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Overviews of the Collections

The French Collections at the Library of Congress

Carol Armbruster
French and Italian Area Specialist


While residing in Paris, I devoted every afternoon I was disengaged, for a summer or two in examining all the principal bookstores, turning over every book with my own hand, and putting by everything which related to America, and indeed whatever was rare and valuable in every science. (Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Harrison Smith, September 21, 1814; Jefferson papers, Manuscript Division)

When Congress bought Thomas Jefferson's library in 1814, to replace its original library lost in the War of 1812, it acquired a large French collection. Jefferson had personally selected many of these volumes while he was in Paris as America's minister to the kingdom of France (1784-1789). The large percentage of French materials in Jefferson's library reflected not only his personal and political inclinations toward France, but also France's importance in the European settlement of North America and its central position in European intellectual and scientific activity. As a lifelong francophile, Jefferson's pro-French sentiments clashed with the pro-British views of his Federalist opponents, who voted unanimously against acquiring his library.

The Jefferson acquisition laid the basis for the Library's collection policies regarding French materials, as well as most other international materials. Consistent with Jefferson's own belief in the need for a universal, encyclopedic library responsive to the needs of American legislators, the Library's collection policies aim to maintain broad international subject collections capable of meeting the needs of Congress, the United States government, libraries, and the American public. The Library places special emphasis, as Jefferson had, on materials that relate most directly to America and to the political, economic, and cultural relations between other countries and the United States. The extent of the French-language material in the general collections and the focus of some of the French special collections reflect these collecting principles.

Detail: Grand Coutumier de Normandie (1480).Books and Printed Materials:   The French collection, approximately one million volumes, constitutes one of the larger non-English-language book collections in the Library. Major purchase contracts, exchange agreements, international treaties, and gifts have given, and continue to give, the Library extensive coverage of both French-language commercial and noncommercial book and serial publications. The collection holds French government documents issued at the national, regional, and municipal levels and a depository library collection of international organization documents issuing primarily from Paris, Brussels, Geneva, and Strasbourg. The Library holds a comprehensive collection of 19th and especially 20th-century French-language production in the arts, humanities, social sciences, sciences, and technology. Since the later nineteenth century, the Library has also been the depository library for all American translations and editions of French titles. The large number of French books in the general collections reflects the Library's commitment to cataloging current French materials, making them accessible to American libraries and researchers.

Rare Books:  In the second half of the nineteenth century library and congressional leadership sought to enhance the Library's usefulness for the American government and its citizens and to make it equal in reputation to the national libraries of Britain and France. This led to the deliberate inclusion of rare books in the Library's collections. French books figured prominently. French-language publishing has provided not only a major Western intellectual and creative history, but also major traditions and achievements important for the history of Western printing and book arts, many of which are documented in the Library's collections. The emblem of the sixteenth-century French printer Geoffroy Tory, who introduced accents, apostrophes, and other typographical innovations into French printing and was responsible for the spread of Roman script throughout France, decorates the bronze doors of the Rare Book Reading Room.

The Library holds a significant collection of French incunabula and rare editions dating from the fifteenth through the twentieth century. The subject range of rare French material fully reflects that of the general collections, from the arts to the sciences and technology. Special collections focus on subjects as varied as cooking (Bitting), law (Law Library), aeronautics (Tissandier), Jules Verne (Verne), the French Revolution (Thacher), anarchism (Avrich), and bibles (Bible). The very rich French tradition of illustrated books is well represented, from medieval and sixteenth- century livres d'heures to nineteenth- and twentieth-century livres d'artiste. The gift of the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection gave the Library many fine examples and exceptional copies of books in which the high quality of French printing, illustration, papermaking, and book binding are evident. Many of the volumes include various states of the plates, added drawings, and special bindings.

Law:   The responsibilities of the Law Library to provide analyses to Congress and government agencies require a comprehensive collection of current legal resources from all French-speaking countries. The historical collections reflect the importance of French sources for developments in American and international law. They also provide valuable resources for historical research on many subjects. The French Coutume Collection (French customary law) constitutes the largest collection outside of France and includes a magnificent fifteenth-century illuminated manuscript copy of the Grand coutumier de Normandie, from about 1440-70. The Library also holds full runs of French official gazettes, from Le Moniteur to Le Journal officiel.

