Which National Library Of France Site To Visit? The Richelieu Library

It’s worth checking out the impressive architecture of the Labrouste Reading Room and Oval Room at the Richelieu Library in Paris. Just don’t make my mistake and only google “Bibliothèque Nationale de France (National Library of France)”  because there are four National Library of France sites.

[Updated February 20, 2024]

I began my search with Google Maps. I typed in the “National Library of France”. This is what popped up: Francois-Mitterrand Library, located in the 13th arrondissement. I just assumed the Labrouste Reading Room was located there. I headed on the Metro and arrived at this very modern building. Odd, I thought. The inside of the library that I saw in the photo looked really old. Not sure how it would be housed in this building, but OK, I’ll look around.

Site #1: Bibliothèque Francois-Mitterrand

Four National Library of France sites: Francois Mitterrand library
Francois Mitterrand library

The construction of the library was announced by President Francois Mitterrand in 1988 and the building was finally inaugurated in 1996.  As the design is very modern and the building is particularly large and high, it is also known as the “Très Grande Bibliothèque” or ”TGB”.

You can purchase a 1 day “Reading Ticket” for 5 € and you can get a “free” ticket for access between 5:00-8:00 pm. It will give you access to the “reading rooms of the general public library”. There are also 1-1.2 hour guided tours at this library on Wednesdays (3:00 pm), Saturdays (5:00 pm) and Sundays (3:00 pm).

Photography Exhibit

I wandered down the corridors that surrounded a large courtyard filled with trees and came upon a photography exhibit. Some interesting work was on display, but what really caught my attention was the permanent exhibition, entitled, “Les Globes”.

The Globes of Louis XIV

Les Globes at the Francois Mitterrand library (J. Chung)
Les Globes at the Francois Mitterrand library (J. Chung)

King Louis XIV (1638-1715), also known as the Sun King, was best known for his interest in the arts, music, and literature.  He was also curious about science as well and established the Paris Observatory and the French Academy of Sciences. One of his commissions involved the creation of two globes in 1681: a terrestrial globe and a celestial globe.

The photo above, unfortunately, does not adequately show how stunning they are nor how big they are. Actually, they’re gigantic. Each is just under 4 metres (12 feet) in diameter. One of the globes looks like a traditional map of the earth while the other shows the horoscope and solar system. They were created by Venetian cartographer Vincenzo Coronelli and are often now referred to as The Coronelli Globes. Through the centuries the globes have had various homes, including Chateau de Versailles.

So while the Francois-Mitterrand library was not exactly the library I was expecting to see, it turned out to be a pleasant surprise. As I prepared to leave, I showed the security guard a photo of the library I wanted to see. He said, “No, that [photo] is at the Richelieu site?” What?!?! I proceeded to locate the Richelieu Library on Google Maps and headed back to the centre of Paris.

Site #2: Richelieu Library

National Library of France: Richelieu Site
National Library of France: Richelieu Site

The Richelieu library, located just north of Palais Royal is a grand structure. It oozes French history (as compared to the other library which “oozes” modern architecture) and was built in the mid-19th century. The vestibule of this library is impressive with a huge chandelier and stone carvings on the wall.

I first visited the Richelieu Library in 2018 when renovations were in progress, and then again in 2023 when the renovations were completed. During this latter visit, I took a guided tour.

(a) Labrouste Reading Room

One of the National Library of France sites: Richelieu Library, Paris (J. Chung)
Four National Library of France sites: This is the Richelieu Library site in Paris (J. Chung)
Labrouste Reading Room at the National Library of France Richelieu Site (J. Chung)
Labrouste Reading Room at the National Library of France Richelieu Site (J. Chung)

One of the main attractions at the Richelieu site is the Labrouste Reading Room (the Salle Labrouste) and unless you are a researcher or student, you can only stand at the doorway to take photos. You cannot enter unless you are a student or researcher. Unlike Bibliothèque Francois-Mitterrand where you can purchase a one-day pass to give you access to the Labrouste reading room, I didn’t see any opportunity to do this at the Richelieu LIbrary. Standing at the doorway was good enough for me to get some great shots.

Labrouste Reading Room at the National Library of France Richelieu Site (J. Chung)
Labrouste Reading Room at the National Library of France Richelieu Site (J. Chung)
Four National Library of France sites: Richelieu site's Labrouste Reading Room (J. Chung
Labrouste Reading Room (J. Chung
National Library of France-Richelieu Site: Labrouste Reading Room (J. Chung)
National Library of France-Richelieu Site: Labrouste Reading Room (J. Chung)

The reading room is named after Henri Labrouste who was the architect of the Imperial Library in 1854. Architects Bruno Gaudin and Jean-François Lagneau have been spearheading the renovations since 2008. In September 2022, the renovations were finally completed and a new entrance for visitors was constructed on rue de Vivienne. 

(b) Oval Room (Salle Ovale)

Oval Room (Salle Ovale) at the Richelieu site, Bibliotheque Nationale de France

Students, researchers, and visitors can now access the Oval Room, free of charge. There is also a new staircase taking you to the fully renovated Mazarin wing on the first floor, where there is a museum and exhibitions. One interesting manuscript on display is Victor Hugo’s “Notre-Dame de Paris”. 

(c) Other Areas At The Richelieu Library

As I wandered down a hallway while renovations were going on, I saw a stairway leading to the next floor. I proceeded up the stairs hoping to find a vantage point to take more photos from above; however, once I got up there, the door was locked. As I proceeded back down, a student signaled to me to head in another direction. He was quietly indicating that there was another stairway to get upstairs. I nodded a thank you to him and headed up those stairs.

