Feature Archive: British Library: French archival collections

Each month, a researcher shares their experiences of using a particular archive. The overall aim of this section is to create a database of the different archives available to those working on French and Francophone studies that will be of help particularly to students just starting out in research.

Sam Young is a second-year PhD student in the School of Modern Languages at Cardiff University. His research explores the role of Social Catholic associations in the development of mass urban housing in France after the Second World War. Here he talks about the material available at the British Library for historians of France and the Francophone World.

The British Library at St Pancras, London. The redbrick building, designed by Colin St John Wilson, was opened in 1997. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Understandably, the British Library might not be the first place that springs to mind when searching for French archival material. Yet the vast holdings in the blocky redbrick structure at St Pancras in London contain more than their fair share of French and Francophone sources. In this time of limited foreign travel, the British Library’s extensive collection of French manuscripts, newspapers, microfilm and audio has much to offer researchers whose planned trips abroad have been frustrated by ever-shifting Covid-19 regulations.

So, what might you find? I have barely scratched the surface of the British Library’s French material during my short time as a postgraduate researcher, but even a few brief visits have uncovered a wealth of useful sources. Most impressive are the media archives. The Library maintains microfilm copies of leading French newspapers such as Le Monde and Le Figaro stretching back to their earliest editions (from 1854, in the case of Le Figaro). In addition to broadsheets, it stocks microfilm of smaller papers such as the communist L’Humanité and defunct centre-right daily L’Aurore, as well as commentary magazines like L’Express, Le Point and Le Nouvel Observateur (now L’Obs).

If the thought of spooling through microfilm like a Cold War spy doesn’t take your fancy, the British Library also holds plenty of paper-based Francophone resources. One example I have found handy in my own research (on post-war urbanisation) are copies of industry journals, notably L’Architecture française. Equally useful is the stock of French books and manuscripts. This includes many rare, subject-specific texts of great academic value – an example in my case being the works of the little-known urbanist and Christian mysticist Gaston Bardet. It also includes some texts that are probably best left in obscurity: I once spent several hours sifting through Jean-Marie Le Pen’s unconvincing memoir Les Français d’abord, as well as the ramblings of far-right lawyer and failed presidential candidate Jean-Louis Tixier-Vignancour, known for his impassioned defences of both Nazi collaborators and French-Algerian terrorists. As I say, you’ll find all sorts in the British Library.

Image of social campaigner abbé Pierre with homeless children in Paris, 1954. Taken from a copy of Le Figaro accessed via the British Library’s microfilm collection. Reference: Marin, Gérard, ‘Dans Paris, sous la neige: randonnée nocturne avec l’abbé Pierre et un ancien ministre – la recherche des hommes sans gîte’, Le Figaro, 1 February 1954, p. 12.

In terms of access, the British Library’s main London base sits next door to King’s Cross-St Pancras station. Entry is free, though new users must register online for a Reader Pass, which is then printed on your first visit. For most French sources I would advise booking material online several days in advance so that you can collect it immediately upon arrival.

The city-centre location has its benefits as well. While the Library has its own café and shop (and very nice they are too), visitors can easily explore cafés and takeaways in the surrounding streets before settling down to work (food is not permitted in the reading rooms). There’s also a decent Irish pub opposite the main entrance, though I am obliged to warn fellow non-Londoners of our capital’s eye-watering drinks prices.

For researchers based further north, the Library maintains a secondary base in the village of Boston Spa, located just off the A1(M) near Wetherby. Boston Spa has one large reading room, complete with microfilm machines, as well as a canteen serving full meals for under a fiver. However, it is quite remote: the Boston Spa facility is only accessible by car, although some local universities run a monthly minibus service. There is also often a longer waiting time on booked resources, as material is driven up from London.

Lastly, a note on Covid-19. The British Library remains open at the time of writing, but visitors must now book a specific desk space in addition to their material (tickets are released every Thursday). The Library has also changed its opening times, details of which can be found here. Masks are mandatory.

In short, the British Library is an often overlooked but surprisingly useful resource for historians of France and the Francophone world. While its opening times and location(s) may be awkward for some, it nonetheless offers a wealth of French primary source material that can be freely accessed with minimal bureaucratic fuss. At a time when many researchers are struggling to reach archives abroad, the British Library could well provide the lifeline needed to keep a project afloat.

Sam Young is a second-year PhD student in the School of Modern Languages at Cardiff University. His research explores the role of Social Catholic associations in the development of mass urban housing in France after the Second World War. He is also the General Editor of 
Question, the postgraduate journal of the South West & Wales Doctoral Training Partnership.


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