Nestled in a quiet street in the 7th arrondissement, just steps away from the Eiffel Tower, sits the American Library in Paris (ALP), a cultural and literary landmark celebrating its centennial this year. On any given week, the Library is bustling with activity – children partaking in a Wednesday Story Hour, a book group discussing Proust, and students quietly working and reading before an animated evening with an author.
Although the pandemic prompted a closure of two months, the ALP affirms that steps are being taken to bring the Library safely back as a community hub to its nearly 5,000 members from 60 different countries and over 300 daily visitors.
Founded one hundred years ago, the American Library in Paris today is continental Europe’s largest English-language lending Library.
History and hidden secrets
When I arrived in Paris in 2011, the Library was one of the first places I visited. Sitting at one of the wooden tables, shared by people bent over books, I felt a strong communal belonging. I was offered a job as the external relations manager a year later and gratefully joined a team of avid bibliophiles.
Over time, I would come to know the Library’s long history. My colleague, assistant director Abigail Altman, was always eager to pull out an old document or photo from the Library’s archives, often prefaced with a hushed, “isn’t this amazing?” I was shown fragile newspaper clippings, a 1938 letter written by Henry Miller requesting books on Zen Buddhism, a WWII staff evacuation memo, and photos of patrons in the sumptuous interiors from the Library’s first location at 10 rue de l’Élysée.
Altman particularly cherishes the Special Collection that includes books previously owned by Marlene Deitrich, Janet Flanner, Nadia Boulanger, Irwin Shaw, and James A. Emanuel. Many of these books are filled with marginalia often scrawled in ink by their famous owners, making them “palimpsests of literary and historical significance.”
By far, my favorite item from the archives is Americans in France: A Directory, a series of “who’s who” registries published by the American Chamber of Commerce in France from 1925 to 1940. The voluminous list of American businesses and residents attests to the thriving “American Colony” in the interwar years. Famous names like the de Havilands, Man Ray, and Gertrude Stein, along with countless journalists, teachers, and lawyers were included. The American Library in Paris was part of the large social network which included two American churches, an American hospital, social clubs like the American Women’s Club of Paris, as well as bookshops like Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Co. and Galignani’s. It was a thriving community that supported the estimated 30-40,000 Americans living in Paris at the time.
The fascinating origins and rise of the ALP
The American Library was established in 1920 under the auspices of the Library War Service of the American Library Association, which shipped 1.5 million books for the American forces serving in France and Europe during WWI. Early donors included Charles Seeger, father of the poet Alan Seeger (known for his poem “I Have a Rendezvous with Death”), followed by sums large and small donated by American, French, and British political figures, writers, and business people. Edith Wharton, Anne Morgan, and the Countess Clara Longworth de Chambrun were among the Library’s first trustees.
The Library’s motto reflects its wartime origins: After the darkness of war, the light of books.
Many American writers who came to Paris after the war were frequent users and supporters including Wharton, James Joyce, Thornton Wilder, and Archibald MacLeish. Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein both wrote book reviews for the Library’s journal Ex Libris, still being published today. The Library’s strong literary tradition continued with the creation of the Writer’s Program in 1933, the forerunner of the Evening with an Author series, and featured writers such as Henry Miller, André Gide, Gertrude Stein, and Colette.
One of the darkest periods in the Library’s history would be during the German Occupation of Paris (1940-1944), when the Library remained opened through the leadership and courage of Dorothy Reeder, a librarian from Washington who trained at the Library of Congress, and Clara Longworth de Chambrun, an American-born countess and Shakespeare scholar.
In her new novel The Paris Library (Atria Books, February 2021), Janet Skeslien Charles, a former Library staff member, tells the incredible inspiring story of how Reeder, Countess de Chambrun, and their staff protected the Library from the Nazi library protector. They secretly sent books to Jewish subscribers barred from entering, and kept the Library open and “serving humanity, for which all libraries are founded.” Charles attests that the book is a story of “love, courage, and devotion” and shows the power of books to “keep the heart beating, to keep the brain imagining, and to keep hopes alive.”
Galaxy of famous authors
After the war, a new generation of writers like James Jones, Irwin Shaw, Mary McCarthy, and Richard Wright became active members. In the 1950s, when the Library moved to premises on the Champs-Elysées, director Ian Forbes Fraser turned away anti-Communist censors sent by Senator Joseph McCarthy to eradicate Red books from American libraries in Europe
Over the years, the Library continued to forge strong literary connections by welcoming award-winning authors, journalists, and public figures such as Jeffrey Goldberg, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Rachel Kushner, Colson Whitehead, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Jimmy Buffet, David Sedaris, and Jacqueline Woodson as speakers for the Evening with an Author series. Recent speakers to the annual gala dinner have included luminaries such as Salman Rushdie, Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, and John Irving.
The American Library in Paris today
Now in its 100th year, the library’s director, Audry Chapuis says that “the Library is a community and cultural anchor, a home away from home, and a welcoming point of entry.”
By all measures, the Library is booming with activity, offering over 600 programs for children, teens, and adults last year. To nurture readers and writers, the Library established the Visiting Fellowship and Book Award in 2013 and a writer-in-residence program in 2015. Without a doubt, the busiest part of the Library is the children’s and teen space, which is slated to double in size after a renovation project in the coming months.
“I’m really excited about the expansion of the children and teen wing. We have been bursting at the seams!” says Heather Keane, a Library trustee, who sees the expanded space as essential for “our future readers.”
With all this momentum, it was never anticipated that the Library would celebrate its centennial during a pandemic. Chapuis and her staff organized quickly to rethink how to bring people together in another way and moved whatever programs and services they could online. Book groups, Story Hour, author events, and indoor dance parties were all held on Zoom.
“The virtual programs were eye-opening, we learned a lot and there was so much gratitude from our members and community,” says Chapuis, who acknowledged that the accelerated pace of change due to the pandemic was unprecedented. Attendance and use of virtual offerings soared.
The history of the American Library in Paris is a tribute to the courage and determination of individuals. It is also a story of how institutions adapt to physical, political, and social changes. This is true now more than ever, as we confront COVID-19 and our collective anguish at recent violent events towards people of color as well as the ongoing struggle to confront systemic racism.
In a message of solidarity, Chapuis affirms that the Library recommits to the humanitarian mission of all libraries by being “a welcoming space for readers to discuss these important issues, to stand up against racism, and to broaden the understanding of ourselves, each other, and the world.”
As the Library slowly reopens after being a “community living room” during confinement, the future is bright with different possibilities. Online resources will continue to be essential and programs will be offered virtually, or a hybrid of digital and physical, until it’s safe for the Library to function again as the vital in-person gathering place for the community.