The American Library in Paris sits in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Its collection of 100,000 books is spread over three stories. Members from 60 countries can work at long tables or whisper at the coffee machine. As the programs manager, I oversaw the ALP’s weekly Evening with an Author series, hosting journalists, debut novelists, and National Book Award winners. At events, I stood in the back of the reading room, one eye on the crowd, the other on my journal as I jotted down the writers’ words. During the day, at my desk in the bustling back office, I also took note of what colleagues said and was particularly captivated by the World War II story of the courageous librarians who defied the Nazi “Library Protector” in order to hand-deliver books to Jewish readers.
During the Nazi occupation of France, Dorothy Reeder, the Directress of the Library, stood up to the Bibliotheksschütz, Dr. Hermann Fuchs, who had full authority over intellectual activity in the country at the time. Before the war, these two book lovers had chatted at international library conferences; later, they would find themselves on opposing sides. I longed to learn more about them, and began searching for answers to my questions: What had brought the Directress to France? What became of her? Who was the Bibliotheksschütz before the war? Was he eventually arrested for his role?
Worried that nothing would come of my research, I was reticent to tell coworkers about the project. But I wasn’t shy about reaching out to strangers and sent dozens of emails to various libraries where the Directress and her staff had worked. I contacted people with the last names of Reeder, Netchaeff, or Oustinoff in hopes that they were related to the ALP librarians. I read through hundreds of pages of scanned documents from the American Library Association archives, including Dorothy Reeder’s correspondence. I interviewed French women who’d lived through the Occupation.
To learn more about the day-to-day life of Parisians during the war, I turned to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF). This modern library is made up of four buildings in a configuration that resembles four open books; however, the public resources are less accessible than this design would suggest, with the tomes for the general public on the basement level and the research library in the sub-basement.
In keeping with the infamous French bureaucracy, to access the research level, you must have a letter from a professor or an employer and go through an interview. I wasn’t a student, and since I’d recently dedicated all my time to research, I no longer had an employer. An Ivy-League acquaintance was rejected after her interview, and I became nervous that I wouldn’t pass the test.The American Library in Paris sits in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Its collection of 100,000 books is spread over three stories.
In preparation for my appointment, I carried a list of books to consult as well as a copy of my first novel, physical proof that I was an author. The reference librarian conducting the interview was cordial; we discussed my project for 20 minutes. She hadn’t heard of the librarians who’d resisted during the war, which made me want to write the book even more.
With a stamp of approval on my application, I moved to the cashier’s desk. A researcher’s pass costs 50 euros, or $70, for a year.
“What’s your profession?” the cashier asked.
“I’m an author.”
She glanced at the paperwork. Not finding the appropriate box to check, she said, “We’ll just write that you’re unemployed.”
Library card in hand, I passed through immense metal doors and down two narrow escalators, to a last set of doors that older researchers have trouble opening without assistance. With 40 million documents, the BNF houses the national memory and much of the international memory. All precautions against fire are taken. It feels like a bunker.