Bibliothèque Sainte Geneviève

As you may have understood from some previous posts, I participate in an international voluntary guiding program, “Greeters”, with its Paris branch “Parisien d’un Jour”. You can click on the logo in the sidebar to read more about it. One nice thing with this is also that sometimes we meet between colleagues and make some more close visits to certain places. This happened again last week, when we made a tour of the Bibliothèque (Library) Sainte Geneviève.
The building was constructed around 1850 on plans made well before and must have been considered quite revolutionary for its architecture, using iron in a prominent, visible way, and with some pre-tendencies towards “art nouveau”. The architect, Henri Labrouste, also a few years later  created the oval reading room at the National Library (see previous post). The Sainte Geneviève Library is on two levels, the first one being for storage and offices and the second being completely occupied by a very large reading room. It’s an academic (Sorbonne) but also public library with some two million volumes available.
This library took over the collections, partly from the 12th century, from what originally was the library of the nearby Sainte-Geneviève Abbey, for long considered as the third European library (after the Vatican and Bodleian Library of Oxford), although a large part of the collections were dispersed during the 16th century.
With the Revolution and the following decades, this area, which is one with a very long history and where the Roman Forum once was installed was radically transformed. The abbey, to a large part in ruins was closed, the abbey church was demolished and replaced by what today is Rue Clovis, part of the abbey buildings became a school, today Lycée Henri IV, where however the library survived until the collections could be moved to the present Library building, opened in 1851 (after a short period also in another college - de Montaigu, just in front of the present Library, also demolished). The major transformation was of course the construction during the latter part of the 18th century of what was supposed to be a new Sainte-Geneviève Church, but today is the Pantheon (see previous post). The beautiful Saint-Etienne-du-Mont Church survived (see previous post). If you are interested, I made some plans to illustrate the changes between a 1739 map and today, which you can find at the end of this post.
The façade of the Sainte-Geneviève Library is covered with hundreds of names and the entrance hall has a number of busts of authors and scientists whose works are to be found in the Library. Walking up the stairs, you can find a replica of Raphael’s Vatican painting “The School of Athens”.

As we can see, the large reading room has hardly changed over the years. One difference is that the tables have changed direction, to allow more space for visitors, some 600. Most of the tables and many chairs have been there from the very beginning.
We also got the opportunity to have a look on the office and storage space on the first floor, including the office of the Chief Librarian.

On a table of donors, I could read the Swedish / Norwegian government (countries unified 1814-1905), two Swedish universities (Uppsala and Lund), some Danish and Swedish editors… I suppose that that is the reason why you can find a very rich collection of Nordic literature in an annex (not visited this time).

We made our visit early in the morning. When we left just before 10am, we could see the line of visitors queuing up.

… and, as promised, some plans of Place de Panthéon and its immediate surroundings in 1739 and today. 


Studio at the Farm said...

What an interesting- looking building, with such an amazing history. I could happily spend months in there, reading!

cocoa and coconut said...

What a grand place! I love libraries but this one surpasses any that I've ever visited.

Ps. Those guided tours sound good! It's great that your involved

The Clever Pup said...

I wanted to take a look when I was staying at the Hotel du Pantheon in October, but being a timid sort, the crowds confused me. Can anyone go in at any time?

Alain said...

Un décor révé pour une Bd de Schuiten et Peeters. Cela doit être très impressionnant, surtout si on lit un tout petit livre.

Dianne said...

Wonderful post Peter with a wealth of histroy - Thank you once again!

Olivier said...

je suis surpris et impressionne par la queue qu'il y a pour entrer dans la bibliotheque

Julie said...

Peter, as I mentioned the other night, I stayed in an apartment last September close to the corner of Clovis & Descartes. The old Roman wall from the 8th C is still visible further down Clovis from Descartes. From my living room window, I had a wonderful view of an extensive section of this Roman wall. The Henry IV school had one of those free Sunday openings whilst I was there. The queues were very long. I did not notice the names all along the front of the library. I will have a look in a day or so.

Looking at your map 2 it took me a little while to orient my head to St Etienne-du-mont, but have it now. What do you think all those little circular shapes are at the 'back' of what is now Henry IV - and maybe running adjacent to the Descartes/Mouffetard boundary. They could be an orange/olive grove, but I think perhaps more likely to be a graveyard.

You note that there was a Roman forum between the current Pantheon and Jardins des Luxembourg. Is there any visible evidence of this remaining?

The main reading room is a delight, and the modern configuration of tables, certainly increases the number of scholars able to use the room at any given time.

Thank you for this post.

Cezar and Léia said...

I would love to visit there but okay...I confess I could not face that huge line, lots of people there! impressive!
I love your pictures!

