Archival Research at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France

2780793238_998cdcb399 — This post is dedicated to the very, very sweet student who I met on the escalator who helped me tremendously at the library. Without Ed’s very patient and good-humored help finding my desk and reserving materials I could not have had such a productive day at the BNF. Thank you, Ed! You’re the best! —

I am in Europe on a summer research trip for my dissertation and have primarily been working at the British Library. It now feels like a breeze to find via the tube, order materials to read, and take notes all day in one of the reading rooms. My comfort with the British Library emboldened me. I felt sure, as I strode toward the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF) from the metro, that I would be able to find the lockers, get my reader’s pass, order my list of materials, and read all day, sans aucune problème, from 930am to 8pm. After all, the instructions online for registering as a reader seemed very straightforward, even in French. Silly, silly me.

It turns out that getting settled to do archival research in the BNF (the François-Mitterrand building — the newer and main branch) is extremely difficult. Most of the process felt designed to swallow new BNF researchers, and their precious research time, whole. Donc, le voilà, a how-to post for archival research at the BNF. It is, after all, a magnificent collection of archival resources and provided me with valuable research material that I have been unable to find elsewhere.

[Note: In this post, I tried to cover the basics of how to start your research here. Please add to this post any other advice or helpful anecdotes you have about navigating or working in the BNF.]

Step 1: Prepare These Materials Ahead of Time and Print Them to Bring With You

  • A printed, signed, and dated letter, on letterhead, from a professor at your institution who is your superior. The letter must state that you are a doctoral-level researcher and that you kindly request access to read archival material at the BNF. Your adviser or chair will know what this letter needs to say. Provide the rough dates that you will be there. Also provide a sentence that describes the subject you’ll be researching in very broad terms. Don’t leave home without this. If you do, email professors you have worked with in your department who might have a digital signature and letterhead on file – perhaps they can help you while you’re already abroad.
  • A printed bibliography of the materials you wish to order and read in order of priority. Be sure that this list is downloaded from the BNF website catalog and contains the catalog numbers for each item. This does not have to be a complete list — of course you are going to find things while researching that you didn’t at first know you would find. However, you do need to present the list to show your interviewer that the materials you wish to read are (a) available at that library location (there are several others), and (b) only available in the downstairs library archive (“Rez-du-jardin”) and not, say, available in the upper parts of the library (“Haute-du-jardin”) that are accessible to the general public at all times. Having this organized bibliography printed with catalog numbers saved me a lot of time!
    Note: for making this list, it may help to create your own account (“espace personel”) on the BNF website and save your bibliography there for easy retrieval. This is what I did.
  • Your passport for identification.
  • Money to pay for your reader’s fee. Unlike the British Library, the BNF is not free to use. You can either pay for a 3-day reader’s fee (around 8 euros) or an annual reader’s fee (around 40 euros).

Step 2: Pack for the Day and Head to the BNF


Getting to the BNF is not too difficult. You can find it via the metro by taking Lignes 6 (Quai de la gare), 14 et RER C (Bibliothèque François-Mitterrand). There’s a stop called “Bibliothèque François-Mitterrand,” so as long as you look for that, you’re all set. Once you arrive above ground and leave the metro, follow the signs to the library. When you get close, you will find yourself walking on a high wooden platform toward a very modern building. It looks as if it is next to a movie theater. For this summer, you will have to access the library through the West entrance (“le hall Ouest”) due to construction. If you get turned around — this is easy to do especially with all the construction — don’t be afraid to ask pedestrians with laptop bags marching toward the building in the distance.

Here are the directions on the main website: Addresses et transports.

Don’t forget to bring with you:

  • Your laptop charger cord and a French plug adapter
  • A snack and maybe a small water bottle (more on this below – I know it sounds wrong to bring this to an archive)
  • Any reference books you will need, such as an English-French dictionary, to help your research. There is NO wifi access in the research rooms to obtain these reference materials online. There are some tables that have ethernet cables that you can plug directly into your laptop, but these tables fill up quickly.
  • Some warm clothes in case the temperatures in the Rez-du-jardin are cold. (It was pleasant while I was there and felt warmer than the British Library.)

Step 3: Obtain an Interview for Access to Research Rez-du-jardin.

If you enter by the “hall Ouest” there is a welcome (“acceuil”) desk just across from the metal detector you must walk through and across from the small gift shop. Go there and tell the gentleman that you would like to interview for a reader’s pass for Rez-du-jardin research. He may ask you a question or two – explain that you are a graduate or doctoral student and that you are doing research for your dissertation or degree. The person I talked to was extremely friendly. He walked me behind his desk to a small office with two library employees. Here, an employee will conduct your interview.

My interviewer was lovely. I told her immediately that I spoke some French and could understand French well and she told me that she spoke a little English if I needed her to clarify something in English. She was clear and patient and I completed my interview almost entirely in French. I gave her my letter and my bibliography and explained briefly what I was researching and that I am a doctoral student writing my dissertation on romantic literature. She asked for a few pieces of information: my mailing address, my passport, and my phone number and email address. She then took my photo and made me a BNF reader’s card. *Do not lose your BNF reader card — it provides your way in AND your way out of the library and you cannot reserve or read materials at the library without it.*

That concludes the easy part – from here on, things were more difficult. She then gave me a set of maps and an oral list of instructions that were very confusing. I followed her as best I could. It will help if you take notes when your interviewer gives you your set of instructions for how to proceed. The instructions you’ll receive will be something like the procedures I’m telling you in this blog post. (Note: Please double check and don’t follow these instructions blindly — this library loves procedures and they may change rules between my visit and yours.)

Step 4: Pay Your Reader’s Fee.

To do this, walk back out of the interview office area and head to one of the tellers (à “la caisse”) to your left. Pay your fee and they will print you an entrance ticket – save this ticket in a safe spot.

