Archives nationales & Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF).


A review of Archives nationales and Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF). Paris, France.

I am currently writing a doctoral dissertation on the development of new enamel colors in China at the turn of the eighteenth century. Part of my research examines the hypothesis that European missionaries and traders introduced enameled objects and techniques to China, purportedly influencing local styles. When planning my archival trip, I looked for published indexes of French archival collections and found the three volumes of Sources de l’Histoire de l’Asie et de l’Océanie dans les Archives et Bibliothèques françaises(K.G. Saur: München, New York, London, Paris: 1981), available in several libraries outside of France. Based on this overview of the collections, I decided to visit the Archives nationalesand Bibliothèque nationale de France. Because they contain records of the French navy and foreign affairs, as well as travel accounts and letters of missionaries sent abroad, thesearchives provided significant sources of evidence for the types of objects brought to China to be traded or gifted. In September 2018, I spent about ten days at each institution.

Archives nationales

Main reading room, Archives nationales. Photograph by the author.

The entrance to the research center is located at 11 rue des Quatre-Fils, in the Marais neighborhood. Hours of operation are Monday to Saturday, 9am to 4:45pm, during which times the reading rooms are continuously staffed. For lunch breaks, there are plenty of restaurants a stone’s throw away from the building, but a more budget-conscious researcher might want to buy at sandwich at a nearby Monop’ and enjoy it in the gardens of the archives (alternatively, there are tables and vending machines on the ground floor of the building).

After going through security, register at the ground floor desk to get your reader card. All that is required is a photo ID (passport or driving license). After receiving your reader card, leave your belongings in a locker, for which you will need a €1 coin (given back in return for the key). In each locker is a clear plastic case in which you can take the following:

  • Loose leaf sheets (although notebooks appear to be tolerated)
  • Pencils
  • Laptops and cameras (including cell phones), without their bags

The following are notallowed in the reading room and must be left in the lockers:

  • Bags, luggage, drawing pads
  • Coats, hats
  • Umbrellas
  • Laptop or camera bags
  • Document holders
  • Video cameras
  • Sharp tools, knives
  • Cigarettes, lighters, matches
  • Any liquid (especially ink or white-out)
  • Any food or drink

The reading room is located on the second floor (Fig. 1). Before ordering any materials, you must first get a seat number at the circulation desk in the small room to your right when you enter the reading room. To order documents, use the computers opposite the entrance. Staff members are there to assist you if you need help. You will need to create an account before ordering documents from their online inventory. The entire registration process on site takes about 30 minutes. To save time, it is possible to register online beforehand on this siteand clicking on “Account – Login” at the top of the screen.

Documents can be ordered from your online account or from one of the computers in the reading rooms; you will need a full inventory number. You can only order up to five documents per day, but a document can contain hundreds of pages, so for me personally, paging through five documents represented a whole day’s work and I wouldn’t have had time to order more. Document orders take about one hour before they can be picked up from the circulation desk. You can only consult one document at a time. By the end of the day (4:45pm), readers must return the last document along with their seat number plaque.

Most materials can be looked up using the online catalog, but some queries might require paging through bound inventories, which are shelved on the walls either side of the circulation desk. For instance, an online entry I was interested in ran like this:

AE/B/III/333-348. Mémoires et documents, principalement sur le commerce. 1648. 1706-1862. Commerce avec l’Espagne: Philippines, Inde, Chine.

“333-348” indicates that there are fifteen documents that may contain some information about commercial exchanges between France, Spain and China. Remember that I could only order five documents per day, so to save time, it was imperative to get a more precise idea of what these fifteen boxes contained. Luckily, a printed inventory informed me that none of the document boxes contained folios relating to trade with China before 1750, thus eliminating the need for me to order these documents, and saving me three days of research. Since a sizable number of documents are not listed online, I would highly encourage researchers to use a combination of online and printed catalogs to get both a broader and more precise look at the collections.

Documents ordered for the same day will be available at the circulation desk one hour later; those ordered for the next day at 9am need to be ordered before 3pm. Documents can also be reserved for a precise date in the future. Some documents are in bad condition and cannot be ordered, but in some cases, it is possible to make a special request, although this can take up to two weeks. It is best to inquire at the main help desk.

Although a few documents are digitized and available online, microfilm is the principal means of preserving manuscripts onsite. The microfilm room is located on the third floor (Fig. 2). Readers must register at the desk before choosing a seat and finding their microfilm roll among the boxes stored at the back of the room. Readers can pick the rolls themselves, but are not allowed to reshelve them. They can only take one roll at a time, and there is no daily limit. I’m not aware of any digitization projects currently under way at the archives, and was able to view everything I ordered.

