Between Two Worlds: The American Library in Paris
1945) during the War, Occupation, and Liberation (1939 –
Mary Niles Maack, Professor
UCLA Department of Information Studies
The American Library in Paris remained open to readers throughout the second world war, and its history during the dark years of the occupation is a tribute to the leadership of the American born Countess de Chambrun and her small but dedicated staff. This paper presents the drama as it unfolded, and after introducing several key players, each phase of the library‘s war service is framed as an act of a play. The concluding section offers a brief analysis of the American Library‘s unlikely survival, and explores its complicated wartime history by using concepts borrowed from institutional sociology.
Portrait of the Clara Longworth, Comtesse de Chambrun
Source: Clara Longworth de Chambrun, Shadows Like Myself (New York : C. Scribner‘s Sons, 1946)
Plate facing page 21.
Dorothy Reeder, director of the American Library in Paris
Photo from 1939
Dorothy Reeder at her desk. Source: Edward A. Sumner, ―Business as Usual. The American Library in Paris Carries On.‖ Wilson Library Bulletin 15 (January 1941):372
During the war scare that preceded the Munich agreement of 1938 Dorothy Reeder, the dynamic director of the American Library in Paris, declared: ―We did not close, we had no idea of closing. Each member of the staff was notified to go and was told that whatever they decided was right. They all stayed. … Our public took it for granted we would continue war or no war and many
ioffered volunteer help. After all the Library was founded in the last war. The following
September, just days after the declaration of war on Germany, the American Library in Paris launched an ambitious volunteer service to send books and magazines to French and British soldiers. Dorothy Reeder later wrote that the American Library‘s mission was to ―help to serve
iiin the field of morale to the best of its ability.‖ Because the library was founded as a memorial
to those who died in the first world war, she fervently believed it had a special mandate to reach out to another generation who would need the comfort and solace of books.
PRELUDE : The Early Years, 1919 to 1939
Since the American Library‘s World War I heritage held great symbolic value for the young institution, it is important to briefly recount its history which began with Library War Service of American Library Association (ALA). By the Armistice the ALA had shipped more
iiithan 1.5 million books for the use of the American Expeditionary Forces in France. This
massive operation was directed by Ohio librarian Burton Stevenson, who also oversaw the dismantling of the camp libraries after the war. Many books were shipped to a warehouse, but in Paris a central reference library was created. As soon as it opened to the public, this library attracted a clientele of American residents as well as demobilized soldiers, French students, and other English speakers. Aware that there was strong interest in keeping the library in Paris, Burton Stevenson called a public meeting in November 1919 to discuss the future and test the level of local financial support. Among the first donors was Charles Seeger, father of the poet
Alan Seeger who was killed in action and is best remembered for his poem, ―I Have a Rendezvous with Death.‖ After Seeger donated 50,000 francs from the royalties of his son‘s poetry, many others came forward with large and small donations. Supporters were French and British as well as American, and they included highly placed political figures, diplomats, writers, teachers, journalists and business people.
Impressed by the enthusiastic support in France, the ALA established the American Library in Paris as a private, nonprofit organization incorporated on May 20, 1920 under the laws of the state of Delaware. Led by Seeger and Stevenson, the Paris organizing committee decided that the library would have three goals: ―(1) to memorialize the American Expeditionary Force, (2)
to promote understanding and knowledge of America, and (3) to provide an example of
ivAmerican Library methods to the librarians of Europe.‖ Eager to promote American
librarianship abroad, ALA leaders also hoped that the library would become ―an ALA outpost in
Europe,‖ as well as serving as ―a first class public library‖ that provided ―a free, expert information service for statesmen, publicists, journalists and general readers seeking knowledge
von public affairs and conditions in America.‖ Throughout its turbulent history, American Library
in Paris was infused by the idealism embodied in these goals. Despite danger, hardship and woefully inadequate funding, a small cadre of staff and library board members remained deeply committed to its work. And it was this belief in the library‘s role in cultural diplomacy that justified the ALA‘s close ties with the American Library and its support for fundraising efforts in the United States.
ALA continued to pay for the operation of the Paris library until 2 November 1920 when the collection of 25,000 books and other property was deeded to the new corporation. However, despite ALA‘s goal that the library represent the best in American public library service, as a private institution with no government support, it was forced to charge subscription fees Although
the American Library in Paris may have resembled the local public library that its expatriate users knew back home, as a nonprofit U. S. corporation located in France, it was an innovative experiment in adapting an American institution to a different national context. By 1938 about a one third of the library‘s subscribers were French, but it was not until World War II that the majority of its readers were French nationals.