Cergie said...

Je ne connais cette bibli que par ouï-dire, par mon fils aîné qui y étudiait lorsqu'il était en prépa. Les heures d'ouverture incluant le soir et le WE sont très importantes et je m'étonne de voir les salles vides.
La file d'attente pour entrer, ce sont non pas des visiteurs mais des lecteurs il me semble. Que de fois mon fils a attendu dehors et longtemps.
Ce serait intéressant également de connaître les noms de ceux qui ont étudié et écrit ici : les Beauvoir, les Sartre et bien d'autres...

Virginia said...

As I was reading I wondered if this was near the beautiful church and then you showed us exactly! The ironwork ceiling is amazing. I think I could easily spend hours just photographing it.

Peter, I'M curious. Outside of the Pompidou there were great lines waiting to get into that library as well. Why such long lines? I've never seen a line form at a library here. Perhaps we don't devote enough time to reading and research. Very possible.

hpy said...

Quelle horreur!
(Je parle de faire la queue...)

Simony said...

Very impressive! I really liked the black metal structure for the ceilings.
Libraries are one of my favorite places to visit, love the silence and the smell of the books.

Starman said...

A beautiful bibliothéque.

Synne said...

My goodness, I swear, this is among the most inspiring thing I've ever seen. I LOVE libraries, and this looks like a magical one. I'm definitely going there next time I'm in town! Thanks, Peter!

Suomi said...

Hi there. I really appreciate the points you made. I don’t think I’ve actually thought about it in that way. I can really appreciate how you approached the subject matter and what you said really gave me a new perspective. Thanks for taking the time to write this all out.

joanna said...

This is a true treasure, Peter, merci.

You presented us with photo's and history of A grand & beautiful old library, a galley of living words stacked on shelves, row after row. Everyone has some kind of place that makes them feel transported to a magical realm, for me it would be this rare & gorgeous structure. Some things in life are worth the wait.


Parisbreakfasts said...

Very impressive building!
A bit like a French train station...or a church.
All that height!

Ruth said...

It looks like you got inside before everyone. I think you have secret keys, or pass cards, or relationships with officials all over Paris. ;-)

It's an impressive and beautiful library, third, wow. I wonder how they keep it quiet with all the visitors (like the Notre Dame in Sunday morning mass).

Anne in Oxfordshire said...

Hello Peter .. Thank you for your comment on Italy .. Oh yes you have missed out a region and such a fantastic region too.. I have lots to put up,

Yet again your blog never ceases to amaze me .. YOur posts are all fantastic.. the hidden Paris I would call it.:-)

Jeanne said...

The ironwork used in the architecture of the library is stunning and you captured it well in your photograph. I always wondered what that building was beside the Pantheon but did not take the time to explore....so sorry I did not. Thanks Peter for a great post!

caterpillar said...

The pictures, as always, great...and that's a real huge building...I liked the comparative pictures...not a lot of changes made ...

Mona said...

In India also we have quite a few Palaces and old buildings that have been converted in either schools or colleges, or into five star hotels!

Wish you a very happy Birthday Peter ( I am doing this today, as I might be traveling tomorrow and day after) :)

Marie-Noyale said...

Tu as de la chance d'y etre entre sans faire des heures de queue!
je n'ai jamais eu le courage..
mes enfants ou,i ils y allaient travailler de temps en temps pendant leur annee d'etudes Parisiennes .
Merci pour le coup d'oeil

Rakesh Vanamali said...

Where there are books, I'd go happily! :-)

Thanks very much!

claude said...

C'est un bel endroit pour ceux qui aiment la lecture. J'ai vu un reportage sur des bilibothèsues is dont une de Paris qui est en travaux pour plusieurs années. Ces anciennes biblios sont quand même plusss belles que la nouvelle, je crois la BNF, celle du grand bâtisseur.

Jose Ramon Santana Vazquez said...


desde mis


CON saludos de la luna al
reflejarse en el mar de la



Roseann said...

Happy Birthday, Peter!

Peter (the other) said...

I came by here to wish you, but I thought I'd sing it:


I love the space in the reading room, have walked by there many a time but never thought of it opened to the public. I shall visit it soon!

Trotter said...

So many times around and never inside... ;)

sonia a. mascaro said...

Wonderful post Peter! I love libraries and to have books all around me.

Sounds great your participation in an international voluntary guiding program, “Greeters”. Congratulations!

Capy89 said...

books, books, books.....! it would be nice to read book here. I can see a famous period of architecture when looking at the iron details. Paris is such a huge museum! got to be there :)
p/s: As usual, the location maps are so clear and interesting:D

Dave said...

I visited in May. Can anyone tell me whose bust is on the back wall of the checkout area?