Rotonde des Arts du Spectacle

BnF Richelieu-Rotonde des arts du spectacle
BnF Richelieu-Rotonde des arts du spectacle
BnF Richelieu Site Auguste Rondel gallery
BnF Richelieu Site Auguste Rondel gallery (J. Chung)

When I arrived, I found the Rotonde des Arts du Spectacle. There were artifacts and collections from the Performing Arts Department behind display cases and there was also a glass door that led into the Auguste Rondel gallery. Rondel was a patron of the arts and in this area are the Rare Book Reserves. The whole area almost looked untouched. Lots of wood and is beautifully designed. Of course, I couldn’t enter. It was locked. I don’t know if I was even allowed there and I feel quite privileged to have seen the rooms.

Guided Tour Of The Richelieu Museum

The Richelieu Museum has 2 tours: one is of the museum and the other is of the Richelieu site.

(a) Richelieu Museum Guided Tour

First room at the museum, Richelieu site
17th century medaillier at the Richelieu museum

Before travelling to France in December 2024 (Trip #38 To France: Paris and Strasbourg in December) , I ordered tickets to tour the BnF’s Richelieu museum with a guide. It was 15 € and I’ll be honest: as I am not fluent in French I could not take advantage of the French-speaking guide who talked about the history and architecture of the museum and some of the important pieces that we saw during the tour. The website says, “Foreign languages on request: English, Spanish, German, Italian”, however, this was not the case, at least when I went.

I understood some things but not all. You are provided with audiophones; however, this is simply to enable you to hear the guide more easily. I was given a printed guide (“plan”) and it was all in French. The museum is accessed via a lovely marble staircase that takes you to the second floor. After you pass through the elaborate glass and metal gates, you enter the museum and pass through many rooms, moving chronologically through the ages.

On display are some of the most important pieces of Greek, Roman, and French history dating back to the Middle Ages. They include a 17th-century medaillier (a medal box or cabinet made of Coromandel Chinese lacquer), medals, paintings, sculptures, manuscripts, jewelry, silverware, costumes, cabinets, and Greek vases. Many of the items date back to the 1st century.

Oval Room-Richelieu site

One of the rooms provides a panoramic view of the Salle Ovale reading room. And the view is magnificent.

Galerie Mazarin, Richelieu site, BnF
Painted ceiling at the Galerie Mazarin

But it is the final room with the impressive painted ceiling (covering an area of 280   m²) that is most impressive. The fresco was inspired by Greco-Roman mythology. It is the Galerie Mazarin, which was commissioned by Cardinal Mazarin to house his large collection of paintings and sculptures, considered a “gallery of treasures”. Mazarin was a politician and chief minister to the Kings of France, Louis XIII and Louis XiV. The gallery was built between 1644 and 1646 by François Mansart and had a major restoration done in 2018-2019.

Guided Museum Tours are available:

  • Tuesdays: 6-7 pm
  • Wednesdays: 4-5:30 pm
  • Saturdays: 11-12:30 pm and 3:30-5:00 pm
  • Sundays: 11-12:30 pm and 2:00-3:00 pm

(b) Richelieu Site Guided Tour

The cost of the tour at the Richelieu site is 9 € and you are provided with audiophiles to hear the guide.

Guided Richelieu Site Tours are available:

  • Tuesdays-11:30-1:00 pm, 1:00-4:30 pm, and 6-7:30 pm
  • Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays: 11:30-1:00 pm, 1:00-4:30 pm.

(c) Independent Visit To The Richelieu Museum

The cost to visit the museum on your own is 10 €. In hindsight, I should have just gotten this ticket as it provided access to the same areas that the guide took me to.

Visiting the Richelieu site will provide you with magnificent architecture worth seeing. There are limited tours and you can check to see if one is available on their website:

Richelieu Site of the National Library of France

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Bibliothèque Nationale de France

The Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BnF) was founded at the Louvre Palace by King Charles V in 1368. Today it is the 7th largest library in the world with over 40 million catalogued items. When you’re in Paris, be sure to check out the library at the Richelieu site and the temporary exhibitions at the Francois-Mitterrand location. There are guided tours at each.

Website: Bibliothèque Nationale de France  

Through the centuries, the library has moved to various locations throughout Paris  and while I have only written about two of the National Library of France sites, you never know. The other two sites might be equally as impressive. Here are the four National Library of France sites:

Bibliothèque Site Richelieu (59 Rue de Richelieu):

  • Monday 2:00 pm-7:30 pm
  • Tuesday-Saturday 9:00 am-8:00 pm
  • Sunday 10:00 am-6:00 pm

Bibliothèque Francois-Mitterrand (Quai Francois Mauriac):

  • Monday 2 p.m. – 8 p.m. (Research Library)
  • Tuesday-Saturday 9 a.m. – 8 p.m.
  • Sunday 1 p.m. – 7 p.m.

Bibliotheque de l’Arsenal (1 Rue de Sully):

  • Monday 2:00 pm-7:00 pm
  • Tuesday-Friday 10 a.m. – 7:00 p.m. 
  • Saturday 10 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.
  • Sunday closed

Bibliothèque Nationale de France-Musée de l’Opéra (8 Rue Scribe)

  • Monday – Saturday 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Four National Library of France Sites: 2 sites worth visiting

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  1. Keith Van Sickle says:

    I want to see those globes, they sound fantastic!

    1. They were pretty impressive….and huge!

  2. I visited the library last summer and found it amazing!! Will have to visit the museum next time.

    1. That’s super that you enjoyed it too!