The American Library in Paris: “An Open Window to the World”

Nestled away on a picturesque street in the 7th arrondissement, a stone’s throw from the Eiffel Tower, the American Library in Paris has over the years become an integral feature of the capital city’s cultural landscape. Boasting over 120,000 books and 500 periodicals, it is the largest English-language lending library in mainland Europe. It has patronized American cultural icons including Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein, and is a vital home away from home for thousands of English-speaking expatriates living in the city. And as the institution nears its 100th anniversary, in 2020, it continues to be a beacon for families, students, and lovers of literature.

Like many Parisian institutions that existed throughout the 20th century, the story of the American Library is unfortunately and intrinsically tied in to the story of two world wars. Indeed, Dorothy Reeder — the library’s director up until 1940 — described the institution as a “war baby” due to the fact that the majority of the library’s original collection had been donated by the Library War Service. Likewise, the first elected president of the library’s Board of Trustees provided an endowment of 50,000 francs in memory of his son, the poet Alan Seeger, who was mortally wounded in 1916. Rather fittingly, the library’s motto is Atrum post bellum, ex libris lux (after the darkness of war, the light of books), as at the core of the American Library’s philosophy is the belief in the power of the written word and a determination to bring that power to people when they need it most.

After the horrors of the First World War, the library — which was at the time located at Rue de l’Elysée — began to flourish, attracting much attention for its distinctly American approach. The open shelf policy was very uncommon in France at the time and the opening hours were incredibly novel too; a French journalist visiting on behalf of Le Figaro noted: “Twelve consecutive hours of opening, reading rooms open on Sunday afternoons. These ideas could only have come from American minds.”

As the library’s reputation grew, so did its clientele. Established American writers such as Hemingway and Stein were early patrons of the library and contributed articles to its periodical, Ex Libris. During the depression of the 1930s, the library managed to remain open and even launched a “Writer’s Program” — an event which featured celebrated authors including Henry Miller and André Gide. However, due to financial struggles, the library moved location to Rue de Téhéran in 1936, just five years before the Nazi occupation of Paris that would threaten the library’s very existence.

The American Library in Paris, at 10 Rue de l’Elysée, in 1926. © The American Library in Paris

The period during the Second World War proved to be the most challenging for the American Library. In accordance with the Otto List (an inventory of 1,000 books deemed illegal by the Nazi regime), 40 books were removed from the library’s circulation and in 1941 the director Dorothy Reeder left, leaving a note for her successor saying, “you will never be able to keep [the library] open.” Thankfully, Reeder was proved emphatically wrong. Not only did the American Library remain open, but it continued its fine tradition of providing much-needed literature for servicemen. By the end of June 1940, the library had shipped 100,000 books to British and French soldiers posted in France, Algeria, and Syria, leading French ambassador Henri Bonnet to describe the library as “an open window to the free world.” During the occupation, the library risked everything by mounting its own resistance against the Nazi regime, setting up an underground book-lending service to Jewish members who had otherwise been forbidden to use libraries.

In the post-liberation years, Paris, and in turn the American Library, welcomed a new generation of American writers including Irwin Shaw, James Jones, and Mary McCarthy. Despite the tensions mounting in Europe due to the Cold War, the library remained faithful to its motto and continued to transcend politics; in 1953 the new director Ian Forbes Fraser refused entry to American investigators who were searching for Communist-inspired literature, stating that the library had no political affiliations.

In 1952 the library moved to new premises on the Champs-Elysées where it remained for 13 years before moving to its current location on Rue du Général Camou. Since then, the American Library has remained diligent in its mission to promote English-language literature, hosting books groups, lectures by prominent authors (the next of which will be on June 1, with Joshua Hammer discussing his book, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu), and, in 2013, launched an annual Book Award for literary works written in English on the subject of France or “the French-American encounter.” The three previous winners are distinguished writers Fredrik Logevall — author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Embers of War —, Robert Harris — author of the bestselling historical novel Fatherland —, and Laura Auricchio — author of The Marquis, a biography of the French hero of the American Revolution, Lafayette. Now, the library’s community eagerly awaits the 2016 winner who will be announced at an awards ceremony in November, receiving 5,000 dollars in prize money.

Besides being a preeminent player on the Paris literary scene, the American Library is also a home away from home for its members and staff. And while it is used by French natives and expats alike, it holds a particularly vital sense of community for English-speakers, especially Americans. Many of the staff and patrons of the library have lived and worked in Paris for years; however, they’re still susceptible to occasional homesickness and the library is a great place to assuage those feelings. Alexandra Vangsnes, an American who’s worked at the library for over a year, says, “it’s such a comfort to walk into the American Library and hear one’s own language being spoken, complain about the difficulties of adjusting to expat life, or talk about the American presidential elections. The American Library community really is like a little slice of the United States in Paris. It feels like home.”

Indeed, the library’s role in the expat community is always expanding to suit all of its patrons’ needs including families, teens, and children. The institution continues to host workshops for expat families who are learning about life in France and monthly writing groups for those aged between 12 and 18. It also runs a “Master Shot Film Club” for teenagers to learn about all aspects of filmmaking. On June 18, the library will be organizing the Paris Youth Film Showcase where members of the club will show their short films before an audience and panel of judges.

Perhaps the best example of this amazing institution’s determination to maintain a visceral link to American culture is its annual Halloween Extravaganza: an all-day event hosted by the library with fancy-dress, music, food, magic tricks, and games. Alexandra Vangsnes says, “I’ve been in France for nearly four years and I didn’t realize how much I missed celebrating Halloween until I saw the library’s celebration. I think it helps expat families to feel like their children aren’t missing out on American culture, that they are being raised as American as well as French.” As she puts it, that really is the library’s goal in a nutshell: “not only providing a sense of home and community to our expat patrons, but also forging connections with the city of Paris and inspiring intercultural exchange.”

It’s fair to say that the American Library has changed drastically over the years; it’s moved location four times and has evolved into an institution with state of the art technology and facilities. And it continues to change to best serve the growing number of patrons. Soon the library will undergo major refurbishments to allow for more working and reading space. However, at the heart of the institution its motto still rings true, Atrum post bellum, ex libris lux. It has never deviated from this philosophy and, with its fierce devotion to providing a community for all lovers of literature, is a shining example of American culture at its best located in the heart of the French capital.

Article published in the June 2016 issue of France-Amérique