How to find a specific manuscript by shelfmark at the Bibliothèque Nationale Français website

The French National Library has a great mass of medieval manuscripts online at its Gallica site.  Finding them, however, can be very tricky.

Some time back, a genius drew a chart of how to do this.  It does work – my rather Covid-addled memory tells me only that I did work through it. I probably wrote something about it here, but I can no longer locate it.

Today I found a copy of the picture on my desktop.  Unfortunately I don’t know who drew this (if you do, please shout!) and I thought I’d pass it on.  Magic.

How to find a specific manuscript call number BNF.

Update: Nov. 2022.  The step 2 doesn’t work but the department de manuscrits page is here.

Update: August 2023:  The diagram comes from here and was made by “profdiberjones”, @diber.


4 thoughts on “How to find a specific manuscript by shelfmark at the Bibliothèque Nationale Français website

  1. Valuable, thank you. I’ve been trying to track down Or 9385 in the British Library, for my part. The equivalent there is, I think, to go to the “BROWSE” tab in the “Digitised Manuscripts” section,
    It works when the MS is actually digitised, as is not the case for Or 9385. Sigh.

  2. I usually use google for the shelfmark at the BL.

    What all this tells us is that library websites are not designed for the people who have to use them. Nor even tested by them.

  3. Perhaps it’s worth taking this circuitous route if you’re after a BnF manuscript with a low shelfmark number, but not for something like MS fr. 24315. Just go to, search for ‘24315’, and immediately click on ‘Manuscripts’ in the ‘Type of document’ panel on the left. This gives you 6 results, and it should be fairly obvious which one you want. If you need to narrow it down further, there is also a ‘Language’ panel, and (surprisingly) you can sometimes also use the ‘Consultation site’ panel to narrow it down to Gallica. None of this should take more than a few seconds.

    The BL site is more frustrating, and perfectly illustrates Roger’s point about the design process. The search function works just fine for manuscript numbers with at least four digits, e.g. if you search for ‘1009’ you’ll find Harley MS 1009, and if you search for ‘26761’ you’ll find Add MS 26761. But you aren’t allowed to search for a smaller number on its own, and instead you have to search for a substring of the shelfmark in the precise form that the website is expecting. For instance, a search for ‘8 E XV’ will find Royal MS 8 E XV but a search for ‘8 E.XV’ won’t, and (incredibly and inexcusably) a search for ‘Royal 8 E’ won’t find anything whereas a search for ‘Royal MS 8 E’ will. Astonishing that this should still be the case *years* after the site was launched.

    (Incidentally, Roger, many thanks for your informative posts on patristic editions. I came here today via your post about Origen’s commentary on Matthew, but this is far from the first time I’ve been glad that Google has directed me to your site.)

  4. Thank you so much for this tip! The more the merrier, I think. It’s pretty obvious that all these sites are developed on a shoe-string and none of them are tested by anybody who might need to use them. But we’ll get there one day, I think.

    Your comments on the BL site are delightful! How insane!

    Thank you for the kind words! Glad that this is helpful!

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