Step 5: Head to the “Vestiaire” to Check Your Coat and Bags.


This step is mandatory. There is no locker option (as there is at the British Library), to the best of my knowledge.

Here, you will give them your coat and bag to keep for the day. Take out everything you will want with you for the day, including laptop and charger, wallet, snacks(!) and a small water bottle, pencil and paper, and clothing. These items must ALL fit in the clear case they give you that looks like a transparent plastic laptop case. Hold on to your vestiaire ticket as you will need it to retrieve your belongings at the end of the day. There is no additional fee for this service.

Vestiaire location: It is on the same floor on which you entered, interviewed, and paid, at the other end of the hall on your right if you’re walking away from the tellers.

Note on food and drink: Though you cannot eat or drink in the archives while working, you will notice that many researchers bring snacks and drinks with them and keep them in their cases. I was shocked (SHOCKED!!) that this was allowed but everyone seemed to do it. Just be sure to take food/drink out of the clear box ONLY when you are in one of the designated eating/drinking areas. Otherwise, food and drink must remain in the box. (I am terribly afraid of getting in trouble with the BNF librarians.)

Step 6: Descend into the Reading Rooms Rez-du-jardin

This is more complicated than it sounds, as the turnstiles you must pass through require your reader’s card as well as completing your seat selection online as well as your book reservations online before they admit you. Here is what I learned on my journey into the depths — and this is where Ed, the student to whom this post is dedicated, came to my rescue!

Vestiaire is on the right and your first set of turnstiles are on the left in front of the firs set of giant metallic doors. Turnstiles only operate with your card.
  1. Use your reader’s card (“la carte”) to go through the turnstiles next to the vestiaire. You must hold the card on the sensor, like you would do with an Oyster card at the tube, and it will read your card and tell you when you gain access. When you do, the turnstile will enable you to walk through it and then through a gigantic set of double metallic doors.
  2. You’ll proceed down an escalator in a metallic hallway with a red carpet. You will feel as though you are in a bank vault, casino vault, or a spacecraft.
  3. When you get to the bottom of the escalator, you will find another set of turnstiles to walk through by swiping your card. There’s a catch: if you have not registered yet, declared your seat online, and reserved your materials on a library computer, this turnstile will not admit you. Don’t panic! So then . . .
  4. Find the computer to the right of the turnstile and pull out your bibliography with the BNF catalog numbers. (Here’s another link to the BNF catalogs.) Put your card into the indented reader’s slot at the computer — the machine will read your card and pull up your account. You will need to select a reading table seat, or “votre place.” Pick a table letter where you will be working for the day — my interviewer at the BNF recommended section “L” because there is lots of space there and it is comfortable. Once you select your table letter, the machine will assign you a desk number (you can change this later if you like). Then, enter the catalog number for each item on your bibliography list, one at a time, and reserve them. Be sure to hit “confirmez” after each reservation or it will not be complete. Your maximum is 10 items. When complete, log out at that computer station.
  5. Wait a full minute after you log out before trying to turnstile again. After a minute, your card will be updated and you will be able to swipe it on the turnstile, pass through the turnstile, and proceed through this set of giant metallic doors into the Rez-du-jardin.
  6. High-five yourself. You’re almost done.

Step 7: Find Your “Place” (your desk).

Rez-du-jardin reading rooms and desks
Rez-du-jardin reading rooms and desks

This is the desk you chose and section that you selected on the computer. It will be a letter with a seat number. Your interviewer should have given you a map of the archives Rez-du-jardin to help you locate your section letter.

Here is a link to this map online – it might be a good idea to print and bring with you, in addition to your bibliography and other printed materials for your interview.

Drop your plastic case there at your desk and then proceed *with your reader’s card* to the nearest information counter. Check in, give the librarian your card, and make sure that your online requests are being processed. You will need to wait a little bit – it won’t take long. When your items are ready to pick up, the light at your desk will turn from red to green.

I was advised that I had time to grab a cup of coffee while waiting for my request to be filled. And this is where things temporarily went awry because I did not know this very, very important piece of information:

If you leave the Rez-du-jardin the way that you came in, and go back through the turnstile with your card, you are telling the computer that you are leaving forever (whether or not you actually are) and it CANCELS all of your reservations for the day. Any books that were waiting for you at the desk by your seat Rez-du-jardin go back to their shelves immediately. Doh! Gah! Quelle dommage!

There are two pieces of information that would have prevented this frustrating error that I made.

  1. Yes, there is a way to leave the Rez-du-jardin temporarily without canceling your reservations. (See the next step, below)
  2. I didn’t actually have to leave the Rez-du-jardin to find coffee. There are cafes located on this level of the library.

Thus, Step 8: How to Temporarily Leave the Rez-du-jardin (and return later the same day) and How to Permanently Leave the Archives Rez-du-jardin for the Day

Leaving temporarily: If you want to leave the Rez-du-jardin archives temporarily just to run upstairs and grab something out of your bag or to take a lunch break outside the library, you must check out at one of the computers by the turnstile and indicated with your digital account that you are leaving temporarily. Note again that if you fail to do this and you swipe your card at the turnstile and walk through it will CANCEL all of your material reservations for the day and think that you are leaving permanently for the day.

Leaving for the day: If you want to leave the Rez-du-jardins for the rest of the day, go ahead and walk out the way you walked in by swiping your card on the turnstile and heading back up the escalator in the metallic hallway. You will need to find your vestiaire ticket to reclaim your coat and bags upstairs (you cannot leave them overnight).


dark and metallic escalators and hallways
dark and metallic escalators and hallways – the hallway has more light than this but is definitely not cheerful


See Leon’s flickr photostream of the BNF for more images.