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This weekend (17th /18th September) marks the end of a 10-year restoration project in Paris, and a moment fitting for a capital and a country where égalité is such a keynote. From now on, the beautiful Richelieu location of the National Library, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, will be open to all, not, as previously, just to academics and professional researchers. The public will enjoy free entry to use the reading rooms and admire the stunning architecture and, for a small entry cost, also be able to view the historic treasures in the library’s collection, some of which date back to the Middle Ages. And all of this is to be found a stone’s throw from the Palais Royal.
And what historical riches will be on display, representing every era from antiquity to modern times. Headline treasures include the throne of Dagobert, the 7th-century king of the Franks, and a chessboard which belonged to Charlemagne, who became the first Holy Roman Emperor in the year 800. Among the many precious books in the collection are an illuminated Psalter, or book of psalms, which belonged to Louis IX, the only French king to be sainted, and, from the 15th century, an original Gutenberg bible, the first “mass-produced” printed book, only about 50 of which are still in existence today.
This site, known as the Bibliothèque Nationale Richelieu, is in fact only one of the National Library’s main sites, the other being the François Mitterrand Library in the 13th. The Richelieu building has been sensitively renovated, celebrating the various architectural styles. It was originally a palace for Cardinal Mazarin in the early years of Louis XIV’s reign and some of the 17th-century building remains. You can also see the sumptuously decorated Salon Louis XV, with its royal portraits, chandeliers and 18th-century furniture. Then there is the stunning Salle Ovale, a huge oval reading room begun in the late 19th century in an elegant Art Nouveau style with arched recesses housing the bookshelves and a stunning 18-meter, glass-paneled roof, similar in style to those of the city’s elegant covered passages dating from the same era.
A research pass will be necessary for entry to some of the specialist library facilities, but the imposing Salle Ovale will have free access for all, whether they wish to just admire the grand décor, to browse the shelves or to settle at one of the 160 reading desks. There will be 20,000 books available here, covering France’s heritage and history, with works such as Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables or Pascal’s Pensées representing, say the librarians, “fundamental moments from French literature and thought.”
But it’s not all about relics from the past, precious though they certainly are. For here you will also be able to consult a collection of bandes dessinées, the genre of words-and-pictures literature for which France is world-renowned. There are digital facilities too, such as the opportunity for a virtual try-on of costumes from bygone eras.
History runs through everything in the collection which has its ancestry in the libraries of French kings from long ago. In 1537, François I decided to gather copies of all the books printed in his kingdom in one place, and as the collection grew it had to be moved to ever-larger sites, first at Amboise, then at Blois and Fontainbleau before being moved to the Left Bank in Paris and then finally here to the Palais Mazarin in the 1720s. The collection grew rapidly during the French Revolution, when the libraries of aristocrats and clergymen were plundered and their treasures brought here to the Bibliothèque du Roi, hastily renamed the Bibliothèque Nationale.
Napoleon, who had an extensive book collection himself, took a great interest in the library and he ruled that a copy of any book held in a provincial library which the Bibiothèque Nationale did not possess should be forwarded to it. It should be possible, he said, to find a copy of any book in France in the national library. Today, it is still a “national repository library,” that is one which keeps a copy of every book published in France. This furthers its claim to be the national library, along with the fact that its collection has been enhanced over the centuries by such illustrious figures as Henri IV and Catherine de Medici.
The museum part of the complex covers 1200 m2 and will display some 900 items at a time, drawn from the Bibliothèque Nationale’s collection of 40 million pieces. The opening display, which will run for a year, will focus on a selection of the most prestigious artifacts and following that there will be thrice-yearly new exhibitions, all drawing on different themes, beginning in September 2023 with that quintessentially French theme, revolutions. For each new display, the curators will select not just from the library’s 20 million manuscripts and books, but also from its vast collections of sketches, engravings, photographs, maps, coins, medals and jewelry. There will also be temporary exhibitions in some of the galleries, beginning with one on Molière, running from September 27th until 15th January 2023, a fitting way to mark the 400th centennial since the playwright’s birth.
Expecting lots of visitors, the newly restored Bibliothèque Nationale has modernised its facilities. Whether you go to look around briefly, or to settle down to study in the Salle Ovale, you can also enjoy the gardens, tea room and bookshop. Indeed the gardens, the Jardin Vivienne, have also been carefully redesigned under the title of a Hortus Papyrifera, or “paper garden.” It will showcase a range of plantes papyfères, those used in the production and conservation of paper. The first phase of the garden design is complete, but planting will continue until the spring of 2023. The Rose Bakery, open all day, will offer visitors une pause sucrée ou salée (a sweet or savory break) in its café and on its terrace.
The Bibliothèque Nationale Richelieu will surely be a draw for Parisians and visitors alike. It lies just behind the gardens of the Palais Royal, and it’s en route if you are walking from the Louvre to the Opéra, so it can easily be added into an itinerary exploring the heart of royal Paris. At this site, once the preserve of the few, but now accessible to all, the librarians hope you will stop off to “read, study, contemplate …. or just visit.” For here can be found two precious and very French commodities: le savoir et la culture, knowledge and culture.
5 Rue Vivienne, 2nd arrondissement
There are entrances on both Rue Richelieu and Rue Vivienne
Mondays closed, Tuesday 10 am – 8 pm, Wednesday-Sunday 10 am – 6 pm
Entry to the main building, including the Salle Ovale, is free
Museum entry: €10 (full price) and €8 (concessions)
Museum Entry + 1 exhibition (at the Richelieu site or at the Bibliothèque Mitterrand) €13 (full price) and €10 (concessions)
Lead photo credit : Rue Vivienne entrance © Élie Ludwig / BnF