During the nine months following the outbreak of the war, the library remained an American nonprofit corporation, and in addition to serving local subscribers, it administered a volunteer program that provided books to enlisted personnel. Thus the initial phase of the American Library‘s complicated wartime history dated from the French and British declaration of war in September 1939 and ended with the fall of Paris in June 1940. The second phase began with the reopening of the library under regulations imposed by Nazi authorities and ended with the United States‘ declaration of war in December 1941. During the first eighteen months under the Germans the library held the status of a ―neutral‖ American institution in an occupied country, and as such, it experienced relatively little interference. However, once the United States entered the war, Americans in France became enemy aliens and their property was subject to confiscation. To forestall this, Countess Clara Longworth de Chambrun, who was serving on the board, arranged for the library to be placed under the authority a French cultural organization. Thus the third phase of wartime service was largely due the efforts of the countess who became designated as library director–a role she had filled since May 1941 when Dorothy Reeder reluctantly
returned to the United States. Although the countess managed to keep the library open against all odds, after August 1944 the transition to peacetime brought its own dangers, partly because of the countess‘ close connection with the Vichy regime.
This paper presents the drama as it unfolded, and after introducing several key players, each phase of the library‘s war service is framed as an act of a play. This presentation will be
followed by a brief analysis using concepts borrowed from institutional sociology to untangle the complexly interwoven threads of a compelling story.
The Key Players
The role of several key people must be acknowledged if one is to understand how American Library in Paris survived as a foreign institution in an occupied country. The president of the board at the beginning of the war was Dr. Edmond Gros, who headed the American Hospital in Neuilly. He provided guidance and direction to the library until he was forced to leave France because of ill health. Another influential board member was Edward A. Sumner who launched a fundraising campaign for the library in the United States in 1939 and spearheaded the formation friends groups in major American cities. An executive of the American Radiator Company, Sumner had lived for many years in France and was enormously dedicated to the library. During the first two phases of the war, library director Dorothy Reeder showed enormous courage and resourcefulness in maintaining and expanding the library‘s
services. Her contact at international library conferences with Dr. Hermann Fuchs, director of the Berlin Library, also proved to be an important asset. Appointed to head the Bibliotheksschutz (the German agency responsible for overseeing libraries in occupied territories) Dr. Fuchs became a key player in this drama, and it quite likely that the American Library could not have survived without his protection.
While the four individuals mentioned above all played key roles, it was the Countess de Chambrun who proved a constant source of strength throughout the war years. Born into a wealthy, prominent Cincinnati family, Clara Eleanor Longworth grew up surrounded by relatives who were active in civic and cultural affairs. Her father was a judge on the Ohio Supreme Court and her brother Nicolas Longworth served three decades in the House of Representatives, where
he was Speaker from 1925 to 1931. By 1906 when he married Alice Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt‘s daughter, Nicolas Longworth had became a part of Washington‘s inner circle. Although Clara Longworth often returned to visit her family in Ohio, she spent much of her adult life in France following her marriage in 1901 to Count Aldebert de Chambrun. Born in Washington DC where his father was a legal advisor to the French Embassy, the Count was equally comfortable in the two countries-and because he was a direct descendent of Lafayette, he held both American and French citizenship. Although the Chambrun family was prominent in civic affairs in France, the count chose a military career, attaining the rank of general. Despite her social obligations as the wife of a rising army officer, the countess pursued serious scholarly research Shakespeare. In 1921, at the age of 48, she earned a doctorate from the Sorbonne and five years later she received the Bordin Prize of the French Academy for a book on Shakespeare which she wrote in French. This was followed in 1928 by her election as a Chevalier of the
viFrench Legion of Honor.
The countess in her academic gown, probably 1921 Source: Clara Longworth de Chambrun, Shadows Like Myself (New York : C. Scribner‘s Sons, 1946)
Plate facing page 21.
