changes in information delivery of the twenty-first century.

One major flaw of the old Bibliothèque Nationale was its separate and uncoordinated series of catalogs. Holdings were spread among twenty-nine individual and confusing catalogs, some devised in the seventeenth century. The reorganization of the library’s holdings provided an opportunity to create a comprehensive, computerized catalog that can be accessed remotely. The Bibliothèque Nationale de France is the core of the nation’s bibliographic and documentary network and is connected to similar networks throughout the world. The library’s electronic catalog contains more than seven million entries covering the library’s entire collection, including the French Union Catalog, a comprehensive listing of all documents in French libraries—the Bibliothèque Nationale, thirty-one university libraries, and fifty-four municipal libraries.

By 1997, two French bibliographic databases (BN-OPALE and BN-OPALINE) were accessible to cooperating libraries through the Internet, and the collections of other major libraries were available similarly to persons in France. The BN-OPALE database is also available to the general public through the Internet and on CD-ROM, tape, and computer disks.

Part of the library’s charter is to provide information in every field of knowledge. The Bibliothèque Nationale had a preeminent collection in the humanities, particularly literature and history; to complete the new library’s charter, it increased its acquisitions in law, economics, political science, the sciences, and technology. The library also implemented an active policy of acquiring foreign publications, audio materials, and multimedia sources in these areas. The reading rooms and collections were reorganized from the twenty-nine old catalogs into four departments: philosophy, history, and human sciences; political, economic, and legal sciences; science and technology; and art and literature. The rare books section incorporates applicable volumes from the four departments.

Greater accessibility of the collections to a wider audience was another goal of the new library. The old Bibliothèque Nationale generally was available only to researchers and students, who not only had to prove their credentials but also had to prove that they could not find the materials they wanted to use elsewhere. The resources of the new library are more available to visitors and tourists. The new facility has two sections: a general-access library and reading rooms on the upper floors, and a research library at garden level. The general library has about seventeen hundred desks and is open to anyone eighteen years old or older.

Like all research libraries, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France faces the challenge of simultaneously conserving the heritage and scholarship of the past, taking advantage of the scholarship and technology of the present and future, and advancing distribution of both. While high-tech specialists maintain the electronic catalog, establish computerized links to the rest of the world, and digitize documents, other specialists work to restore and preserve the fragile paper documents of the past.

It has been argued that in the twenty-first century, the processing and distribution of information will be the basis of wealth and power. The Bibliothèque Nationale de France is preserving its vast collection of documents both in their original form and digitally, ensuring that they will remain available to both the national community of France and the rest of the world. National Library of France Libraries

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Favier, Jean. “The History of the French National Library.” Daedalus 125 (Fall, 1996): 283-291. The library’s president gives his insights into the political issues and technological challenges accompanying the library’s transition into the new millennium.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jamet, Dominique, and Hélène Waysbord. “History, Philosophy, and Ambitions of the Bibliothèque de France.” In Future Libraries, edited by R. Howard Bloch and Carla Hesse. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. Provides a useful overview of the history of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, followed by a brief discussion of its place among the world’s major libraries in the twenty-first century. Jamet was the chair of the library’s planning group established in 1989.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reynolds, Catharine. “Volumes of Controversy: Bibliothèque Nationale de France.” Gourmet 57 (January, 1997): 26, 28. Presents a brief but comprehensive discussion of the library’s design and the controversy it engendered.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tesnière, Marie-Hélène, and Prosser Gifford, eds. Creating French Culture: Treasures from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995. Beautifully illustrated catalog for an exhibition held at the Library of Congress presents a variety of materials from the Bibliothèque Nationale along with essays and commentary by both French and American authors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wernick, Robert. “A Treasure House That Holds One Nation’s Memory.” Smithsonian 21 (September, 1990): 114-125. Beautifully illustrated article on the Bibliothèque Nationale on the rue de Richelieu before the dispersion of the main collections to the Tolbiac site. Helpful for understanding the scope of the print and other collections.

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Categories: History