The American Library in Paris — After the darkness of war, the light of books

Episode Summary

The American Library in Paris is a testament to Franco-American tenacity. Founded and maintained by bibliophiles committed to freedom of thought and open discussion, this institution survived great hardship to provide a haven to those in need. From famous expatriates like Stein and Hemingway to today's modern bestselling authors, the library has been an arena of inspiration and conversation since its founding during World War I. Learn more from the library's director: Texan Audrey Chapuis.

Episode Transcription

Andrea  0:10  

From the Embassy of France in the United States, this is FrancoFiles, a podcast where we explore the unique relationship between France and the U.S. My name is Andrea, and I will be your host. 

"After the darkness of war, the light of books." No truer motto could have been chosen to reflect the timeless spirit and remarkable history of the American Library in Paris. On the 100th anniversary year of this Francophile, book-lovers emblem and cultural treasure of Franco-American relations, I have the pleasure to host Audrey Chapuis, a Texan, Francophile and director of the library. Thank you, Audrey. How nice to have you with us.

Audrey  0:52  

Thank you so much for having me. During these particular times, it's always a pleasure to talk about the light of books and the American Library in Paris. 

Andrea  1:01  

Indeed. So Audrey, let's begin with the library's beginnings. Can you tell us about the history, the enchantment, that surrounds the American Library of Paris?

Audrey  1:11  

Yes. I like to think that our origin story is quite unlikely. So many factors went into our founding and into our continued thriving 100 years later. We're truly the culmination of years and years and layers and layers of gestures of kindness, community support and generosity. We started during the First World War, the American Library Association oversaw what was essentially a massive book drive. Almost every library in the U.S. was involved in this book drive to send millions of books and periodicals to soldiers stationed throughout Europe. And the library in Paris, the American Library, was simply one of those temporary facilities. But that particular facility wasn't just open to soldiers, but to the wider Paris population as well. 

People sort of fell in love with the institution, so at the end of the war, it took a long time for the soldiers to be shipped back–at least a year. And in that time, they were using the library, Parisians were using the library, and as they started to consider sending the books back and dismantling this temporary library, a small band of supporters came together and said, "What would we need to do to make it permanent?"

 And they talked to the American Library Association, and they said, "Well, if you can prove to us that there's enough interest, locally, we'll sign over the deed and help you in whatever way we can to make the library permanent." So a meeting was called. They really had no idea if anyone would come to this meeting to see if they would support a local American Library in Paris. But soon the room was full of supporters, and they really came from every walk of life. You had Parisian school teachers, you had museum directors, you had local philanthropists. And the first person to pledge their support was Charles Seeger, and he ended up being the first president of our Board of Trustees. And Charles Seeger was the father of a famous poet, Alan Seeger, who's related to the folk singer Pete Seeger, and Alan had died in the war, and he was famous for writing a poem called, "I have a Rendezvous with Death." And Charles, his father, pledged all of his royalties to the library. And so that kicked off a wave of support, and they quickly reached their goal. So the American Library fully supported the signing of the deed over, and we were incorporated in 1920.

Andrea  3:59  

And just a question about the supporters, were there local expatriates, or was a support coming from the U.S., or maybe a bit of both?

Audrey  4:08  

A bit of both, but I think originally, it was really important for the American Library Association to see that there was local interest. And from the beginning, many of our supporters are truly binational. Even today, a healthy chunk of our supporters spend half the time in Paris, half the time in the U.S. And that was the case then; people were back and forth. And so now, we have supporters from 60 different countries. We're only 40% American, 20% French and the rest from all over the world.

Andrea  4:44  

And so since its beginning–so we're talking about 1920–it's been this unique sort of haven in Paris for locals, for authors, for scholars, public figures, women. What kind of place is the American Library of Paris? What does it look like? And how does it allow all these different types of people to meet?

Audrey  5:05  

I think you hit the nail on the head with the word "haven." That's a word that keeps showing up again, and again, in our archives and even today, people describing us as a haven, or the French word "havre de paix," and we really are sort of a port in the storm. We've always been very inclusive. We're a membership library, but we're open to everyone. You don't even need to speak English to use a library, and it's been that way since the beginning. And I think that passion for community and being open to everyone has really helped people feel comfortable here. Right now, we pride ourselves on being a welcoming place, and I think that's only grown stronger over the decades. Like I said, we've got members from over 60 different countries. We have about 5,000 now, but all of our programs are open to the public, and they're free, the public programming is free. 

We've always been a cross-cultural bridge, that was very important to our founders. Of course, they were interested in having an English language lending library, you know, very practical concerns of getting English language material out there. But there was a more philosophical, kind of symbolic, value to the library as well, which was to promote free exchange, to promote debates, to promote community, to promote coming together, and really to promote understanding and empathy. And I think that's why the motto that you quoted at the beginning, "After the darkness of war, the light of books," that was a heartfelt sentiment. We were born from the ashes of war, so our founders believed that through the sharing of information and through having, essentially cultural emissaries on French soil, would help allay any chance of conflict down the road. So very high aspirational ideals were really sewn into our beginnings, and we hope that our cultural programs speak to that original aim even today.