One of the founding members of the American Library in Paris, the countess served as a trustee from 1921 through 1924. Although she dropped off the board while she and the count were posted to Morocco, she again became active during the 1930s when the library faced a financial crisis that nearly forced it to close. The Countess de Chambrun not only sought out donors among her extensive circle of French and American contacts, but she also persuaded her husband and son to act as guarantors. While all the trustees worked hard to make the library financially viable, the Chambruns were most instrumental in the board‘s successful appeal that
the library be excused from paying French property taxes. Access to those in the highest echelons of government was assured for the countess in 1935 when her son René married Josée Marie Laval, daughter of Pierre Laval, who was then serving as Premier of France. Whether or not Laval himself intervened, the French government recognized the public utility of the American Library by granting it a subsidy of 210,000 francs over a period of four years—and this
viiwas in addition to excusing a portion of its back taxes. The Countess herself was instrumental
in procuring new quarters for the library when it abruptly lost its lease on the elegant mansion at 10, rue de l‘Elysee. The board considered several buildings before settling on a spacious house
situated just ten minutes walk from the Arc de Triomphe. This property was recommended by the countess who recalled that the board had ―finally succeeded in obtaining from some diplomatic friends a long lease on their charming home situated between a spacious court and a pretty garden at 9 rue de Téhéran. The building was conveniently placed between three main thoroughfares, and possessed an atmosphere of homelike tranquility thoroughly appropriate to
viiireaders and students.‖
While the countess played an important role behind the scenes, Dorothy Reeder oversaw the library‘s day to day operations. After working at the Library of Congress (LC) for six years, Reeder was sent to Spain with a set of LC cards in Spanish to install at the Seville Exposition. As
ixshe told friends, she loved Europe and decided to stay on. Reeder soon obtained a position at
the American Library in Paris as assistant in the circulation department. By 1930 she was promoted to head the periodicals department where she remained through the difficult years of the depression, when salaries were meager and working conditions difficult. After being named director in 1936, Reeder worked closely with the board on fundraising as well as supervising the move to 9 rue de Téhéran.
Held on Thanksgiving Day in 1936, the gala reception to celebrate the opening of the new building was attended by several French dignitaries as well as U. S. Ambassador Bullitt, who had become an honorary member of the library board. The patronage by the diplomatic and business community aided the board in attracting funds from wealthy French, American and British patrons. These individuals, including General de Chambrun, acted as guarantors, agreeing to cover the library‘s budget deficits for three years. Despite occasional setbacks, the library‘s finances gradually improved and when the Carnegie foundation granted $25,00 for book purchases, prospects began to look much brighter. Throughout the years of financial uncertainty Reeder maintained an unshakeable optimism—a trait that would serve her well.
To gain additional support for the library, Reeder sought out press coverage and there are several publicity photographs that present her as a slender, well dressed woman, sometimes wearing a stylish a hat, but always in a pose that showed her intent on her work. Reeder also used broadcasting opportunities to promote new services, and in one instance a radio interviewer described her as ―the charming director of the library.‖ He went on to say that ―Miss Reeder is young, attractive and full of pep—-with, at the same time, that quality of friendly but efficient leadership that has made [the library] … a smoothly running machine. She has got a grand sense of humor, as well as good sense, and the fact that all the members of the staff are completely
xdevoted to her speaks for itself.‖ Dorothy Reeder‘s accomplishments at the American Library in
Paris also came to the attention of colleagues visiting from the United States. Following a trip to Europe in late August 1939, an American librarian, J. Periam Danton reported to ALA:
I am impressed with the magnitude and the quality of the job that the Library is
doing on a pitifully small income. Exclusive of special Carnegie Corporation
funds… the total expenditure for the last fiscal year was a little over $8,000. On that
budget, the library which is open from 1:30 to 7:00, employed the equivalent of
seven full time persons; kept records for and served 1,300 subscribers,
approximately one third of whom are French; lent some 44,000 volumes; sent out
over 1,000 volumes on out-of-town extension service to eight European countries
and twenty-two university and municipal libraries in France; besides serving during
xithe busier seasons an average of 300 daily users in the library.
Danton also attended a board meeting and ―was once more impressed by the genuine interest which all members appeared to have in the Library and the unconditional manner in which they
xiisupport Miss Reeder.‖ Danton‘s report provides a vivid snapshot of the last months when the American Library functioned normally. Just days after Danton‘s visit, Hitler invaded Poland, and
rdon September 3 France and Britain declared war on Germany.
ACT I: From the French Declaration of War to the Fall of Paris
The events of that first week of September 1939 brought an immediate opportunity to reaffirm the mission of the American Library in Paris. Dorothy Reeder asserted: ―There was never a thought that we should close. We knew our place even before war was declared, so the day the news was told to the world at large, the entire staff gathered at the building to decide the first step. It was to paste brown strips of paper on all our windows as protection against falling