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“The awesome Francois Mitterand library, Paris” by K.J.S.Chatrath

Today, 6th May, 2012 is an important day in France as the Presidential election is taking place. So I decided to put up an article on a French subject. But following my life long prctise of strict civil service neutrality, I have chosen a subject which is totally apolitical. It  deals with  seeking of knowledge in the form of a visit to the most awesome library in Paris, France.


On way to the libray from the metro station

On a visit to Paris some time back  for research work, a fellow colleague suggested that I should visit the Mitterand Library. He gave me an introduction letter for seeking a short-term membership to the library. Incidentally, the word librarie in French means a bookshop and the library, as we know it,  is called bibliotheque. So the next day I took the Metro to the library. Coming out of the Metro station at the destination, I had to walk about 500 metres to reach the awe-inspiring towers of the library.


After a few inquiries and some formalities, I was handed over a photo membership-cum-access card, duly laminated.


I was anxious to go to the reading hall to start my work. But I had not taken into account the security check. It was perhaps one of the most stringent security checks that I have been subjected to during my visits to the USA and Europe. It would perhaps be easier to enter Fort Knox than this library! Cynics say that this building has been constructed to keep knowledge in and the knowledge seekers  or readers out.


There was a huge metallic door at the entry followed by almost unending escalators. There are vast open spaces inside the building and amazingly high ceilings. The clear impression is of gross under utilisation, if not wastage of space.


The library traces its origin to France’s first royal library, the Bibliothèque du Roi (King’s Library) that started during the time of Charles V (1364–80), who put 1,200 manuscripts in the Louvre. It was moved to Fontainebleau in 1544 by the King. From 1537 it started receiving a copy of every French publication. The library was moved to Paris between 1567 and 1593, and the first catalog of its holdings was compiled in 1622. It was opened to public in 1692. It was moved to the Mazarin Palace in the Rue de Richelieu in 1721. The library was renamed Bibliotheque Nationale in 1795. The confiscations of church and parish book collections and later Napoleon’s acquisitions enriched the library after the Revolution.


By the late 20th century the old complex of buildings in the Rue de Richelieu could no longer accommodate the continuing expansion of the collections. In 1988, the then French President, Fran`E7ois Mitterrand, held a competition for “the construction and fitting-out of the biggest and most modern library in the world”. The winner of this competition — Dominique Perrault — oversaw the construction of the four L-shaped buildings, now standing on the banks of the Seine at Tolbiac.

In January 1994, the French Library and the National Library were amalgamated. On December 20, 1996, the documentation centre was opened.The library consists of a huge square building with a forest in the inner courtyard and four open book and L-shaped, 22-storey, 79-metre-high towers, at the four corners christened ‘The Tower of Times’, ‘The Tower of Law’, ‘The Tower of Numbers’, and ‘The Tower of Literature.’ These towers house all Bibliothèque’s  books and periodicals and magazines, with a total of more than 12,000,000 printed books. It has two levels, one for the public and the other for accredited researchers. Incidentally those below the age of 16 are not permitted entry in the library.


It was earlier called La Bibliotheque Nationade de France, in short BNF (pronounced bay-en-ef). There after it was called ‘la TGB’ for ‘la Tres Grande Biblioteque’, which rhymes well with the TGV (Train a Grand Vitesse), the prestigious high-speed trains of France. Now it has been christened as ‘La Bibliotheque Nationale de France: Site Francois Mitterand’ or in short BNF-FM.


Admirers hail the design as “A utopia representative of the crossroads of human kind and nature” and feel that “the delicate protected forest in the centre of the building represents the origin or books, trees.” Some even find that “the place is symbolic of our struggle to reach paradise-the Garden of Eden. The closed off sunken garden is the paradise, isolated and protected by a fortress-the four towers of knowledge.”


The critics of this building termed it as “Francois’s Folly”. They see in it the classic “form versus function controversy.” For example in line with the French thinking that sunshine should enter the living and working spaces, glass was used on all sides. Soon it was realised that a library built from transparent glass would provide little protection to the books from sunlight; and excessive sunlight would may even overheat the towers and damage the books. This was later remedied by the architect by providing Venetian blinds. We notice something like this in the planning of Chandigarh where a lot of glass was used and buildings designed so as to receive maximum sunlight all through the year. The European architect overlooked the fact that in India we want to keep the sun out in summers.



Shrugging off the inconveniences, one must concede that the BNF-FM has provided an awesome library to the country and a great new tourist spot to Paris. For visiting the library, the tourists can take the new metro line called Météor. The French are very fond of using acronyms and Meteor too is an acronym for Métro Est-Ouest Rapide.


I must share with my readers that when I rode this Metro in 2009, it was my first ride in a driverless metro train. Yes, there is no driver running this metro line as it is fully automatic!

Useful Information:

Address: Bibliotheque Nationale Francois Mitterand quai Francois- Mauriac, 13th Arrondisement, Paris.


Upper garden section: Tuesday to Saturday-10 am. to 8 pm., Sunday-12 noon to 7 pm.

Garden level section: Tuesday to Saturday-9am. to 8 pm., Monday -2pm. to 8 pm.


Garden-level section: All day Sunday, Monday mornings and public holidays.

Upper-Garden section: All day Monday and public holidays.

Metro: Quai de la Gare (line 6), Bibliotheque Fr. Mitterand (line 14)

RER: RER C Bibliotheque Fr. Mitterand

Bus: Lines 89, 62 and 132.

Website: (in French)


Phone: 33(0)1 53 79 40 43

(A shorter version of this article with lesser number of photographs was published in The Tribune, Chandigarh some time back.)


  Photographs  and text by K.J.S.Chatrath.

Copyright K.J.S.Chatrath

(This website does not sell any hotel rooms/air tickets/packages/insurance cover etc.  It is intended only for providing information to the Fifty+/younger travellers and sharing of travel experiences.)


The above information is being shared only for the convenience of the readers who are advised to double check the information and satisfy themselves before taking any decision. is in no way responsible either for the accuracy of the contents or for the running of the tours/trains or any other information mention therein.

I am happy to share with you about the starting of another website by me: 

Grave matters….matters of graves…graves and cemeteries….tombs and graves…cemeteries and graveyards….photos of gravestones from all over the world…inscriptions from all over the world…sad, inspirational and some with a sense humour… I look forward to receiving your encouragement and advice.

These photographs are also available without watermark and in high resolution. Please contact



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