Tuesday, January 5, 2010

American Library R.I.P.

I was faced with a quandary yesterday: I was told to bring back my library books this week, but should I just give up on the book I'm reading? For a National Book Award winner, The Hemingses of Monticello, by Annette Gordon-Reed, must be one of the worst-written, padded, PC-speak, stupidly focused books I've ever attempted. I'd already forced my way through a couple hundred pages, and was determined to jettison it and just get some new reading, when all of a sudden Jefferson moved to Paris with James Hemings, one of his slaves, and James was apprenticing to become a French chef. Okay, this was interesting, as I dodged around Gordon-Reed's klunky prose style to get at the story. Then one of Jefferson's daughters came to stay with her father, and was accompanied by another slave from the family, Sally Hemings. Finally, nearly 300 pages into this shipwreck, some stuff I wanted to read about.

Then came an e-mail: effective Jan. 1, 2010, the American Library of Montpellier, where I'd gotten this book and two others, was closed. Books should be returned as soon as possible, and no further loans would be made.

This wasn't a total surprise. Late last year, the Friends of the American Library sent out a notice that they'd dissolved. I didn't get a real feeling for why, but it appeared that the new librarian offended them somehow, and refused to let them function as they wanted. The FOAL people were angry that they'd bought computers and books for the library and now were being scorned. Because so many people who used the library apparently don't know how to use e-mail, my box filled up with a debate about the new librarian, who had just been hired, and then it filled up again with "Take me off this list!" e-mails. For my part, I found the new librarian very shy, although by about my third visit there, she opened up a bit more. I almost never saw another soul using the place.

I was concerned, however, about this development, because I am supposed to give a talk under the auspices of FOAL and the American Studies department of the University Paul Valérie, Montpellier III in the very near future. A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with my contact at the University, and mentioned that FOAL had folded. He wasn't surprised: I learned that the American Library is maintained by the University's English Department, and, like educational institutions everywhere, they're pinched for funds. They can't really afford to pay the librarian's salary, there's already a collection of English-language books in the central University library, and so from their side, this is just paring some fat away.

The problem, of course, is that a number of us have paid dues to use this facility, and have come to look at it as a private lending library funded by our dues and moneys raised by FOAL. Although I've found the collection eccentric in the extreme, I've also found a lot of stuff there that I either wouldn't buy for myself (mysteries, science fiction), or can't afford to buy for myself (they have the entire Library of America series, and this batch of books I have here includes the first volume of the Philip Roth collections, which I was looking forward to continuing). I considered this library to be a wonderful service to a sizeable minority of residents here, and had no idea that it existed at the whim of the University.

I'll admit it: I'm addicted to reading. It's what I do most evenings. I don't own (and don't much want and definitely don't have any space for) a television. I'm not a movie guy, for the most part. I read omnivorously and quickly. In Berlin, I found out about the existence of the lending library at Amerika Haus about ten minutes before Jesse Helms and the other right-wingers decided that America had won the Cold War and shut it down and sold off the books. And being able to browse and find stuff by happenstance -- not to mention being able to borrow them for free -- was an unexpected pleasure once I moved here. I borrowed DVDs, too, although they cost extra (and the selection, again, was very odd), and I was planning to do some more of that.

The e-mail box is filling up again, with shock and anger about the unilateral decision to close the library, and there's a movement to petition Jacques Touchon, who's with the city in some sort of cultural administrative function (and who is apparently in charge of Montpellier's twin-city relationship with Louisville, Kentucky) to deal with this situation. While I've been writing this, my mailbox has been adding more and more e-mails on the closure. One asked if this was an anti-American gesture on the part of the University. Others want to set up a book-exchange program. Others just want the library to continue, and I count myself in that number and would be willing to spend some time seeing what can be done, although others who know the landscape better should set the mechanics of that up, not me.

The American Library was a luxury, sure. There are others, in Paris, Angers, and Nancy, but they're all a bit far away, to put it mildly. Given the bounty the earth provides here, the climate, and the scenery, one gets used to luxury as a way of life. This particular luxury was only useful to a small group of people, but if it goes, I'm really going to miss it.


  1. Cette décision m'attriste énormément. Ed, je pense que je peux écrire en français, puisque tu comprends bien cette langue. Je n'avais plus renouvelé mon inscription à la Bibliothèque américaine depuis quelques années mais je voulais le faire cette année. La BA n'a jamais vraiment fait de "publicité" pour étoffer le nombre de ses membres, pour ce que j'en sais, c'est dommage.

    Je connais Jacques Touchon. C'est quelqu'un pour qui j'ai de l'estime, mais je regrette qu'il soit devenu un homme politique. Il a été doyen de la faculté de médecine.

    La BA ce n'était pas seulement des bouquins. Il y a quelques années, il y avait de belles rencontres, avec des auteurs. C'était beaucoup mieux quand elle était située dans un vieil immeuble de la rue Saint-Louis, presque en face du Centre franco-américain.

    Si on fait quelque chose pour empêcher ça, je suis prête à participer.

  2. I'd wait this one out. They've closed that library before for weirdo reasons and it's always come back. One of the reasons I stopped using it, in fact, was that I was never really sure when they were in a state of being open or in a state of "we are closed until... (insert whatever controversy happens to be happening.)"

  3. I suspect Bart's right on this, given the huge amount of outrage that's been piling up in my inbox.

    Still, I do have to return these three books...

  4. Ed, would you be up to writing a press release about the subject? I guess we need two: one in English, one in French...

    Ilene Gex

  5. Ca ne se bouscule pas au portillon, n'est-ce pas?

    (which means "there's not a huge crowd trying to get in!" after the "Larousse online").


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