When an artists shoots a ‘documentary’, this happens – Alain Resnais beautiful 1956 film about the old Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Music by Maurice Jarre in a score that could be Phillip Glass. Watch it full screen. The camera moves and transitions are masterful.

The names of Agnes Varda and Chris (aka Magic) Marker appear discreetly as collaborators (as well as those of Chester Gould and Lee Falk  echoing Resnais’ fascination with comics – Gould was the creator of Dick Tracy and Falk of Mandrake. Their covers feature in one shot .

The English titles are good but I feel we’re missing something and to read the voice over like a poem, here’s what Google Translate thinks from the French text in italics, with some (ongoing) changes by me.

The times the title appear are at left. The film opens with an image of an Eclair camera. And the voice over starts with an image of a microphone rotating.

Because he has a short memory, man amasses countless memory aids .
Faced with these bulging repositories, man fears being engulfed by this mass of words. To safeguard his freedom he builds fortresses.

2’40 – (In front of these bunkers full to bursting, men take fright, afraid of being overwhelmed by this multitude of writings, by this cluster of words. So to guarantee their freedom, they build fortresses).



4’25 – In Paris, the words are imprisoned in the national library. It contains everything that is printed in France. All the signs which the hand of man has traced are represented in the richest of these departments: that of the manuscripts.

An ever-changing show takes place in the periodical department room. We consult most of the world’s newspapers.

In the cabinet of the prints are preserved all the images, whether engraved, lithographed or even photographed. It is a museum.

Museum also, the cabinet of medals. Louis XIV was the first to collect treasures there.

Stars, satellites, meteors, capitals and their suburbs are within our reach to the maps and plans departments.

Built at a time when the National Library was little printed, it is now enriched by some three million volumes per century. To avoid the bursting, perpetually they sink deeper into the ground, they rise higher in the sky.

Print Department / Work Room
Cabinet of the prints
Medals and Antiques
The periodical room
Maps and plans

For the recourse to this gigantic memory to be possible, those who have charge of the treasures it contains count them. They sort them, analyze them, classify them, number them methodically. It took centuries to inventory the six million books, the five million prints preserved in the National. This fortress would be an unnamed land.

It was necessary to conceive of disciplines which, in time, have become laws.

To inventory the mass of our knowledge, we had to resort to key words.

Over time, a large catalog of printed materials has been born, which is always in the works.

An exemplary memory, the National stores all that is printed in France.

A single department, that of periodicals, must digest every day two hundred kilos of paper, newspapers, magazines, magazines, newsletters, directories and almanacs.

Disappearing, a collection loses its value. This is why the slightest fault of inattention is forbidden here. If a number is missing it will be claimed. Even if some of these prints were to be printed only once, they should be kept. This is the rule of the game.

Among these collections was discovered the first writing of Rimbaud published by an obscure journal of the Ardennes. Who knows if these leaves contain no other revealing text? Who knows what tomorrow will most surely testify to our civilization?

9 ‘


9’10 – There are four sources of acquisition for the national library:
donations, purchases, exchanges, and, principally, legal deposit.


Established in the 16th century, it obliged readers and printers to deliver to the Nationale several copies of each published work.

9’46 – To indicate that a volume has entered the National Library, that he will never be able to get out, it is stamped.

The book is first listed in the file containing all the publishers in France.

Then it is entered in the register of entries.

The material safety data sheet is summarized.

After which, prisoner, he waits for the day of the placement.

Once a week the books are sorted for distribution in the various sections of the Catalog Service. Some like this are listed on a collection file. We place the book. It is determined to what science it is connected. It is identified. It is indexed. Electronically, his report is disseminated. Twenty cards describing it are inserted in different binders among millions of other cards that make this room catalogs the brain of the National Library

Rondé [?], This book will not escape any search. A letter and numbers indicate the shelf that it will occupy in one of the repositories. Once catalogued the book will be taken to the precise point assigned to it, in the maze of a shelf a 100 kilometers long.

13 ‘


Here is the book in its setting. Soon, this ancient warehouse will disappear. Indeed, for twenty years, the successive metamorphoses have tended to make the Nationale the most modern library in the world.

Citadelle silencieuse The National Library contains countless treasures. Many deserve to be stopped but a hundred films would not be enough. For who can say what is here the most precious, the most beautiful, the rarest?

Could it be the still unpublished manuscript of the Goncourt newspaper?
The Codex Peresianus no one knows how to decipher?
These Harry Dickson memories now untraceable?
These intimate diaries, which will only be opened in 1974?
The manuscript of Pascal’s Thoughts ?
All the writings of Émile Zola ?
The pebble of Baghdad and the jewels that surround it?
The sketch album of Villard de Honnecourt ?
Or else, this royal medallion?
These giant Victor Hugo manuscripts?
The Cabot Worldmap?
This binding to the arms of Henry II ?
This book, the first printed in Paris, the Gospel of Charlemagne ?
The Apocalypse of Saint-Severe ?
From Mantegna ?
From Dürer ?
From Redon ?

These wealth must be preserved.

That’s why the air is controlled, the atmosphere corrected. Machines similar to those of Captain Nemo maintain a constant temperature favourable to paper, leather, parchment.

Day and night, the checks succeed one another. At all costs, destruction must be stopped.

A learned ointment preserves the bindings.

We restore the writings of the disappeared civilizations.

The insect holes are sealed.

The scattered leaves glued.

We vaccinate books.

They are sheathed.

A plastic sheet separates maps and plans.

To protect them from wear, the wallets are stored on moving rollers.

As for the newspapers whose wooden paper itself is destroyed, they will be microfilmed. Captured, these images will preserve the memory of perishable documents.

And as this slow battle against death continues, calls are made. Unceasingly, messages are flying through the labyrinths of these stores.

17 ‘- The book found, a sheet takes its place. It’s his ghost.

18’30 – A final check, a final verification of the identity of the book and its bulletin.

19’10 – And here is the book moving towards an ideal line, an equator more decisive for its existence than the crossing of the mirror.

It is no longer the same book.

Immediately he was part of a universal, abstract, indifferent memory, in which all books were equal to each other, where they enjoyed as tenderly icy an attention as that of God for men. And here it is chosen, preferred, indispensable to its reader, snatched from its galaxy to feed its false insects paper crunch irremediably different from insects in that they are harnessed each to a distinct task.


Astrophysics, Physiology, Theology, Systematics, Philology, Cosmology, Mechanics, Logic, Poetics, Technology

Here is a time when all the enigmas will be solved, a time when these universes and some others will deliver their key. And this simply because these readers sitting in front of their piece of universal memory will have put end to end the fragments of the same secret that may have a very beautiful name, which is called “happiness”.