Bureaucratic circuits of the banned book trade

This cool infographic is a parting gift from Dr Laure Philip to students of the French book trade and censorship, on leaving the MPCE / FBTEE project. Laure developed it over several months for the project’s study of the illegal book trade. Her explanatory notes appear below:

A PDF version of this document, is available here. Please cite as Laure Philip, ‘Le Circuit administratif des livres entrants a Paris’ (infographic), 2018.


‘The infographic was created to visualize the circulation of illegal books in France and how administrative and censorship institutions policed and filtered the books entering Paris according to their legality status. It is predominantly inspired by Robert Estivals’ extremely detailed study La Statistique bibliographique de la France sous la Monarchie au XVIIIeme siècle (1965) which brings an estimate of the quantities of books censored by the state apparatus and deciphers the bureaucratic mechanisms in place.

Estivals’ study is central to understanding how the French monarchy dealt with an increasing number of publications at the eve of the Revolution, but the level of details is such that the reader is likely to be left confused. This infographic allows for a greater visualization of one part of the apparatus, the policing of books entering Paris by four secular institutions: the customs, the Chambre syndicale, the Bureau de la Librairie and the Bastille. It was crucial for the Illegal Book Trade Revisited project to establish a clear representation of this particularly intricate stage in the life cycle of a prohibited book.

The most important institution is the Chambre syndicale de la librairie (Booksellers’ Guild), where elected booksellers, the inspecteur and the syndics, were in charge of processing and recording the legality statuses of incoming books. When they cannot decide on the legality of a book because no authorisation had been previously granted, they referred it to the Bureau de la Librairie. Composed of the royal censors, the Bureau was where the censorship process was centred: censors assessed the books and decided whether they were deemed fit for publication. The Bastille fortress, unsurprisingly, is the place where highly dangerous books were sent for pulping.

To the right of the infographic are represented some of the known key manuscript sources that were consulted or used by the employees of each institution to record the statuses of the incoming books. They do not always exactly match the policing responsibilities of each institution and are not the only ones produced in the administrative policing process. However they are a lively testimony to the interdependence between each successive step of the policing of books. For instance, the Chambre syndicale depended upon the censors’ verdict to fill out their Journal des livres suspendus (Ms Fr 2193-4).

Estivals’ intention was to convey the ‘philosophy’ behind each policing institution: this infographic clearly separates each stage of the legality assessment, with its accompanying administrative documents and actors.’


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