By Irene O’Daly
Say the words Bibliothèque nationale de France to any manuscript researcher and it tends to invite a series of anecdotes – usually horror stories about long days trawling through blurry microfilms, refusals of access to manuscripts, and its somewhat unique bureaucratic arrangements. So, while I was excited about the prospect of spending a few days researching in Paris this month, I was also feeling a little nervous about whether I would actually get to see the manuscripts I wanted to examine, and whether I would come out sane at the other end. Luckily, things went better than I expected they would and I thought making some notes on the experience might be of help to other researchers preparing to brave the experience.
First, before you go it’s recommended to fill out a ‘pre-admission’ form. I received a prompt automatic response with a registration number, which, if nothing else, is something useful to brandish when you eventually get to the Library’s admissions desk. I also emailed the Manuscripts Department with a description of my research and a list of the manuscripts I wished to consult, Although I didn’t receive a reply, it was useful to be able to say that I had made contact.
The majority of the manuscripts at the BnF are housed at the Richelieu site (5 Rue Vivienne). Within ten minutes walk from the Louvre (though the picturesque grounds of the Palais Royale) it’s a beautiful building.
A general reader’s ticket is issued for 3 days, 15 days, or a year. If, like me, you’re there for a week, it’s possible to get a three-day ticket, then renew it, which works out much cheaper than paying for the 15 day pass. The manuscripts reading room (Galerie Mazarine) is upstairs in the building. At this point, things get a little complicated. You present yourself at the desk at the manuscript reading room and hand over your card. You’re given a red plastic plaque with a number on it, and a locker key with a different number on it. You’re also given a blue paper slip, which essentially serves as your temporary card allowing you to leave and re-enter the reading room as you need. You put your belongings in the locker and then go back into the manuscript room and find the desk with the same number as on the red plastic plaque. At this point, dazzled by all the numbers and the stunning decoration of the room, you proceed to request the manuscripts that you want to see.
I had identified prior to the trip which manuscripts were online, and looked up the catalogue numbers of those which had been microfilmed. I decided to request some items that hadn’t been microfilmed first, then to take the time to look at microfilms each day prior to requesting permission to view the originals. Of course, leaving the manuscript room requires returning the red plaque, the blue slip, and the locker key, before heading downstairs to the main reading room (Salle Ovale), to get a different blue slip and a new red plaque assigning a place at a microfilm machine. The microfilm service is incredibly efficient (maximum of five requests a day) and they bring the reels your desk. While it’s never pleasant to go through reels of black and white images of manuscripts, it is a good way to determine how vital it is to examine the manuscript in person.
Armed with the knowledge that I had garnered as much information as possible from the microfilms, I headed back up to the manuscript room each day and requested permission to see the originals from the central desk in the room. The information needed to support the request varied depending on the librarian on duty. Sometimes I was required to provide extensive information on my studies, qualifications, what codicological and palaeographical information I needed, what folios I was interested in. Sometimes it was sufficient to simply say that I had seen the microfilm and it wasn’t sufficient for my research, without further elaboration. If the manuscript is in the ‘Grand Reserve’ it’s necessary to fill out a purple form providing additional information for examination by the Chief Conservator. Once the request is made, it takes some time to receive confirmation (often provided in person by one of the librarians from the stacks, but also sent by email). When confirmation is received, you still have to submit the request form (at the entry desk) – but at that point, it doesn’t matter whether you request it that day, or whenever best suits.
I found the library’s set-up a bit baffling, but the staff were generally very helpful and patient with my French and perpetual confusion between request-slip types and desk plaques. Fueled by the incredibly sugary vending machine coffee, I felt I eventually got the hang of how to make the requests (and how to work the retro microfilm machines). In defence of the access policy of the BnF’s manuscript section, I was refused permission to see only one of over twenty manuscripts requested (as its binding was in bad condition). While the process of gaining access takes time, it’s a reminder that getting to see this material is a privilege in the first place, and one I’m very lucky to have had.