Manuscripts:  French historical material held by the Library falls into two categories: collections of manuscripts proper which are French either in origin or subject, and reproductions of manuscripts which have been copied from the originals in a French repository. With primary focus on source materials for American history, French holdings are fullest for topics or periods where the histories of France and America overlap. The Library holds, for example, the papers of the Comte de Rochambeau, commander of the French army sent to aid the Americans during the Revolutionary War, and the Digges-L'Enfant-Morgan Collection, which documents the life and work of Pierre L'Enfant as the designer of the Federal City. French-American international relations are documented in the Confederate States of America collection, as well as presidential, diplomatic, and military archives from the eighteenth through the twentieth century. The Janet Flanner-Solita Solano collection depicts the literary and intellectual society and life of Paris during the fifty-year period (1925-75) during which Flanner wrote the column, "Letter from Paris" for The New Yorker magazine. The Library's Foreign Copying Program, begun in 1914, has reproduced material from French archives and libraries dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries related primarily to French exploration of the New World to French participation in the American Revolution. Recently, the Library microfilmed the papers of the Marquis de Lafayette still held at Lafayette's chateau outside Paris, the Chateau La Grange in Courpalay, France.

Maps:  The rich French cartographic resources reflect the long tradition of French international prominence in the field as as well as the overlapping of French and American history. The Library holds important French sixteenth- and seventeenth-century atlases and printed maps, a notably strong collection of eighteenth-century French materials--reflecting a time when France was preeminent in the development of scientific cartography--and a major collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century French hydrographic charts. Among the many rich holdings are the map of Lorraine in the Strasbourg 1513 edition of Ptolemy--the earliest example of printing in three colors-- Samuel de Champlain's 1606-7 vellum manuscript map of northeastern America, the Cassini topographic maps series covering all of France based on eighteenth- century scientific surveys, Louis Brethez's 1739 multisheet perspective drawings of Paris; manuscript maps prepared by Rochambeau's army during the American Revolution, and the French maps used for the 1944 Allied invasion of Normandy.

Prints and Photographs:   A major resource for the study of French and American artistic, political, and cultural relations lies in the print, poster, and photograph collections. The collections include items produced by French artists in all formats as well as by Americans featuring French subjects or working in Europe. Major strengths of the collections include illustrated books and serials; fine prints by French masters from the seventeeth through the nineteenth century; French posters from the Belle Epoque to World War I; political cartoons and satires from the French Revolution through the nineteenth century; documentary photographs including views of French cities and towns, and images recorded by the U.S. Quarter Master Corps during World War I.

Motion Pictures, Recorded Sound:   The Library has several hundred French films, many of which have been distributed in the United States. These range from the early silent films by Lumieres and Pathe freres to theatrical features of the sound era, including works by directors such as Renoir, Chabrol, Truffaut, and Alain Renais. One of the strengths of the French film collections is a group of silent shorts produced in 1903-04 by the innovative George Melies, included in the Paper Print Collection of films registered for U.S. copyright protection between 1894 and 1915. Documentary recordings feature French personalities such as Sarah Bernhardt and Charles de Gaulle. French settlement in North America is preserved in recordings of North American French speakers and performers. In 1992 the American Folklife Center documented the Acadian community in northern Maine.

Music:   The Music Division vholds materials on all aspects of French music, from music typographic manuals, published music and books, to manuscript letters and scores. Among the French items held by the division are Laborde's Chansonnier, a beautifully illustrated 1470 vellum manuscript of secular part songs, the 1898 manuscript of Claude Debussy's Trois Nocturnes, and autograph manuscripts of music by contemporary composers Arthur Honegger, Francis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, and Henri Dutilleux, commissioned by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and Serge Koussevitsky Foundations.

The wealth of the Library's vast French collections is held both in specific collections and in more general collections throughout the Library. Overall, these collections support a broad chronological, geographical, and subject range of studies. To learn more about any subject, format, or specific item in the Library's collections, users are directed to the Library of Congress catalog and homepage.

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  October 5, 2012
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