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February 2011

 File n°76 

The Library and Archives Department

 

 

 

    Key Points

    The library of the National Assembly was set up in 1796 and has been in its present premises, decorated by Eugène Delacroix, since 1835. With its 500,000 volumes and its historical collection which was mainly built up during the French Revolution and the Empire, it is one of the finest libraries in France. For almost two centuries, it has been specialized in the legal, economic, political and social fields and today it represents a modern research and consultation tool accessible to parliamentarians, their assistants, civil servants of the National Assembly and to researchers.

    In 2009, the Archives Department, the history of which goes back to the origins of Parliament (as early as 1789 the Constituent Assembly had established an Archive Department whose role was mixed with that of the National Archives), was merged with the library. Today the tasks of the Archives Unit include, in addition to the management of the archives of the National Assembly, the provision of information to the general public on parliamentary proceedings dating back to the Revolution. To this aim the Archives Unit publishes the biographies of former M.P.s. It has also launched various initiatives aimed at encouraging and developing research on parliamentary law and history.

 

I. – THE LIBRARY UNIT

The library of the National Assembly was set up in 1796 (law of 14 ventôse, year IV or March 4, 1796) although it only moved to its present premises in 1835.

1. – The decoration: a masterpiece of romantic art

The building was constructed between 1833 and1835 in the former courtyard of the outbuildings of the Palais Bourbon. The architect, Jules de Joly, designed the great nave (42 metres long and 10 metres wide) to house 70,000 volumes, i.e. 20,000 more than the library then possessed.

The decoration of the ceiling was entrusted to Eugène Delacroix, who arranged the subjects of the five domes according to the library classification in use at the time. For each dome, a single theme brought together, in four pendentives, the most famous men in the disciplines reflected: in the centre, legislation; on each side, philosophy and theology; at each end, science and poetry. At the northern and southern ends, there are two half-domes which place war (“Attila trampling Italy and the Arts”) in opposition to peace (“Orpheus Bringing the Yet Barbarian Greeks the Gifts of Civilization”).

It took Delacroix and his pupils eight years (1839-47) to conceive of and execute this extraordinary project.

Thus, this place of study and research is also, thanks to the genius of the artist, one of the most beautiful examples of romantic art. “Nothing more magnificent was painted in the French school of mural painting” wrote Charles Blanc, the great art historian in 1881.

2. – The collection: from the showcase of the connaisseur to the legislative library

When it was set up, the library inherited 12,000 books which had been brought together by the Committee of Public Instruction of the Convention. They came from “literary stores” created after the sequestering of goods belonging to the clergy and to émigrés. It was from these same stores that the first librarian, Armand Gaston Camus, would draw in order to build up the collection until the end of the Consulate (1804). Bringing together an encyclopaedic mind and a passion for books, he attempted to wed, in his own words, “the pleasure of the eyes to that of the mind”.

His successor, the Benedictine monk, Druon, also conceived of the library as both a means of documentation and a showcase of rare and precious pieces. By buying at public auctions, he added two exceptional documents to the old collection: the manuscript of the trial of Joan Of Arc and the Codex Borbonicus or Aztec calendar dating from the end of the XVth century.

From 1830 on, times changed. As the parliamentary system became stronger, the library, which was now situated close to the Chamber, had to become a working tool adapted to the needs of the legislator. In accordance with the instructions given by public authorities, the library managers had to make available for the M.P.s everything that was published, at least by French printers, in the legal, economic, social and political fields.

This rule has operated since then as far as the acquisition of books and periodicals is concerned. The technical nature of the library has had the upper hand over the love of books. However, nothing can stop the old collection from being enhanced by rare documents when they are part of political and parliamentary history. It is the reason why in recent years the collections have been enriched by manuscripts by Robespierre, Lamartine, Jaurès or Léon Blum without forgetting those which parliamentarians themselves leave to the library.

3. – The library in figures 

- 14,500 linear metres of underground shelving;

- Circa 500,000 works with an annual growth of approximately 4,000 volumes;

- 80 incunabula (published before the XVIth century);

- 2,000 manuscripts;

- 3,000 periodicals of which 535 are still published;

- 220 French daily newspapers (including local editions);

- All the collections of parliamentary debates and documents since 1789 (on microfiche from 1881);

- Almost 2000 original posters from the great moments of the revolutions: 1789, 1848, the Commune. In addition, the library houses a collection of engravings and prints made up in particular of preparatory studies by Delacroix for his works in the Palais Bourbon, of Epinal prints and of various engravings concerning the history of the National Assembly;

- More than 600 medals, busts, statuettes and other objects of artistic and historical value.

To all these, must be added nowadays, access to various forms of electronic documentation (cd-roms for individual use or on networks, access to internet and numerous legal, economic and press databases).

4. – A modern tool for research and consultation

The library is intended for use by M.P.s but is also open to their assistants (up to three per M.P.), the secretaries of political groups as well as the staff of the National Assembly. Senators, French MEPs and former members of the parliamentary assemblies also have access.

Scholars carrying out research requiring the consultation of works not to be found in any other library can have an access authorization on days when the National Assembly is not sitting. This authorization is valid for one month and is renewable. It is granted by the Secretary General of the Assembly and the Presidency upon the proposal of the Director of the library.

