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The Press Collection of the French National Library (Bibliothèque Nationale de France)

If we take the prior definition of “press” to be periodic titles published on a daily to quarterly basis whose subject matter could be categorised as “general interest”, it is possible to include, in addition to general news titles, specialised generalist publications (instruction, education, information and public recreation falling within the scope of general interest). In this case, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BnF) holds almost 247,000 press titles published on French territory (including former colonies and overseas territories) and in all languages. This collection, which began in 1631 with the first newspaper published in France – the weekly publication founded by Théophraste Renaudot, La Gazette – has since grown due to all publisher beign legally obliged to give the library a copy of their publications.. In 2017, 15,948 new press titles were added to the collection, which now occupies nearly 44 linear kilometres in the BnF archives.

La Gazette, Recueil de l’année 1632

The development of the press in France

To go further into the details of the collection, let's start by looking back at some milestones in the history of the press in France. The first periodic publications appeared in the 17th century withLa Gazette, in 1631, which in 1762 became La Gazette de France, the official organ of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, publishing information of a political nature. In 1665, Le Journal des savants, under the patronage of Colbert, aimed to "let people know what is happening in the Republic of Letters" (January 1665 issue). The newspaper, which ceased publication in 1792, was re-established in 1816. Finally, the Mercure Galant which was founded in 1672, became the Mercure de France in 1724 and still exists today. During the "Age of Enlightenment", the number of periodic publications grew. Around 1780, there were around fifty titles published in Paris and about thirty in the provinces. In 1777, the first French daily newspaper was published: Le Journal de Paris. With the French Revolution and Article 11 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which defined the principle of freedom of the press, hundreds of titles were created to relay the daily development of events.

L'Ami du peuple, 12 septembre 1789

Among the best-known are the Journal des débats et décrets, the Ami du peuple, and the Patriote français. Napoleon Bonaparte put an end to this progress at the beginning of the Consulate with the publication in the Moniteur Universelof decrees severely restricting the number of political news titles in Paris and the provinces.

Nevertheless, owing to the industrialisation of printing and the reduction in selling price, written press experienced a golden age in the 19th century. The Third Republic accompanied this development with the Law of 29 July 1881, which established in France the most liberal press regime in the world. Print runs and the number of pages increased, the daily press opened up to a profusion of new columns, serials, essays, reports and specialised news, while the opinion press made its appearance. At the end of the century and up until 1914, there were several thousand titles in France.

While large print runs such as Le Petit Parisien, Le Petit journal, Le Matin, L’Intransigeant, etc., resisted the upheaval of the First World War, the conflict wiped out a large number of more fragile titles. The landscape that was rebuilt during the inter-war period was marked by the expansion of the magazine press and the regional daily press.

Marie-Claire, 26 Janvier 1940

The Second World War saw the re-establishment of censorship directed at the communist press, and the division of publications between titles that existed before the war and which withdrew to the southern zone (Le Figaro, La Croix, Le Temps, etc.) and collaborationist titles that appeared in the northern zone (Je suis partout, Le Cri du peuple, Signal, etc.). At the same time, more than 1,000 clandestine press titles were published, often on basic sheets of paper.

 

Presse clandestine, Le Populaire, Septembre 1943

After the Liberation, economic hardship, combined with deep divisions in French society led to the disappearance of the majority of publications and the reconfiguration of the overall landscape of the French press. The largest daily periodicals resumed significant circulation with the Fifth Republic, while the magazine market saw strong growth.

Since the mid-1970s, the recession, the development of television and soon after, the development of digital technology and free publications has led to a steady decline in the number of print runs of paid press publications.

Preserving and promoting the BnF press collection

From this brief history, we can see that the most voluminous chronological period of the press collection held at the BnF are the years 1880 to 1944, which represents nearly 35% of the collection, and the years 1944 to 1990, which represent nearly 39% of the collection. Due to the difficulties associated with processing the flows of periodicals coming in through legal deposit, as well as damage related to paper, ink and publication formats, these funds are particularly fragile.

La Dépêche, 14 décembre 1932 (exemple de fascicule abîmé)

To ensure the preservation and improve promotion of the collection, the institution began to carry out microfilming campaigns in the late 1950s. The number of microfilmed newspaper titles is estimated to be 5.5% of the entire collection. Similarly, the mass digitisation of the copyright-free press began in 2005 with 22 major daily publications selected as part of the Jeanneney programme (more than 2 million pages for the titles Le Temps, La Croix, L’Humanité, Le Figaro, Le Figaro littéraire, Le Monde diplomatique – 1954-1977, available in digital format on the BnF premises on Gallica intra muros –, Le Journal des débats, La Presse, Le Petit parisien, Le Gaulois, Le Matin, Le Petit journal, Le Constitutionnel, L’Univers, L’Aurore, Le Petit journal illustré, L’Action française, L’Echo de Paris, L’Intransigeant, La Justice, Le Populaire de Paris, and Le Siècle).

The digitisation of the press has since continued, carried out jointly by the BnF and its subsidiary BnF-Partnerships as well as by the Europeana Newspapers project. Today, more than 7,000 publications are digitised (NUMP catalogue classification), representing nearly 3% of the entire collection. These can be accessed online through three distribution platforms – Gallica, the digital library of the BnF and its partners, RetroNews, which is an editorialised press site, and Europeana Newspapers, which gives access to newspapers from all over Europe.

The press collection held at the BnF therefore comprises several sub-collections – a printed collection, a digital collection constituted by the digitisation of originals and microforms, a digital collection assembled through the legal deposit of the internet, and a microfilmed collection constituted either through the microfilming of originals or the acquisition of microfilms. The physical documents – paper originals and microform reproductions – are distributed between different departments; mostly the Law, Economics and Politics department, which holds nearly 70% of the press collection. Next are the Philosophy, History and Human Sciences departments, with 10% of the collection, Literature and Arts with 7%, Science and Technology with 5%, and finally the Arsenal site which also holds nearly 5% of the BnF's press titles.

 

 

Data from the report La Presse physique et numérique à la BnF : état des lieux et perspectives, by Catherine Aurérin and Aline Girard, handed in March 2018 to the President and the Director General of the BnF.