Microfilm reading room, Archives nationales. Photograph by author.

Photography, hand-copying, and typing are allowed in the reading rooms. As far as I’m aware, there are no limits to photographing documents for research purposes, and this can be done at your assigned seat without requesting permission. Microfilms can be scanned using one of two hi-res scanners, and the resulting images can be uploaded to a personal USB drive at no charge. Photocopy services are also available in the mornings from 9am to 12pm; permission must first be obtained. Fees (€0.30 per page) are charged to your reader account and billed once a year (they told me that they mail bills overseas, but I haven’t tested this).

Overall, this is a very accessible archive with helpful staff working to assist the public. The reading room is comfortable, quiet, and never filled to capacity. The only drawback is the lack of public wifi in the building. Yet given that registration is free and easy, I would encourage anyone working on French foreign affairs, trade, missions, and colonies to conduct research here.

Bibliothèque nationale de France

Manuscripts reading room, BnF, Richelieu site. Photograph by author.

The entrance to the main site (Richelieu-Louvois) of BnF is located at 58, rue de Richelieu. There are other reading rooms around the city, and the other sites I’ve visited are the bibliothèque de l’Arsenal (1 rue de Sully) and François-Mitterrand (Quai François Mauriac). The Richelieu site houses registration services and most of the archival and manuscript collections (Fig. 3). Before planning your research trip, make sure there aren’t any planned closures, which should be posted on the website. I did not check ahead of time and happened to visit during their annual closure, which extended from August 31 to September 9, 2018. Opening hours are normally Monday to Saturday from 10am to 6pm, but can vary from site to site. 

After going through security at Richelieu, enter on the right of the main courtyard. Immediately to your left is the registration room, but you must first take a number using the touchscreen located near the vending machines to your right. When your number is called, a staff member will conduct a short interview to assess your research needs. You should bring a photo ID, student ID, and a letter from your thesis advisor or institution explaining your research needs. The BnF provides a templatethat you can fill in and print out before your visit. You need to have a rough idea of how many days you will need at the archives, since you will be billed accordingly. At the time of writing, a full year costs €50, five days €20, and one day €5. I personally started with five days and renewed later for a few more days. You don’t need to bring supporting documents again when requesting a renewal. Fees are paid at the cashier located at the end of the hall to the right. I arrived at opening in the morning, and the entire registration process took less than 15 minutes. Locker rooms are near the cashiers, and lockers can be operated with either €1 or €2 coins. In each locker is a clear plastic case in which you can take your computer, phone or camera, charger, note paper, and pencil. Everything else must be left in the locker before heading up in the elevator to the third-floor manuscript reading room.

Upon entering the room, seats are assigned at the reception desk. Materials can be looked up using the online catalog. It is quite complete and I haven’t had to consult printed inventories for my research needs. Documents can be requested onsite using paper forms found at each help desk (Fig. 4), or ordered online by signing up for an Espace personnel.

Document request form, BnF. Photograph by author.

Before ordering materials, library assistants will ask you to check if the documents you want have already been digitized. If so, the Gallica logo will be visible next to your document in the results page of the online catalog. About a quarter of the sources I was interested in have already been digitized, so it’s worth checking before making a visit. Generally, originals cannot be ordered if they are available in digitized or microfilm formats. In my experience, Gallica has been an extremely useful resource and I haven’t run into problems using the site or ordering materials that were in the process of being digitized.

There is no limit on the number of materials that can be requested per day, but materials are only fetched four times a day and must be requested before specific times (10:30am, 11:30am, 2:00pm, 3:30pm). You can expect to receive your document 30 minutes after these collection times. Only one document can be viewed at a time. When I was visiting, several repositories were under construction, so that certain collections (including Chinese manuscripts) were not immediately accessible and had to be requested 48 hours beforehand using special request forms. 

Photography is allowed in the reading room, but permission must first be requested from the main help desk located at the center of the room. There is a specific form to fill, in which the specific page or folio numbers you intend to photograph must be indicated. There is no limit to the number of photographs you are allowed to take of a book or manuscript. The archivist will review the condition of the document and will assign you a new seat where you can take your photographs. Photocopying guidelines vary depending on the research site and material, and detailed information can be found here.

With their registration fees and slightly rigid procedures, researching at the BnF archives can feel a bit more restrictive than the Archives nationales, but obliging staff members are always ready to help researchers find the information they need. The architecture and interiors of reading rooms at Richelieu and François-Mitterand in particular are remarkable and provide enchanting working environments. All sites have free wifi.

Julie Bellemare
Bard Graduate Center

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