All the documents indexed since 1993 are listed in a computer catalogue which can be consulted from computers linked to the Intranet network but also, thanks to the Extranet, from M.P.s constituencies. A project to digitize all the pre-1993 catalogue is currently being worked on. Its implementation will give life to a substantial part of the library’s collection.

The works are made available exclusively for readers who request them from a distance and who can come and consult them in a twenty-four hour time limit.

The only people who can borrow books are:

- M.P.s;

- Senators and French MEPs;

- Former members of the parliamentary assemblies, the Consultative Assembly or the Constituent Assemblies;

- Members of staff of the National Assembly;

- The assistants paid by political groups.

M.P.s may also grant power of attorney to one of their assistants to borrow books on their behalf and under their responsibility.

Loans are limited to:

- 6 volumes per person;

- A time limit of two months.

The following cannot be borrowed:

- Newspapers and reviews;

- Rare books;

- Books on direct access;

- Books published more than fifty years ago.

II. – THE ARCHIVES UNIT

The tasks of the unit include managing the archive collection of the National Assembly as well as welcoming and providing information to those wishing to obtain details of former parliamentary proceedings. In addition, for several years now, the unit has implemented several initiatives to encourage and develop research in parliamentary law and history.

1. – Managing the archives of the national assembly

    This is indeed the original and traditional task of the Archives Unit. It is responsible for the collecting, depositing, archiving and maintenance of all the archives of the National Assembly.

The Archives Unit, first of all, plays an advisory and training role as regards the other departments of the Assembly. It provides them with the methods and tools necessary to help the daily management of the documents they produce. To do this the department liaises with the “archives” correspondent in each department. Then the department files the collections which have been deposited by the departments and draws up inventories.

For several decades now the National Assembly has maintained a policy of providing documents to the National Archives. It is thus that all the legislative documents prior to 1958 have been transferred to the National Archives. These documents include the minutes of committees and the administrative archives, some of which go as far back as the XIXth century. Subsequently, a series of archives concerning legislative activity (the legislative files of bills considered in plenary sitting, minutes of committee meetings etc.) covering the first ten Parliaments of the Fifth Republic (1958-2002), were sent for safekeeping.

The archives sent to the National Archives remain available for the Archives Unit for consultation purposes. Thus the Archives Unit maintains the link between the National Archives and the National Assembly.

2. – Communicating to the general public information on parliamentary proceedings dating from the revolution

The Archives Unit provides assistance to those wishing to consult the archives (private individuals but also historians as well as people belonging to administration and the legal profession) who need to refer to parliamentary documents and the department’s collections for their professional activities or their research work.

It receives numerous requests every day which are more and more often made by electronic mail. The most frequent requests concern preparatory work on legislative provisions, debates at the Assembly in a particular area, or access to a specific speech by an M.P. during a particular period or on a specific subject, or biographical details on M.P.s. This list is far from exhaustive.

The unit also has, on its premises, a consultation room which is used by around one thousand people every year. In this room it is possible to consult printed parliamentary documents (Government or Members' bills, reports etc.), official reports of plenary sittings, as well as a series of other documents such as lists of M.P.s, compilations of election platforms etc. The unit also has certain parliamentary archives which are available to the public. From among the archives kept at the National Assembly, it is possible to freely consult, in accordance with the rules set down by the Bureau of the National Assembly, written documents over twenty-five years old (subject to exceptions for certain types of document such as those dealing with national defence or containing personal details for example for which the period of release may be longer).

3. – Compiling and publishing information on the biography of former m.p.s

The Archives Unit writes up biographical notes on former M.P.s which are to be published in the Dictionary of French Parliamentarians and published on-line on the internet site of the National Assembly. This work is carried out in collaboration with the Senate for parliamentarians who have been both M.P.s and Senators.

In order to facilitate research on former M.P.s, the unit has set up a biographical database going back to the revolution of 1789. It covers nearly 16,000 M.P.s. Certain information from this database is available for consultation on the internet site of the National Assembly: civil status of the M.P., dates of his term(s) and a biographical note.

4. – Producing for each m.p. a file compiling his participation in proceedings of the national assembly in plenary sitting

As part of its information brief on parliamentary proceedings, the Archives Unit is currently setting up, with the assistance of the Information Systems Department and the Sittings Report Department, an automatic procedure for the use of the databases concerning parliamentary activity so as to present for each M.P., a file collecting all of his speeches during the plenary sitting.

This file also lists his positions on each of the various bodies of the Assembly and outside the Assembly, as well as the Members' bills, draft motions or reports he has tabled.

The file is published on the internet site of the National Assembly (within the individual file appearing for each M.P.) by the Communication and Multimedia Information Department.

5. – Encouraging and supporting research into parliamentary history and law

The Archives Unit carries out two operations which aim at encouraging and developing research in the fields of parliamentary law and history:

- Research grant: every year the National Assembly awards a research grant to a student beginning or having begun a thesis in parliamentary law or history since the Revolution. The length and amount of this grant are based on the rules applied in higher education;

- The National Assembly Thesis Prize: this prize is given every year to one or two students who have successfully defended their doctoral thesis in one of the aforementioned fields. It is in the form of financial aid towards publication which is given to the publisher of the thesis.