In January 1794, the Convention Nationale decreed the setting up of public libraries for the education of the population. In the district of Montivilliers, the town of Le Havre was chosen as the home for the library because of its large population. Drawn from the collections of the book repository in Rouen, comprising works which were originally confiscated from religious establishments and émigrés in the region, a collection of several thousand printed books and a number of manuscripts was created. The books were initially housed in the old Couvent des Capucins, located in the Saint-François district, where they were ordered and catalogued. They were then housed in Le Prétoire, which is now the Muséum d’histoire naturelle, where the library, the first in the Seine-Inférieure department, finally opened to the public on 21 April 1800.
In 1847, Le Havre constructed a building specifically designed to house the Musée des Beaux-arts and the Bibliothèque Municipale. It was built by the Le Havre architect Fortuné Brunet Debaines and was situated opposite the Grand Quai at the entrance to the port. However, the space became cramped and the library had to once again relocate in 1903 and install itself in the Lycée, where it remained until 1967. The Le Havre municipal library was listed by the state in 1933 and is one of the major libraries in France, one of whose roles is to the conserve the written heritage of the nation.
During the Second World War, the valuable collections were evacuated from Le Havre. In addition, the Lycée was only slightly damaged by the air raids (the raids of 5 September 1944 in particular) and so the collections made it through the war unscathed.
The reconstruction of Le Havre by a team of architects led by Auguste Perret was carried out between 1944 and 1964. The new Bibliothèque Municipale was one of the last buildings to be rebuilt. It was designed in 1963 by Jacques Lamy and Jacques Tournant as a library for studying and for leisure and as a book museum. It opened in 1967.
From the confiscations during the Revolution to expansion in the XIX century
The collections which were put together from 1794 to 1800 and the acquisitions during the XIX century are a central part of the heritage collection of today's library. The ancient part of the collection, properly speaking, comprises works which belonged to the Abbaye de Fécamp, the Abbaye du Valasse, the Couvent des Capucins in Le Havre, the Ursulines in Le Havre, the Pénitents d’Ingouville, the Capucins d’Harfleur and Fécamp and, to a lesser extent, to the Prieuré de Graville and the Abbaye de Saint-Wandrille. There were also the libraries of the priests and aristocrat émigrés, including the collections of the Château de Bailleul.
When the library opened, it offered the public some 13,000 volumes, catalogued by Charles Le Thuillier, who was appointed head librarian in 1799. A first catalogue was printed in 1837 and a second, themed catalogue in 1886, which included the new acquisitions and brought the total number of works to approximately 55,000 at the end of the XIX century.
While there were many occasional donations during the XIX century, there were fewer donations from private libraries; many bibliophile merchants found themselves obliged to auction their books off when they fell on hard times. Worth mentioning are the donations from Gustave Lennier, curator of the Museum d’histoire naturelle, and Doctor Alphonse Lecadre, who was the uncle of Claude Monet. In addition, the library acquired through public auctions significant collections belonging to local collectors, such as the works of the geographer Jean-Baptiste Eyriès in 1846.
Our heritage collections today
Today, the listed municipal library of Le Havre conserves a fascinating heritage which encompasses over 105,000 documents, the digitalised catalogue of which is available online. This includes the printed books of the general encyclopedia collection (24,000 of which pre-date 1810 and 36 of which are incunabula) as well as the 'Réserve précieuse', which provides appropriate conservation facilities for nearly 1,260 manuscripts dating from the XI and XX centuries, printed books from the following centuries, maps and plans, and engravings and photographs.
Our acquisition policy
In addition to its mission to conserve our heritage, the library is committed to enriching and supplementing its collections. A budget which is reserved for the acquisition of heritage documents is set aside to expand our collection of specialist works. Donations also contribute to our ability to acquire these assets.
In addition, with the help of the state and the Haute-Normandie authorities, whose resources are pooled in the 'Fonds Régional de Restauration et d’Acquisition pour les Bibliothèques de Haute-Normandie', the library is in a position to make major acquisitions, sometimes of national importance, such as manuscripts written by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Raymond Queneau and, recently, a very rare photograph taken by Gustave Le Gray.
Showcasing the collections
The heritage collections which can be viewed at the library are regularly displayed to the public thanks to our policy of regular exhibitions so that everyone can access these precious, and often fragile, documents. The homages to Armand Salacrou, Georges Limbour, Jean Dubuffet, Raymond Queneau and the 'Voyage(s) en patrimoine' exhibition are just a few examples.