Andrea  7:19  

And from what I've seen, from the very beginning, you've also caught the eye of U.S. expats that are famed figures, prolific writers– I believe you had Ernest Hemingway, and others, you had Gertrude Stein. Who else has been involved in promoting the library from the beginning?

Audrey  7:39  

Yes, almost anyone you can think of in the expat literary scene had a foot in the American Library. My personal favorite is Henry Miller, who was a frequent patron, and he even wrote about stealing books from the American Library–certainly not something I would promote today, but I am tickled that he claims to have done so. He had correspondence with the reference librarians. We have one of his letters asking if we have books about Zen Buddhism. Gertrude Stein, there are stories of her fighting with Alice B. Toklas in the stacks. You know, she was the doyenne of American letters in Paris at that time, and a frequent patron. Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein both wrote for our newsletter, "Ex Libris," so they wrote reviews of other books. James Joyce, so many have walked through our doors, and we started author talks back in the 30s, and that tradition continues today. We have a series called "Evenings with an Author" sponsored by GRoW at Annenberg. We have literary luminaries, today's literary luminaries coming, Martin Amos, Salman Rushdie, Jacqueline Woodson–we do about 70 events a year. And even beyond authors, we also have sort of surprising people like Jim Gaffigan, Jimmy Buffett, both of whom are very entertaining memoirs. Meredith Faithfull, Judy Collins. So really getting in interesting figures, again, to expand that conversation, to introduce American figures to a French population, but also to remind our expats of, you know, thinkers, writers, today. 

Andrea  9:31  

Well, I think I remember reading this funny anecdote. I'm not sure if it was Sylvia Beach or someone else who would come into the library and actually write in their comments to biographies that were made about this author. 

Audrey  9:47  


Andrea  9:48  

In a way to correct, or to simply say, "No, that's not true." I find that really amusing.

Audrey  9:56  

We have Marlene Dietrich's library. She has an extensive collection of her own biographies, and she diligently went through and annotated in bright red marker what she agreed with and what she didn't agree with. So that's pretty fun, and anyone can come and visit the archives and flip through and see her scawl. It's pretty entertaining.

Andrea  10:25  

Shifting the tone a little bit, I have been reflecting on how libraries have been a place of refuge, or have offered counsel to people during times of crises. There's something that I would like for you to tell our audience, something that I read that really jumped out at me, and it's about the decisions of the library that were made during World War II, and especially during the Nazi occupation.

Audrey  10:52  

Yes, so obviously, World War II had completely transformed Paris, and at the time, Dorothy Reeder was the director of the library, and she and her team, they were just remarkable people and extremely courageous. They stayed until the very–many of whom were American, even when they were being encouraged to leave and go home– they stayed until the very last possible moment, and they actually launched a clandestine lending service to French Jews who had been barred from lending libraries. That's actually written about in a novel that's out this year, it's coming out in February in the U.S., by Janet Skeslien Charles. She tells the story– the true story of Dorothy Reeder, and the Comtesse de Chambrun who took over after Dorothy Reeder, and it was really a combination of these women and their political astuteness and their courage to keep the library open against great odds during a time when most institutions were forced to close. 

And a diplomat later referred to the library during that time as, "an open window on the free world," and that legacy is extremely important to us, this idea of protecting our patrons' access to books and information and materials. And you'll find echoes of that, throughout our history. Later on, we were visited by McCarthy's men during the Red Scare, and they were trying to get information about patrons: what they were reading and trying to get information about if there were books about communism in our collections. Our library director barred them from the doors and made sure that they understood that we were a completely independent institution and that they couldn't get that information. I think that's one of our most important values that we still protect today.

Andrea  13:06  

Yeah, that is fascinating. I suppose that on the year of the 100th anniversary of the library, you're reflecting, the staff is reflecting, you're all sort of thinking of ways to honor this 100-year anniversary on a very particular year, or in a very particular year. I wanted to know how the library has grown over time as well, and especially if you think about how the audience has changed, or what kind of expectations you or others have observed from library goers.

Audrey  13:37  

Yeah, that's such a great question. The first thing that comes to mind is certainly the users' information appetites. Those have shifted dramatically. What's interesting about our particular library is that people still adore print books, so our circulation numbers keep growing year after year, which you don't see in all libraries. They're still reading print books, but now, there's an appetite for other materials as well. So now we have a robust electronic collection as well as a print collection. People are reading eBooks, they're doing research online, and so we're much more than just a lending library of print materials. And then, I would also say that the breadth of our programming. Now we do hundreds of programs each year for users of all information appetites, backgrounds and ages. Our author programming and "Evenings with an Author" is really one of the feathers in our cap, but we do so much for children and teens. We have a young authors' fiction festival that draws hundreds of applicants every year. We have teen film groups, we've got book groups. The level of community engagement has just exploded, and I can see that will continue to expand. 

