The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/National Library of France

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1307024The Encyclopedia Americana — National Library of France

NATIONAL LIBRARY (BIBLIOTHÈQUE NATIONALE) OF FRANCE, one of the world's most famous libraries. Some of its historians find its origin in the books of Charlemagne and Charles the Bald but this is doubtless mere legend. Saint Louis is said to have formed a collection in the 13th century, but whether his books are among those of the Bibliothèque Nationale is not known. At any rate, the real founder of the Royal Library was King John, who bequeathed his collection of manuscripts to his successor Charles V, who transferred it from the Palais de la Cité to the Louvre. The first librarian of record was Claude Mallet, the king's valet de chambre, who made a sort of catalogue ‘Inventoire des Livres du Roy nostre Seigneur estans au Chastel du Louvre.’ Jean Blanchet made another list in 1380 and Jean de Bégue one in 1411 and another in 1424. Charles V was a patron of learning and encouraged the making and collection of books. It is known that he employed Nicholas Oresme, Raoul de Presle and others to transcribe ancient texts. This first collection of the King's Library was sold by Charles VI to the English regent of France, the Duke of Bedford, who transferred it to England in 1424. It was apparently dispersed at his death in 1435. Charles VII and Louis XI did little to repair the loss of these books, but the invention of printing resulted in the starting of another collection in the Louvre. Louis XI added to this characteristically by confiscating libraries that struck his fancy, as also did Charles VIII, who seized the collections of the kings of Aragon. Louis XII, who had inherited the library at Blois, incorporated the latter into the Bibliothèque du Roi and further enriched it with the splendid Gruthuyse collection and with plunder from Pavia. Francis I transferred the collection in 1534 to Fontainebleau and merged it with his private library. During his reign, fine bindings became the craze and many of the books added by him and Henry II are masterpieces of the binder's art. Under librarianship of Amyot, the collection was transferred to Paris during which process many treasures were lost. Henry IV again moved it to the Collège de Clermont and in 1604 it was housed in the Rue de la Harpe. The appointment of J. A. de Thou, the famous historian and bibliophile, initiated a period of development that made it the largest and richest collection of books in the world. He was succeeded by his son who was replaced, when executed for treason, by Jerome Bignon, the first of a line of distinsuished librarians of the same name. Under de Thou, the library was enriched by the collections of Queen Catherine de Medici. The library grew rapidly during the reigns of Louis XIII and Louis XIV, due in great part to the interest of the Minister of Finance, Colbert, one of the most indefatigable collectors of books. The quarters in the Rue de la Harpe becoming inadequate, the library was again moved, in 1666, to a more spacious house in Rue Vivienne. The Minister Louvois took quite as much interest in the library as Colbert and during his administration a magnificent building to be erected in the Place Vendôme was planned. The death of Louvois, however, prevented the realization of this plan. Louvois employed Mabillon, Thevenot and others to procure books from every source. In 1688 a catalogue in eight volumes was compiled, and under the administration of Abbé Louvois, the Minister's son, the library was thrown open to all scholars. Abbé Louvois was succeeded by the Abbé Bignon, or Bignon II as he was termed, who instituted a complete reform of the library's system. Catalogues were made which appeared from 1739-53 in 11 volumes. The collections increased steadily by purchase and gift to the outbreak of the Revolution, at which time it was in grave danger of partial or total destruction, but owing to the activities of Renouard and Van Praet it suffered no injury. The Revolution appears to have benefited the library for many of the books of the emigrés and the suppressed religious institutions found their way to the shelves of the Bibliothèque Nationale, as it was now called. Furthermore an administrative organization was established that is the basis of its present system. Napoleon took great interest in the library and among other things issued an order that all books in provincial libraries not possessed by the Bibliothèque Nationale should be forwarded to it, subject to replacement by exchanges of equal value from the duplicate collections, makmg it possible, as Napoleon said, to find a copy of any book in France in the National Library. Napoleon furthermore increased the collections by spoil from his conquests, a good share of which, however, was restored after his downfall. During the period from 1800 to 1836, the library was virtually under the control of Joseph Van Praet, to the development of which he consecrated the whole of bis energies. At his death it contained more than 650,000 printed books and some 80,000 manuscripts, many of them of exceeding rarity. His work has been carried on by Taschereau, Delisle and Marcel Homolle under whom the collections have grown to their present size of 4,050,000 volumes, 11,000 manuscripts.