24 April 2017

Visiting the Parisian archives: The Bibliothèque nationale de France and Archives nationales de France

This post has been adapted from a series originally posted at Salutem Mundo (here and here). Thanks to Evina and Anna for inviting me to contribute it here, and hopefully some of you will find this of use!

Disclaimer: the Bibliothèque nationale is currently under renovation. Most of the work had been done as of my last visit, but as things wind down certain aspects of actually using the reading rooms proper (in particular the time it takes to order manuscripts) will change.

There’s nothing like spring in Paris: sitting hunched over in a reading room, cursing whoever taught eighteenth-century érudits to write. Nonetheless, the main Parisian archives, the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the Archives nationales de France, are important centres in any medievalist’s mental map of the world’s great libraries. That being said, French libraries in general do not have the world’s best reputation for user-friendliness. This isn’t entirely fair, but it’s certainly true that being well-prepared will pay dividends when you actually arrive there.

The BnF and the AN are two completely different institutions, with their own ways of doing things, and that includes what you need to get in. The BnF is a research library catering largely to scholars, but the audience for the AN is more general. Consequently, whereas for both you should register an account on the relevant website in advance of your visit, and for both you will need your passport when you arrive in person, that’s where the entrance requirements for the AN stop. For the BnF, more is required. Precisely what this is will differ based on whether you’re a student, a member of the public or a professional researcher. 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 are in fact a real student there; I did this the first time I went, several years ago, and it’s useful for peace of mind. 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 – 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; I didn’t need it but, again, it never hurts to be over-prepared).

To physically enter both buildings and register in person, you have to go through security. Make sure your metal objects (wallet, phone, keys, etc.) are in your bag.

BnF Richelieu site building detail.

Once you’re in and registered, things start to diverge. The BnF and the AN do things quite differently, so I’ll start with the BnF Richelieu site (where the main manuscript department is located). 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.

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.

Reading room of the François-Mitterrand site of the BnF.

Now you can begin to order the documents you want. 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. (This is largely a product of the renovations and may change as time marches on.) The white form 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. If you do need to see the physical manuscript of something which is available in microfilm, e-mail the head of the manuscripts department with your reasons and, if they give you permission, bring the printed-out e-mail with you on the day (if you are a student, getting a letter from your supervisor will help greatly with this). Fill the white form 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. There is a daily limit of five of each kind of document per day.

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 a physical manuscript. 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 personally found they were fairly good-natured about this. Taking photos of the microfilms appears 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. 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.

The Hôtel de Soubise, one of the main buildings of the Archives nationales (Paris site).

At the AN, things are a little different. As with the BnF, it’s pencils and computers only in the rooms. Everything else has to be left in the lockers. Unlike the BnF, no money is required – these are code-operated.

Then, go upstairs. Again unlike the BnF, there are different procedures for manuscripts and microfilms. For microfilms, go to the microfilm reading room on the third floor. If it’s your first time, introduce yourself at the front desk and the librarian will show you round and explain the procedure. It’s a fairly simple set up: sit at any microfilm reader you like. The microfilms themselves are in drawers in the room, and you just go and help yourself to the one you want. Bear in mind you can only have one at a time. This is beautifully simple and convenient, but there is a catch: all the microfilms I saw, including those I saw others use, were in inverted black-and-white (black page, white text), which gave me a headache after a while.

Things are slightly different with manuscripts, although still relatively simple. You need to order the manuscript you want online first; unfortunately, this means that you do need to know the classmark. Also, the system is slightly oddly set up, so that to search for (for instance) the manuscript with the classmark LL 50, you have to enter it into the system with two slashes, like so: LL//50. Once you’ve ordered the manuscript, at 3 pm the same day or on the following day, go to the second-floor reading room. There’s an issues desk on the right; go to it, show your card, and they’ll give you a place and hand over your manuscript. Sit at the assigned place. Once you’ve done with the manuscript, hand it back at the desk and they’ll give you a new one. At the Archives Nationales, both with the MSS and the microfilms, it appears that one can take photos with impunity. When you’re finished, let them know at the issue desk, hand back your place card, and leave.

While the AN is simpler than the BnF to use, there are a few catches. The two big ones are these. First, the Archives Nationales online catalogue is nowhere near as good as the BnF. Whereas with the BnF you can look at the catalogue and have a reasonable idea of what you need to look at, at the AN you might get handed a box full of papers and have to spend a considerable amount of time trying to find what exactly in them is relevant. The second, and bigger, issue is that there is no wi-fi at the AN at all, which can be frustrating.

The Paris archives can seem daunting, but unlike the Vatican Library or monastic archives, they are fundamentally there to be used by academics, and so using them is, by comparison, actually relatively simple. Just remember to prepare well in advance, and your visit should go quite smoothly.

By Fraser McNair (@RalphTorta).

Do you have any questions or additions to make to this blog post, based on your own experience? Have you recently used a research library and think you might like to write a post for us? Get in touch with us by email or via Twitter.

Visiting the Parisian archives: The Bibliothèque nationale de France and Archives nationales de France

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