Discover the True Story of the American Library In Paris 

Discover the True Story of the American Library In Paris 

A one-hour guided tour takes visitors on an enthralling journey through the history of the American Library in Paris.

The American Library in Paris is the largest English-language lending library on the European continent. Far more than a non-profit lending library, the history of this remarkable institution testifies to the tremendous courage and dedication of the individuals and the staff who lead and supported the library from its origin. It is also the story of an institution that managed to adapt and survive for over one hundred years.   

Celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2020, the American Library has documented a comprehensive timeline of its remarkable history and is now inviting the public to discover it for themselves on a history tour.

I recently had the pleasure of attending a library history tour and was riveted by the amazing saga of the remarkable heritage of the library’s first century. Our tour leader, Mayanne Wright, an author, educator, and longtime library volunteer, presented the impactful historical events as they unfolded, and swept us along as she related the details of the unlikely survival of the American Library through two World Wars and more.   

© Alfonso Sjogreen

As recounted by Ms. Wright, the story begins during the closing years of World War I, when the United States entered the conflict and created the Library War Service, a massive project of the American Library Association (ALA). Through this initiative, more than 1.5 million books were shipped to American forces fighting in the trenches. By the time of the Armistice, training camp libraries were established in the United States and in France. After the war, the camps were dismantled, except in Paris, where a central English-language reference library was created to house the millions of books and periodicals which had passed through the city destined for various military outposts and hospitals. From the outset, this library attracted American servicemen, as well as Parisian patrons and other English speakers who enjoyed spending time in the welcoming reading rooms with their vast selection of books and international periodicals. 

During the tour, we learned how from these origins, the American Library in Paris was formally established in 1920 by the ALA and the Library of Congress as a private, non-profit organization, with a core collection of those wartime books. Through the years the leadership of the American Library has remained steadfast to its motto “Atrum post bellum, ex libris lux”: After the darkness of war, the light of books. Its charter promised to share the best of American literature, culture, and library science with readers in France. 


The old circulation desk of the ALP, circa 1937 © Gisèle Freund

In a scenario where truth is more gripping than fiction, we learned the extent to which key individuals at the American Library remained true to its motto as the drama escalated during the Nazi occupation of Paris during WWII. Against all odds, and despite danger and hardship, the American Library in Paris remained open to readers throughout the Occupation. It all played out like a best-selling novel, except that the challenges were real. 

During the postwar era, the library prospered again as readers renewed their zeal. The expatriate community in Paris experienced regeneration as a new wave of American writers came to Paris and found their way to the library. Our tour covered familiar names of the incredibly creative people associated with the library, such as Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Edith Wharton, Henry Miller and Colette.  

Over a hundred years after its founding, the American Library serves about 5,000 members representing 100 different countries. The library has dramatically expanded its digital collections and its involvement with the English-speaking communities of Paris. It holds the largest collection of English language materials on the European continent and is wholly community-funded. In 2016, the library underwent its first major renovation project in a half-century, creating new spaces for programming, study, and interaction. 

Taking the Library history tour brought to life the major challenges the library faced throughout its existence. Since its beginnings, the library has been sustained by both Americans and French who believe in the power of libraries and sought to create an institution that would remain a cultural bridge between America and France. The engaging one-hour visit flew by. I encourage you to attend the tour and discover how the library continues to be anchored by its dramatic history and the idealism of its founders. 


Tours are given Fridays at 11:00, last one hour, are free of charge and open to the public.

Pre-registration is required at website: 

Groups of 4 or more, and any other inquiries – [email protected] 

Address: 10 rue du Général Camou, 75007 Paris 


Lead photo credit : ALP History Tour © Alfonso Sjogreen

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A native of Los Angeles, Barbara is the France Today Ambassador for L.A. She graduated from UCLA with a BA degree in Political Science, and also received her JD degree from UCLA School of Law. While at UCLA, she spent her junior year in Grenoble, France. From that time on, she has been an avid and passionate Francophile. She has visited almost every region in France, and still pursues French language courses in Los Angeles. She has an apartment in Paris and continues to visit France every year.

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  •  Cheryl Mueller
    2024-01-11 05:12:33
    Cheryl Mueller
    I love visiting bookstores, libraries, and cafés when I travel. I’ve been to Paris dozens of times, but still have not been physically in the American Library in Paris. I have watched virtual events of interviews with authors. I will go on my next visit!


  • Martha Sessums
    2024-01-11 02:38:13
    Martha Sessums
    Interesting article, Barbara. I've never been to the library and now that I know the history, I have to go. Thank you.