The Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève inherited the writings and collections of one of the largest and oldest abbeys in Paris. Founded in the sixth century by Clovis I and subject to the rule of St. Benedict Abbey, initially devoted to the apostles Peter and Paul, in 512 received the body of the St Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris. It was repeatedly plundered by the Normans in the ninth and tenth centuries. Yet increased activity is visible in the early eleventh century, a movement of decadence is the cause of reform in 1148 led by the abbot of Saint-Denis, Suger, then regent of France. Particular it requires the Canons Regular of St. Augustine, now installed at the abbey until the Revolution, maintain a library and a school of copyists. The oldest known manuscript from the library of the abbey, now preserved at the Public Library of Soissons (ms 80) is an ex-libris of the twelfth century: Iste liber is Sancte Genovefa parisiensis. As was the custom in the church library, this mark of ownership is accompanied by a compulsion, threatening to curse those who would dare steal the volume or simply mask the ex-libris: Quicumque furatus eum fuerit, vel celaverit, vel ab ecclesia subduxerit, vel titulum istum deleverit, anathema sit.
A copy of the library catalogue, executed in the thirteenth century (Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS lat. 16,203, fol. 71V) reports of 226 volumes, of which only 3 or 4 can now be identified with certainty in the collections of Library Sainte-Genevieve. Besides the manuscripts inventoried - collections of sermons, canon law, the works of the fathers of the church, the glosses and commentaries on the Scriptures of Rabanus Maurus and the Venerable Bede--the abbey had certainly other books, bibles , missals or gradual, earmarked specifically for worship. But during the sixteenth century, weakening of community and misrule were due to dispersion of the volumes of the library. Many manuscripts, the library of the abbey tried to recover the next century, were then sold, sometimes at the price of paper. Reform resulted in the true foundation of the Royal Library Sainte-Genevieve.
The names of 810 illustrious scholars are inscribed on the library facade.
"One of the greatest cultural buildings of the nineteenth century to use iron in a prominent, visible way was unquestionably the Bibliothèque Ste.-Genevieve in Paris, designed by Henri Labrouste and built in 1842-50. The large (278 by 69 feet) two-storied structure filling a wide, shallow site is deceptively simple in scheme: the lower floor is occupied by stacks to the left, rare-book storage and office space to the right, with a central vestibule and stairway leading to the reading room which fills the entire upper story. The ferrous structure of this reading room—a spine of slender, cast-iron Ionic columns dividing the space into twin aisles and supporting openwork iron arches that carry barrel vaults of plaster reinforced by iron mesh—has always been revered by Modernists for its introduction of high technology into a monumental building."
— Marvin Trachtenberg and Isabelle Hyman. Architecture: from Prehistory to Post-Modernism. p478.