And then what's also striking as we reflect on our centennial is how much has not changed. When we spend any time in the archives, we're always shocked to see our own words echoed in our founding documents, completely by coincidence, the way that we write our appeals, the way that we talk about what we do, what's important to us, it's very similar to what it was in the beginning, which is quite heartening, really. And then the fact that we're still 100% community supported–which is quite remarkable when you think about it. Public libraries, of course, they're community supported as well, but they get tax dollars, and so it's sort of tangential for us: over 60% of our revenue comes from direct donations from our community. So hearkening back to the origin story of people crowding in a room, and raising their hands in support of an English language lending library in Paris–that happens every year here still today, and people stand up, and they say that they are willing to support this library. And the fact that we're thriving today is really a testament to their generosity and vision.

Andrea  16:26  

That community support is important now more than ever. The American Library has been a beacon for people during crises. Today, with confinement in Paris, the library is temporarily closed, or is on and off. How is the library adapting to the pandemic and dealing with losses, ultimately?

Audrey  16:46  

Yes, it's such a difficult period for cultural institutions as you know, we're extremely lucky in that we are small enough that we're able to adapt very quickly. We're a lean, mean institution, and so we can make decisions quickly and launch new programs. So within a matter of days of the forced closure, we launched essentially a virtual library, taking all of our programs online, expanding digital resources, making sure that people understood how to use digital resources. And then as soon as we were able, we launched one of the first curbside lending programs in France, and that really was a lifeline. We made sure that everything was safely packaged, books are put into a ten-day quarantine, we make sure that we are socially distanced, but it really has been an anchor for the community during this period. 

And it's helped us really to expand our reach and to think about new ways of doing things. I think, we've discovered that there's a huge appetite for conversation in the digital space. Of course, we know that this is the golden age of audio. The people love podcasts, they love to hear people in this format. We didn't really apply that to our programming, and now we have, and we're doing the same number of programs we did in person, but we're able to have a wider reach and reach our friends who might have lived in Paris and moved back to the U.S. Keeping those connections alive has been really eye-opening and something I think we'll maintain going forward. Of course, it's still difficult. Our membership revenue is down 30%, but we'll offset that with donations, thankfully, from our supporters. It's a period of immense transformation and rethinking of the way that we do things and just making sure that we have the tools to adapt swiftly and keep morale up– that's also so important for staff but also for the community as well.

Andrea  19:05  

Yes, absolutely. I'd say that's something important for all of us now. Turning to you now, Audrey, you are a writer too. I have stumbled upon a few of your pieces. You've written about your own romantic illusions/dissolutions with Paris in your lifetime. Tell us your point of view from being a Texan Francophile now living and working in an American and Parisian culture icon. What has been your experience?

Audrey  19:34  

Yes, so I've been in Paris for six years. We initially moved for my husband's job–my husband is French. And as with any move, it was quite a shock. Even though I'm a lifelong Francophile, of course you experience culture shock, but also it's the realization of the complexity of the city that you're living in. I think Paris has such a myth attached to it, which is important, I think we should not forsake our ideal because there is definitely some truth to that. But like any metropolis, it's a complicated, complex place with a lot of interesting tensions. The fact that the myth of the city is part of those tensions; I think it's interesting and something that we should all contend with. 

My experience was really one of coming home through the American Library, though. I actually started as a volunteer, and my whole career is in libraries, and in libraries, 20 years. I definitely wanted to start volunteering, and it was through the library that I met people really from all over the world, French people, of course, but not just Americans, but others who were seeking and exploring, and I think the American Library and other cultural institutions can really embody some of the best of Paris, or at least our ideas of the city, it really can be a city for thinkers where boundaries are transcended and where creativity can flourish. It's also where I've been able to meet some of the writers whom I've admired, and our community can meet them, and I think even our international community outside of Paris can meet them in conversation, and that's really given me a great experience in Paris. 

Also, our connections with the youth here, again, it's a super international community of people. Many of the students have been living elsewhere, and the fact that they can come together in a place that's dedicated to books and to the life of the mind; it really does give you a hopeful vision of the future and how we might all come together in new, creative ways. So yes, ultimately, my experience has been very good here, but complex as any experience in a new city. And I must say, I do miss the U.S. terribly now because travel is quite difficult, obviously, and discouraged at the moment. It's been a long time since I've been home, and I miss the food, I miss my friends and family. But the community that we have here is a very good anchor for during this difficult time.

Andrea  22:43  

Yes. And I hope for a better future as well and to also visit the American Library in Paris when I can. It sounds like a wonderful place. Thank you so much, Audrey, for being on the show. It's been an absolute pleasure.

Audrey  22:56  

Oh, thank you so much, and I look forward to welcoming YOU to the library one of these brighter days. Thank you.

Andrea  23:03  

As always, thank you for listening to Francophiles. If you've enjoyed this episode, subscribe and review us and make sure to drop us a comment about what makes you a Francophile. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram at @francophilespod and visit our website for more information. To indulge in more stories about French-American culture, check out our partner France-Amérique Magazine. Stay tuned Francophiles, and until next time, à bientôt !