Founded in 1920, the American Library in Paris’s collection originated from a World War I book drive sponsored by the American Library Association in the United States, aimed at providing the more than one million U.S. soldiers in France with reading materials during the war. After the war, the U.S. War Library Service, various French and U.S. diplomats and writers and the American Library Association decided to transform the extensive collection into what we know today as the American Library in Paris. The Library began operations in 1920 in donated premises on the Champs-Elysées, and today is located in its own property in the seventh arrondissement, near the Eiffel Tower.
The Library flourished as a center of literary life in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, with Edith Wharton as an early board member and Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and others contributing to the Library’s newsletter. Today, with more than 120,000 volumes and extensive archives of American periodicals, the American Library in Paris is the largest English-language lending library in continental Europe. Students, families and individuals of all nationalities are drawn to the Library to read, research and take advantage of the extensive programs it offers, including book groups, children’s programs, film series and weekly readings with renowned literary figures. The Library also has an annual gala dinner, at which recent speakers/guests have included Adam Gopnik, Christopher Buckley, Joyce Carol Oates, Scott Turow and the renowned historian Antony Beevor. Thanks to the generosity of the Florence Gould Foundation, the Library also sponsors an annual French/American literary prize.
William, along with fellow board members, Library staff and individual members, is a supporter of the Library in its commitment to serving new generations of English language readers in France and around the world. In addition to celebrating its rich heritage and presence among Parisians today, the Library is entering its second century with new challenges. As a private institution, the Library is almost entirely financially dependent on memberships, donations and fundraising.
The board recognizes the need to embrace new technologies in order to meet the needs of its members today and to look ahead at the role of libraries in the future. “It’s a fascinating time right now, with e-books, iPads, Kindles and all the new technology,” William said. “The purpose of libraries generally is shifting, so the board of the Library needs to think about how the Library will adapt to what is a new and changing world in terms of how people use and view books,” he continued. “We had a fascinating talk a few years ago at the Library by Robert Darnton, who is head of the library system at Harvard; it is somewhat reassuring to know that they too are struggling with many of the issues we are, but at the same time it is great to know that library usage, and reading generally, are at all-time record levels today, despite the disruption of new technologies.”
In addition to internal projects and initiatives, the Library is actively exerting its influence outside its immediate community. With a turnover of many thousands of volumes a year stemming from donations and book sales, the Library is often asked where the books go if not used in the collection. Most often, the books are repurposed for those in need. Thousands of books are distributed every year to needy schools and libraries at the secondary and university level in Europe, helping to establish book collections and promoting Anglophone culture. The Library also works with the U.S. Embassy (the U.S. ambassador to France is historically a Library board member) in a program to provide English-language books to youths in underprivileged neighborhoods around Paris, encouraging them to read more and appreciate foreign languages.
Finally, through the initiatives of a member of the Library’s advisory council, the Library has donated the core of a children’s library collection to a girls’ orphanage in Ethiopia and also works with international organizations such as Bibliothèques Sans Frontières, which is helping to rebuild the collections of libraries in Haiti, which were destroyed in the earthquake there.
All in all, William said, “it is gratifying to be able to serve a great U.S./French institution like this, particularly given the early connection to Cromwell and S&C, which I learned of only after several years on the board.”