Towards the end 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 troops fighting in Europe. By the Armistice, nearly a million and a half books had been sent across the Atlantic to soldiers. Originally known as the American Library Association’s Service for the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) during World War I, the American Library in Paris was formally incorporated under the laws of the state of Delaware in 1920 with a core collection of those wartime books. Director Dorothy Reeder, a quarter century later, described the library as a "war baby, born out of that vast number of books sent to the AEF by the American Library Association in the last war. When hostilities ceased, it embarked on a new mission, and has served as a memorial to the American soldiers for whom it has been established."
The library was initially located at 10, rue de l’Elysée, the former residence of the Papal Nuncio. The leadership of the early library was composed of a small group of American expatriates, notably Charles Seeger, Sr., father of the young American poet Alan Seeger ("I have a rendezvous with Death"), who had died in the war, and great-uncle of the folk singer Pete Seeger. Among the first trustees of the library was the expatriate American author 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 newsletter. Thornton Wilder and Archibald MacLeish borrowed its books. Stephen Vincent Benét wrote "John Brown’s Body" (1928) at the Library.
The library's continuing role as a bridge between the United States and France was apparent from 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 chairman of the board was Clara Longworth de Chambrun, member of a prominent Cincinnati family and sister of the U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nicholas Longworth. The American Library in Paris quickly became a vital hub of reference services and educational outreach. As noted in an operational report from 1923, within just three years of existence, the library's reference room was visited by 35,000 users: 35% Americans, 33% French, 16% English, and 16% other nationalities.
A succession of American librarians directed the Library through the difficult years of the Depression. It was at this time that the first evening author programs took place at the library, drawing prominent French literary luminaries including 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.
The outbreak of World War II, and the subsequent German Occupation of France, made it difficult for the Library to continue to provide its services to the population of Paris, especially to French Jews. In spite of the difficult times, the Library did not ultimately close its doors. Under the leadership of director Dorothy Reeder, and later through the efforts of the Comtesse de Chambrun, the Library remained active in various capacities throughout the war.
When Nazi aggression grew, the Library staff quickly prepared the building from potential attack, pasting the doors and windows with paper to fortify the glass in case of bombing and stocking up on gas masks. In spite of the mounting fear in the city, Dorothy Reeder asserted, "There was never a thought that we should close." Paying subscriptions continued even as the conflict escalated. Americans who fled Paris with library books in their possession wrote back, promising to return the books safely upon their return.
In a decision that harkened back Library's origins in the First World War, Dorothy Reeder launched the Soldiers' Service, providing books to British and French troops. Soldiers wrote back to the Library, grateful for the reading material. In February 1940, just five months after the Soldiers’ Service was launched, the Paris-based Herald Tribune reported that 12,000 books had been distributed. All these titles were donated by individuals, organizations, and publishers who responded to the Library’s public appeals.
In the spring of 1940, the war reached Paris in the form of the Blitzkrieg. At this point, the Library staff decided to leave the city for their safety, with the exception of Dorothy Reeder. Though the Library was closed to the public, Reeder continued to welcome patrons to the Library when they rang and allowed them to check out books. In September, the Library was allowed to reopen in the afternoons. At this time, Doctor Hermann Fuchs, director of the Berlin Library visited the American Library in Paris. While his visit was a first a shock to Reeder, he assured her that the Library would continue to be allowed to operate, though it would be bound by the same rules as the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
One of the most troubling of these rules was the forced exclusion of Jews from the Library. However, this did not stop the American Library in Paris from providing these patrons with books. Dorothy Reeder and her staff, as well as the Comtesse de Chambrun, hand-delivered books to Jewish members who were barred from entering the Library. 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, the Comtesse de Chambrun rose to the occasion to lead the Library. As a result of her son's marriage to the daughter of the Vichy prime minister, Pierre Laval, the library was ensured 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 period of growth and expansion. It was during this early Cold War period that funds from the United States government permitted for the establishment of several branch libraries and the purchase of the new address on the Champs-Elysées in 1952. It was there that Director Ian Forbes Fraser barred the door to a high-profile visit from Roy Cohn and David Schine, two aides to Joseph McCarthy, who were touring Europe in search of "red" books in American libraries.
During the Cold War years, American government funds made possible the establishment of a dozen provincial branches of the American Library in Paris. The library moved to the Champs-Elysées in 1952, where it remained for thirteen years. In 1965, the library purchased its current premises on rue du Général Camou, two blocks from the Seine and two blocks from the Eiffel Tower. There, 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 its neighbor and tenant. The branch libraries ended their connections to the American Library in Paris in the 1990s; three survive under new local partnerships.
By the time of its 75th anniversary in 1995, the Library's membership had grown to 2,000. The premises were renovated in the late 1990s and again in 2011 and 2013, creating an enclosed conference space, an expanded reading room, a teen mezzanine and new restrooms. The American Library in Paris remains the largest English-language lending library on the European continent.
The American Library in Paris' website provides access to the Library's catalogs and online databases, and has information about the Library's events, programs, and exhibitions. Members have free access to JSTOR's Arts and Sciences and EBSCO MasterFILE Premier. The website also allows users to suggest a title for the Library to purchase for the collection.
Once or twice a week in the evenings, the library hosts talks by authors and others that are free and open to the public. Some recent authors who have spoken at the Library include Reza Aslan, Laurent de Brunhoff, Pamela Druckerman, Richard Ford, Diane Johnson, Douglas Kennedy, David Lebovitz, David Sedaris, Amy Tan, Patricia Wells, among many others. The library also holds events for children and families. The schedule of these events is available on the American Library in Paris website.
The American Library in Paris Book Award was created in 2013. The library plans to offer the $5,000 award annually for what the jury considers as the most distinguished book of the year in English about France or the French-American encounter. The first award was presented to historian Fredrik Logevall for his book Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam on November 15, 2013.