The ultimate, fool-proof, beginner’s guide to using the Bibliothèque nationale de France!

The Bibliothèque nationale de France (the BnF) is an enormous resource for researchers, but it can be a little tricky to navigate for an outsider. My first few visits to the BnF were exciting but also a little confusing, so I thought I’d write a step-by-step, fool-proof guide for any researchers out there hoping to explore the BnF for the first time and to hopefully make things a little more straight forward!

The national library of France based in Paris is divided into two different access categories: Reference and Research. The library itself is made up of several different sites and reading rooms, spread across Paris. The main sites are the François-Mitterrand library (Metro stop: Bibliothèque François-Mitterrand) and the Richelieu library (Metro stop: Bourse or Pyramides).

The reference library, i.e. the Haut-de-Jardin level library based in the Site François-Mitterrand is open to anyone age 16 or over. Reader’s cards can be bought on the day in the East Hall of the François-Mitterrand. This is available either as a 1-day card, or an annual pass.

However, assuming you’re going to the BnF to undertake research you’ll need access to the research libraries, which includes all the other reading rooms and sites: the Rez-de-Jardin level library at the François-Mitterrand, the Richelieu sites (including the Music department across the road (these are sometimes labelled together as ‘Richelieu-Louvois’), the Bibliothèque Musée de l’Opéra (the library inside the museum section of the national Opéra theatre, the Palais Garnier), and the Arsenal library. For access to these research libraries you need to be 18 or over, and have a reason to visit the libraries.

Step 1: Before going

A few weeks before you head off to beautiful Paris, you’ll need to fill out a form online, called a pre-admissions request (a ‘Formulaire de pré-accréditation‘, which you can find here).

Before filling out this form you need to know:

  • the dates you’ll be in Paris and when you plan to use the BnF (you’ll only be given a 3-day card access if you’re an undergraduate)
  • an example of the documents you want to look at that can only be found in the BnF (you can explore the catalogue here).
  • your reasons for using the BnF, i.e. simply research for your degree. You can write these sections in English!
  • any other libraries you’ve already made use of.

Lastly you can tick which research libraries you want access to: it’s probably best to tick all of them just in case.

Step 2: After the pre-admissions request

You should receive an email in French that will confirm your admission request – this could be a few days or couple of weeks later. Print this email out and take it with you to make things easier (particularly if you’re an undergraduate or masters student), but don’t worry if you forget because they should have it on file.

Step 3: Supervisor or tutor’s letter

If you’re a student, you need a letter from your tutor or supervisor. If you’re a PhD student, they seem to be a little more relaxed about this but all that’s required is asking your tutor to fill out this form which can be found here (scroll down: download the ‘Attestation du directeur de recherche’) and send it back to you. If you forget to take it with you, don’t worry – you can show it to them on your phone.

[As a post-doctorate or early-career researcher you don’t need this step, simply a university card or any document that proves your research status.]

The ‘Salle Ovale’ reading room in the Richelieu library:

image5 (1)

Step 4: Arriving at the BnF

Head to the Richelieu site. The entrance is on 5, rue Vivienne (if you’re arriving from Metro stop Bourse on line 3, take the metro exit number 1, and then take the first road on your left, follow it to the end and the entrance to the library will be on your right). Show your bag to security, and enter the first temporary grey building, which is on your immediate right after the security check. There’s a lovely woman on the reception desk that speaks English, and she’ll probably ask you to wait and take a seat. You then go through to speak to someone to get the library card. If speaking French isn’t your strong suit don’t worry – they are used to this and so there’s no need to panic! Pointing and grunting works fine!

This step is called the ‘admissions interview’, which is a lot more terrifying than it really is. In reality it’s just processing the information, taking a quick photo before printing out your card (word of caution: they will NEVER change this photo. I’ve learnt this the hard way). They’ll ask you why you want to use the research libraries (‘research for my degree’ is perfectly acceptable). They may ask you what sort of documents you want to look at if you’re an undergraduate – so pulling out a list that you made for step 1 would make this super easy. You might need to show some identification so take along your passport for this, and remember to have your university card with you.

At this stage, if you’re a PhD student or early-career researcher in particular, you’ll have a choice of whether you want a 3-day pass, a 15-day pass, or an annual pass. As a student you should get a discount. The 3-day pass or the 15-day pass is valid for any days that you use the library within the space of one year (you get a reader’s card along with 3 or 15 tickets), whereas the annual pass is simply valid for a year from the day the card is printed. An annual pass with student discount will be €35 – you can pay by card.

Step 5: Making the most of the BnF

What do you want to look at? It’s best to know beforehand, so you can make a start in the right reading room! Remember that librarians are there to help and know an incredible amount about the materials in their libraries. Don’t be afraid to embarrass yourself with broken French because I can assure you I’ve said and done more embarrassing things in the BnF!

When examining the online catalogues, each document will say which reading room it’s in, and should give you some of idea of how to find it. Once you’re in the reading room (and have been given a desk space by the librarian) it’s the small, white forms that you need to order up a document.

For certain documents there are particular times of the day when they collect the document requests and bring them up from the stacks, and this is different depending on the reading room. In the music library it’s at 10.30, 11.30, 14.30 and 15.30. That means that when the music library opens at 10am, everyone has half an hour to make themselves comfortable and write down their requests before the first lot are taken off by the librarians to be located in the stacks.

The online catalogue entry for each document should give you an idea of where it is and whether it’s a ‘reserved’ document or if there’s a microfilm version. If it’s listed as with ‘magasin de la Réserve’ you’ll need to fill out the blue form as well when order it up (but the librarians will ask you to do this if you’re not sure). If there’s a microfilm code on the online catalogue entry you’ll be given the microfilm version (also called a ‘bobine‘, so look out for catalogue codes starting with the VM BOB) unless you have a good reason to see the original.

Using the microfilm readers in the Music department:

image1 (2)

When using the Arts du Spectacle reading room in the Richelieu site, I’ve also come across documents which say ‘Communication en différé‘ on the online catalogue: these need to be ordered up two days in advance. You can do this here, by first creating a BnF profile and then ordering up the documents to the Arts du Spectacle library as required. When you arrive they’ll ask you if you have any documents reserved (‘mise de coté’) so say yes if you do! At the end of the day, if you want to keep the documents reserved ready for the next day, fill out the yellow form when handing back your desk number and books.

So in summary: fill out the online admission form well in advance. Print out all the paperwork to make it easier. Don’t worry if your speaking French is limited to ‘une baguette, s’il vous plaît’. Make the most of the librarians and check the online catalogues carefully so you can look like you know what you’re doing!

I hope this was useful to anybody considering using the French national library in the future. Good luck to any potential BnF explorers! May your research activities be productive, worthwhile, and exciting!


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