|The American Library in Paris|
|During the closing years of World War I, when the United States entered the conflict, hundreds of American libraries launched the Library War Service, a massive project to send books to the doughboys fighting in the trenches – by the Armistice, nearly a million and a half books.|
|The American Library in Paris | Charles Trueheart, Director|
The American Library in Paris was founded in 1920 by the American Library Association with a core collection of those wartime books and a motto about the spirit of its creation: Atrum post bellum, ex libris lux: After the darkness of war, the light of books. Its charter promised to bring the best of American literature and culture, and library science, to readers in France. It soon found an imposing home at 10, rue de l’Elysée, the palatial former residence of the Papal Nuncio.
The leadership of the early Library was composed of a small group of American expatriates, notably Charles Seeger, father of the young American poet Alan Seeger (“I have a rendezvous with Death…”), who had died in the war, and great-uncle of the folk singer Pete Seeger. Among the first trustees of the Library was the expatriate American author Edith Wharton. Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, early patrons of the Library, contributed articles to the Library’s periodical, Ex Libris, which is still published today as a newsletter. Thornton Wilder and Archibald MacLeish borrowed our books. Sylvia Beach donated books. Stephen Vincent Benét wrote “John Brown’s Body” (1928) at the Library.
The Library’s continuing role as a bridge between the United States and France was apparent at the beginning. The French president, Raymond Poincaré, along with French war heroes such as Joffre, Foch, and Lyautey, were present when the Library was formally inaugurated. An early chairman of the board was Clara Longworth de Chambrun, sister of the U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nicholas Longworth.
A succession of talented American librarians directed the Library through the difficult years of the Depression, when the first evening author programs drew suchFrench literary luminaries as André Gide, André Maurois, Princess Bonaparte, and Colette for readings. Financial difficulties ultimately drove the Library to new premises on the rue de Téhéran in 1936.
With the coming of World War II, the occupation of France by the Nazi regime, and the deepening threats to French Jews, Library director Dorothy Reeder and her staff and volunteers provided heroic service by operating an underground, and potentially dangerous, book-lending service to Jewish members barred from libraries. One staff member was shot by the Gestapo when he failed to raise his hands quickly enough during a surprise inspection.
When Reeder was sent home for her safety, Countess de Chambrun rose to the occasion to lead the Library. In a classic Occupation paradox, the happenstance of her son’s marriage to the daughter of the Vichy prime minister, Pierre Laval, ensured the Library a friend in high places, and a near-exclusive right to keep its doors open and its collections largely uncensored throughout the war. A French diplomat later said the Library had been to occupied Paris “an open window on the free world.”
The Library purchased its current premises, two blocks from the Seine and two blocks from the Eiffel Tower, in 1965 – making way on the Champs Elysées for the Publicis monument, Le Drugstore. On the rue du Général Camou, the Library helped to nurture the growth of the American College of Paris’s fledgling library. Today, as part of the American University in Paris, its library is our neighbor and tenant. The branch libraries ended their connections to the American Library in Paris in the 1990s; three survive under new partnerships.
Since the turn of the century, the Library’s membership has grown to more than 2,100 families and individuals, a third of them American and a quarter French. A rich calendar of evening programs draws hundreds of Parisians and visitors to hear authors and other public figures. More than 200 programs a year for children, book groups, writing workshops, special exhibits, and other community gatherings have made the American Library a focal point in the city’s cultural life. The American Library in Paris remains the largest English-language lending library on the European continent.
Morning at the American Library in Paris © American Library Paris
A soldier relaxes with a book from the Library War Service, forebear of the American Library © American Library Paris