Adventures in the BNF

I spend a lot of time in libraries, but have – shockingly – never really written about them on this blog. This post will change that, as I’ve spent the last week familiarising myself with the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (or, as everyone calls it, the BNF, pronounced ‘bay-enn-eff’), and have all sorts of things to say about it.

The building itself is a remarkable piece of architecture: a vast square expanse of decking with a tower at each corner, and a sunken garden in the middle. The towers, like the levels of a particularly academic video game, are named: ‘the tower of letters’, ‘the tower of laws’, ‘the tower of numbers’, and – what I imagine to be the final, hardest level – ‘the tower of time’. Sadly, mere readers at the library don’t go into these edifices, but take sloping conveyor belts down to the first level below the surface, where the public reading rooms, along with the exhibitions, reside. This is also where you get your readers’ card, of which I am inordinately proud.

This first floor is not, however, for the researchers, who – in what I find an interesting architectural metaphor – labour on the lowest level, at the foundations, and thus holding up, as it were, the general readers and the mighty towers above them. To reach the research library, one must put all the various pieces of academic paraphernalia (laptop, pencil case, notebook, power cables, and English-French plugs) in a fetching little messenger bag made from transparent plastic, before heading towards a set of imposing metal doors.

In front of this portal, and rather detracting from its imposing effect, there are several turnstiles, which only open upon the presentation of a valid card. When they do this, they flash up a message, which reads “TITRE VALIDE: AVANCEZ”. This is perfectly normal French, but the imperative always strikes my English ears – perhaps because of those big doors behind them – as far more menacing than it actually is, and makes me hear its message (‘Valid credentials: enter’) in the voice of Christopher Lee at his most diabolical.

Once you’re through the turnstiles and the doors, you’ll find yourself in a kind of airlock, all in metal. Cross this (I guess it’s a fire precaution?), and it’s time for a pair of escalators down to the lower levels, where you must pass another pair of gates. This is not, however, all you must do, for in this library you must also ask permission to sit down. This can either be done by reserving a seat in advance, or at one of the little terminals that ring the reading rooms. Permission acquired, you can enter the library proper.

You still can’t sit down, though. To do that, you have to ask a librarian (there is one for each section of the library, called a ‘Président(e) de salle’) to allocate you a seat. They always ask if you’d like internet access, and if you have any preferences. Oddly, though, it seems as if every seat has internet access (by way of an ADSL cable: no wifi here), and, despite asking for a bit of space, I always end up wedged between two other readers. I shan’t bore you here with an account of the peculiar mumblings of a linguist allocated as my neighbour; let it suffice to say that this visit made me realise why so many of the other readers had come to work with earplugs.

BNF meAs pretty much everything else on this blog is about my research, I’ll skip a description of it here, saying only that the BNF has such an amazing set of holdings, both modern and historical, that my work continues pretty much the same as it did in Cambridge. At the end of each day then, I have to exit the library, which is almost as much fun as getting in. You see, whether you wish to leave for a moment or definitively, you must once more ask permission. This is done electronically, but leads to another imposing message on the turnstiles: “TITRE VALIDE: SORTIE AUTORISEE”, or “VALID CREDENTIALS: EXIT AUTHORISED”. Every time I read this one, I wonder if there ever were a moment when the doors did not open, and a hapless researcher found himself trapped down in the metal bowels of the BNF…

Thus concludes our visit to France’s national library. I love its eccentricities, and even its rigmarole. I also think it would make an amazing location for an RPG.

Do you have any favourite libraries?

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
James Harriman Smith (July 14, 2014). Adventures in the BNF. A MUSE OF FIRE. Retrieved July 21, 2024 from

One thought on “Adventures in the BNF”

  1. Loved this – very funny. I hope you’re aware that there’s a very specific colour-code for earplugs used in libraries, not dissimilar to the ‘traffic lights’ system…

    I loved, but also hated, the bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève. Loved because it is beautiful, old and the light pours in from the tall windows in an incredibly graceful way (and, well, because Sartre & Beauvoir worked there), but hated it because it meant being in prépa, and doing work.

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