Lending for 100 years: 1920-2020
The American Library in Paris was established in 1920 under the auspices of the American Library Association with a core collection of books and periodicals donated by American libraries to United States armed forces personnel serving their allies in World War I. The Library has grown since then into the largest English-language lending library on the European continent. It operates as a non-profit cultural association in France incorporated under the laws of Delaware.
In commemoration of our 100th anniversary, the Library is proud to present a comprehensive timeline of our remarkable history. The content of this timeline draws heavily from our archival collection and features photographs and correspondences that have never been shown to the public until now. The Library would like to acknowledge the interns who helped to make the timeline possible: Jean-Michel Lapointe, Lucy Lavabre, Julia Greider, and Caterina Stamou. We also thank the valuable contributions of the Médiathèque Françoise Sagan, the American University in Paris Library, the English-language Library in Angers, and the H.W. Wilson Foundation.
The Library celebrates its 100th Anniversary in 2020. Mark this important moment in the Library’s history by sharing your stories and memories about your time as a member. The Library might’ve been a place where you studied, read, met with friends and colleagues, or bonded with like-minded book lovers. Please take a few minutes to fill out the “What the Library means to you” online form.
Timeline of the Library
In a fit of pique, Gertrude Stein tranfers her library subscription from Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Co. to the American Library. The reason behind this shift..Read More
During its six years of existence, the École des bibliothécaires is housed in the American Library in Paris, providing innovative American styles of cataloging, classification, and..Read More
Due to the economic depression, the Paris Library School is forced to close its doors. However, its influence will spread in many ways. Many of its..Read More
Thanks to a gift from the Rockefeller Foundation, the American Library becomes, with the exception of the Bibliothèque Nationale, the only institution owning a microfilm reader..Read More
Roy Cohn and David Schine, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s investigators searching for anti-American works and Communist-inspired literature, are turned away at the door by director Ian Forbes..Read More
Thanks to gifts from the Cleveland Public Library and the National Library in London, the American Library hosts the first Braille book collection on the European..Read More
The Paris Observer is published by American Library, with Alice-Leone Moats as editor. The goal of this English-language magazine is to give American residents and tourists insight..Read More
Famous French composer and music teacher Nadia Boulanger passes away in 1979. Some books of her collection are given to the Library in 1981, mostly classics..Read More
After the donation of a computer by IBM in 1984, the Library acquires in the subsequent years many new devices to automate library work. In 1989,..Read More
In honor of his grandfather, Charles Seeger, one of the founders and first presidents of the Library, folksinger Pete Seeger donates a copy of his grandfather’s..Read More
The Library’s Book Award is given annually to a distinguished book written in English about France or the French. The Award is made possible by a..Read More
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 was founded in 1920 by the American Library Association and the Library of Congress 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, 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 action in 1916 (and who would have become the uncle of the folk singer Pete Seeger). Among the first trustees of the Library was the expatriate American novelist 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 quarterly newsletter. Thornton Wilder and Archibald MacLeish borrowed our books. Stephen Vincent Benét wrote “John Brown’s Body” (1928) at the Library. Sylvia Beach donated books from her lending library when she shuttered Shakespeare & Co. in 1941.
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 military leaders such as Joffre, Foch, and Lyautey, were present when the Library was formally inaugurated. An early member of the board was Clara Longworth de Chambrun, member of a prominent Cincinnati political family and 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 such French 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 at the end of 1941, 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, and her family’s other social and business connections 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 prospered again in the postwar era as the United States took on a new role in the world, the expatriate community in Paris experienced regeneration, and a new wave of American writers came to Paris – and to the Library. Irwin Shaw, James Jones, Mary McCarthy, Art Buchwald, Richard Wright, and Samuel Beckett were active members during a heady period of growth and expansion. During these early Cold War years, American government funds made possible the establishment of a dozen provincial branches of the American Library in Paris, even one in the Latin Quarter. The Library moved to the Champs-Elysées in 1952. It was at that address that Director Ian Forbes Fraser barred the door to a high-profile visit from Roy Cohn and David Schine, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s notorious anti-Communist investigators, who were touring Europe in search of “Red” books in American libraries.
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, that 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 local partnerships.
Since the turn of the century, the Library has dramatically expanded its digital collections, its programming, and its reach into the English-speaking communities of Paris. In 2016, the Library underwent its first significant renovation in a half-century, creating new spaces for programming, study, and interaction. The Library approaches its 100th anniversary, in 2020, looking to build on the remarkable heritage of its first century.