From majestic medieval towers and chandelier-lined 17th-century reading rooms, to medical collections that will make your skin crawl, Paris boasts some of the world’s most impressive bibliothèques. Some are more hidden than others, so here are secret libraries to seek out for some city solitude.
‘Chut! Je lis…’ (Shhh, I’m reading.)
10, place du Panthéon 75005
Born from the ashes of the medieval Abbey of Sainte-Geneviève, the 1850 façade of the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève seems to gleam in the sunlight. It bears 810 names of great thinkers and scholars, inscribed in the stone. Inside, with vast windows overlooking the Panthéon, the iron columns and finely wrought details of the vaulted ceiling in the Labrouste Reading Room (named after its pioneering architect) make this one of the most beautiful places to tarry lost in thought in the Latin Quarter.
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It was a cherished retreat of Simon de Beauvoir (who, as a student at the Sorbonne in the 1920s, would have been confined to the ladies’ section). The library houses around two million documents covering the fields of philosophy, social sciences, art, history and religion, among others. The rare book and manuscript collection, part of which is preserved from the St Geneviève Abbey, dates back to the 9th century.
Bibliothèque médicale Henri Ey
1 rue Cabanis 75014
The majestic façade of the Hôpital de Sainte-Anne stands out in the quiet, slightly grimy surrounds of the 14th arrondissement. But even as you enter through the archway and under the stone tympanum, you would never expect to find the statue-studded secret garden and flourishing grounds hidden within. All that greenery and tranquillity must have done the inhabitants some good over the years. It was Napoleon III who transformed the former site of a 13th-century maison de santé (literally “health house”) into the asile clinique (clinical institution or mental home) that continues to function today as a psychiatric hospital and research centre.
Here you’ll find one of the most fascinating public libraries dedicated to psychiatry, psychoanalysis, and neuroscience, dating from the establishment of the hospital in 1867. Its collection of 30,000 books and journals includes an archive of around 815 rare items focusing on 19th-century French innovations in the field. (They also have a fantastic collection of portraits d’aliénistes — “portraits of psychiatrists” — which can be browsed online: more muttonchops and monocles you could hope for.) Call in at the Musée d’Histoire de la Psychiatrie et des Neurosciences also housed in the building for access (by appointment only).
Bibliothèque Henri Feulard
Musée des moulages – Porte 14
This is definitely one for the strong-stomached and thick-skinned. On the outskirts of Paris, is another medical library named after an Henri — this one a leading 19th-century French dermatologist, which prepares you for what to expect within. Founded in 1886, the Bibliothèque Henri Feulard is a centre of documentation for dermatology, syphilography, venereology, and skin conditions. Of its collection of 14,000 medical books, the oldest date from the 1600s. The 19th-century encyclopedias, according to the library, are “magnificently illustrated.” Maybe don’t go eat a croque monsieur straight after viewing. In any case, the library isn’t open to lookie-lous: to gain access you must be a doctor, medical student, pharmacist, historian, or researcher.
Even harder to gain access to is the adjoining Musée des Moulages Dermatologiques (Museum of Dermatological Casts). Behind these (usually firmly) closed doors are some 5,000 plaster and wax casts of human limbs, disfigured faces, tongues, and genital regions — all helpfully organised by affliction accurately depicting the gruesome horror of diseases including leprosy.
Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal
1 Rue de Sully 75004
A 16th-century military facility, the Arsenal of Paris was seized during the French Revolution and given a peaceful new life as a library in 1797. Nearly one million volumes and a collection of 14,000 rare manuscripts live here, with special attention given to French literature (16th-19th centuries), bibliophilia, and bookbinding. It lacks the vast, awe-inspiring openness of the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, but if it feels a little cagey, perhaps it’s because its archive of the Bastille contains the prison writings of the Marquis de Sade.
The collection also offers much to intrigue occultists, including the original manuscript of The Sacred Magic of Abra-Melin. When you visit, stop in at the Arsenal’s recently restored Salon de Musique to glory in its ornately decorated walls and chandelier-crowded ceiling.
Hôtel de Sens, 1 Rue du Figuier 75004
The charming, turreted Hôtel de Sens with its stained-glass lattice windows is one of three medieval private residences remaining in Paris, its exterior dating from 1475. The library within was founded in 1886. Take shelter here from the alarming prices in the boutiques of the Marais, and discover one of the city’s most comprehensive and eclectic book collections for decorative arts, design, graphic art, fashion and printing — with one peculiarity: more than one million postcards.
If you had to be imprisoned in the dungeon-like area at the top of the stone spiral staircase, there would be plenty of pretty pictures to gaze at. There are also regular exhibitions in the wing across the courtyard; a recent one was on the curious history of spoons.
Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris
24 rue Pavée 75004
Situated in one of the most noble and charming courtyard-blessed hôtels particuliers (grand private house) tucked away in the winding streets of the Marais — the 16th-century Hôtel d’Angoulême Lamoignon — this very Parisian establishment is dedicated to Parisian life and culture, right down to the métro tickets. The focus of the Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris is on French literature and theatre, with the prolific manuscript collections of Jean Cocteau, George Sand, and Apollinaire held here.
No borrowing is possible; items may only be consulted in the reading room. But it’s a welcoming reading room indeed, with warm light from the desk lamps, comfy leather chairs in green and gold, and original exposed wooden beams.
Bibliothèque Václav Havel
26 Esplanade Nathalie Sarraute 75018
Barely open a year in the Halle Pajol — an abandoned railway station built in 1926 — this new-fangled municipal library/médiathèque stands out for its lively collection of albums, comics, manga, films and audio-books. It’s also the first library in Paris to offer a public service allowing visitors to choose from 200 video games and play them in situ. Game on.
This feature originally appeared in Atlas Obscura.