American Library: Creating Community in the Center of Paris
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Tucked away on the one-block long Rue du Général Camou in the seventh arrondissement of Paris, just steps from the Eiffel Tower, Champ de Mars or the Place de l’Alma, stands a gem of a resource for Anglophones, the American Library in Paris. This institution, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year, was extensively renovated in 2016 and has reopened to offer enhanced services and gathering spaces for English-speakers from all over the world. Library Director Audrey Chapuis captures its uniqueness: “A building consecrated to ideas and books is rare and needs to be protected.” As “a center for literature, learning, culture and community”, it also promotes the development of personal relationships in innovative and effective ways.
The library hosts an extensive array of events, programs and opportunities, including:
- A chance to read Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, or the prix Goncourt-award-winning novel, Chanson Douce (in translation, The Perfect Nanny) in English. Prized works of Eric Emmanuel Schmitt, like Oscar and the Lady in Pink or Invisible Love, are available in English. Indeed, over 100,000 titles written for all ages are available at the library!
- Access to newspapers and magazines from more than 90 different sources.
- Support for learning any number of languages, with programs available online worldwide.
- David Lebovitz’s cookbooks including recipes for madeleines written in the language consistent with your measuring cups and spoons.
- Analysis of current political issues by experts in public policy. For example, a prestigious flash panel discussing the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) filled the large auditorium on January 22nd. Thanks to support from The Annenberg Foundation, most evening events, including panels and author talks, are open to the public free of charge. (Donations to the non-profit organization are, of course, always welcome.)
- Workshops on writing for teens or adults, capitalizing on access to authors and instructors who are in Paris for a day, a week, or a lifetime. These opportunities encourage writing as well as reading.
- Further support for English-writing authors, ranging from the Young Authors Fiction Festival (for children between 5 and 18) to the prestigious annual competition for a new book about or set in Paris, or the establishment of a spring Writer-in-Residence program.
- A sympathetic community for English-speaking children, teens, and parents offers ways for them to come together in sharing language, traditions, perspectives. As one example, the annual Halloween celebration draws more than 500 Anglophones to share the holiday in ways that extend beyond those of All Saints’ Day. Almost 250 programs a year are offered for children and teens.
- Librarians who specialize in resources for children and teens offer developmental sensitivity – including a section of books for parents – along with an appreciation of the challenges of living in two languages. As Celeste Rhoads, head children’s and teens’ librarian, notes, “To value and really master a language, you need to make memories in that language, to have other people around you who speak it, not just mom and dad. And learning the language has to be fun. Parents need to regularly put their child in an environment where they see other children speaking the language. The library is an anchor where families can participate in English language activities together, in an anglophone environment. Kids need a place where others speak English. They need Anglophone friends too, and fun activities that are in English so they have maximum exposure to the language in different contexts.”
- On-going story hours and activities for children from birth into middle childhood, with a variety of innovative programs featuring movement and sensory experiences so essential to the pleasure and understanding of small children, cultivating an early attachment to books and reading.
- Children who are already reading can schedule a session with Lady, the Reading Dog, a vet-approved canine who has been trained to listen to small children, bringing them a uniquely rewarding and innovative reading experience.
- Brochures filled with recommendations and references are available on Resources for Parents of Bilingual Children, Helping Your Child Learn to Read, Money Matters: Talking with your children about money and finances, or Screen Use: Why Books are Best! The latter offers information on when and why books are superior to screens and tips on how to raise children with an appreciation for reading off-line.
- The library provides teens with comfortable places to read without distractions, a well-stocked library, and spaces to work with their peers. Orientations on digital literacy and workshops addressing proper ways to cite work of others are bonuses.
- Access to communal spaces for activities, workshops, talks, lectures, and conversations. From comfortable lounge chairs, ideal for a two-person conversation, to study rooms for small groups, bigger rooms for meetings or workshops, and even more spacious settings for the most popular gatherings, the renovated library is filled with light-filled welcoming opportunities to be as solitary or as social as one chooses. In other words, it feels like the best sense of “home”.
- People can join a short-term book discussion group formed around a current interest such as Rock and Roll or wine, or one of long-standing, such as Mysteries, which recently read its 100th book, or the ten-year old memoir reading group, or the fans of Proust, who recently finished a full cycle of Remembrance of Things Past and are beginning all over again.
- Digital access to databases and other e-sources amplify the information that people can find. Meanwhile, modern technological resources enhance reading, writing and related experiences.
- Best of all, the ALP offers the classic library benefit: the assistance of and relationship with trained research librarians. In addition, the help of more than fifty English-speaking volunteers insures that all the initiatives and activities run with enthusiasm and efficiency. As volunteer Caitlin Schefske, a former 6th grade teacher from Vancouver, noted, the library is a perfect place for an ex-pat to find their like-minded tribe.
For almost one hundred years, the American Library in Paris has offered resources to anglophones who visit or reside in the greater Paris area through long-term, short-term or one-day membership programs. Today non-members of the library can participate in specific individual programs if they are not yet ready to become part of the larger community, one which offers extensive benefits.
Finally, two specific library events command the attention of the wider world.
The American Library in Paris Book Award gives prizes to new books written in or about France. The 2019 competition will be judged by Alice Kaplan, Pamela Druckerman, and Thomas Chatterton Williams. Dr. Kaplan, chair of the jury, is also chair of the French department at Yale University. She most recently published Looking for the Stranger: Albert Camus and the Lie of a Literary Classic. Ms. Druckerman, the popular columnist for The New York Times, just released her 2018 book, There Are No GrownUps: Midlife Coming-of-Age Story, in paperback. Mr. Williams looks forward to the publication of Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race, which will soon join well-received Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and A Black Man’s escape from the Crowd. He has published articles on diverse topics in prestigious magazines.
In May, the library will celebrate its 99th birthday, with the theme “The Time Machine.” On June 6th, the library formally kicks off its centennial year at the Bibliothèque Clément Bayard of the Automobile Club of France. This Gala is the central fund-raising event of the year for the library, a nonprofit supported by memberships, donations, and grants. Martin Amis, the British novelist, playwright and commentator, best known for novels Money and London Fields and for his cultural commentary, will be the featured speaker. An international star, he likely will be greeted by the appreciation enjoyed last year by Salmon Rushdie.
The Gala will be followed by a year of reflection and imagination as well as celebration as the library board, staff, members, volunteers and others contribute ideas to a new strategic plan. Library Director Audrey Chapuis is deservedly proud of the institution she leads: “For one hundred years the Library has served as a center for cross-cultural exchange, a repository of ideas, and a haven for those who value the life of the mind. Together, we can build on those traditions and create new ones, for the readers of today and tomorrow.”
Lead photo credit : Author talk with Richard Russo. Photo credit: American Library in Paris
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