Burton E. Stevenson: ALA Representative in Europe

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Found in RS 89/1/13, Box 2, Group #7 – Personnel

Burton Egbert Stevenson (1872-1962) was surprised to find himself named the foremost ALA representative in Europe for the Library War Services campaign during the first World War.  A college dropout from Princeton University and aspiring novelist, he fell into the library profession after marrying Chillicothe Public Librarian, Elisabeth Shephard Butler and accepting a librarian position at the same library in 1899.

"Camp Library at Camp Sherman, Ohio." Found in RS 89/1/13, Box 5, Folder: ALA Postcards, Ohio
“Camp Library at Camp Sherman, Ohio.” Found in RS 89/1/13, Box 5, Folder: ALA Postcards, Ohio

In the summer of 1917 under the shadow of the Great War, he organized a book service for Camp Sherman, the large army training camp located on the outskirts of Chillicothe, Ohio.  His efforts were brought to the attention of the Librarian of Congress, Herbert Putnam, who traveled to Chillicothe to evaluate Stevenson’s program.  The program became the model for the Library War Service.  In March 1918, Stevenson and his wife sailed for France to begin his post as Director of the Army Library Service in Paris.  After the war, he founded the American Library in Paris and served as its Director (1918-1920 and 1925-1930) and remained a tireless advocate for the institution for the rest of his life.  The American Library in Paris and the partnering Paris Library School became models of American librarianship in Europe.  [1] Within the World War I bound circular letters (volume 2) is a personal letter by Stevenson to his friend, Doctor Frank P. Hill, written shortly after he and his wife arrived in Paris describing his surprising new position, the Library War Service efforts, and already his vision of the future American Library in Paris.  The complete letter can be viewed here. [2]

Dear Doctor Hill: A lot of water has gone under the bridge since the memorable day last November when I discovered you in the little bedroom on the third floor of the Warner House, trying to extract some hot water from a very reluctant faucet. […] It seems to me that one of the most important by-products of this whole war work is the consolidating and revivifying of this library interest.  I have felt from the first that this library war service was the most important task the public libraries of America had on hand and that librarians must be made to understand that their first duty was to see that the library service for our men was properly organized and wisely administered.  To my mind, no man in the library profession was too big to take a camp library job, and I am glad to note that this idea is gradually percolating through the profession. Not, strictly speaking, that I have ever been one of the profession.  As you know, my library work previous to about a year ago, was a sort of avocation, a sort of recreation which kept me in touch with books; so it seems strange to me sometimes that I should be the man selected to come to France to represent the A.L.A., but I am trying to do it to the best of my ability, and we are, I think, making quite a showing over here.  Let me say that my experience at the Washington Headquarters soon showed me that Dr. Putnam and his assistants were anxious to do everything possible to forward this work, and I soon became a thorough admirer of the energy and wisdom which they were applying to the task.  Since I have been over here, I have felt this more and more, and I know that they feel that their supreme task now is to back up this work in France to the limit.

Stevenson continues to describe the work in France, a central distributing hub for reading materials to the front line trenches, which distributed more than 34,000 volumes during the Great War.  The YMCA had recently turned over to him the management of their Library Department, and received a “magnificent headquarters occupying the entire ground floor of a building which was formerly the palace of the papal délégué to the French Republic.”

I am planning to set up there a real American public library which will act as a reservoir and central distributing point for the whole of France. What I am trying is to institute in the principal camps a system somewhat similar to that which we started in the camps in America by which the boys may look towards our Paris Headquarters for advice and assistance.  […]  It seems to me that one of the greatest services we can perform in France is to demonstrate the way in which American Public libraries work.  As you know, there are no free lending libraries, as we understand the term, in France at present.  There is, however, a move on foot to establish them here […].  The work is of the most inspiring and interesting kind and the demand for books on the part of our men is almost unbelievably great.  Their gratitude for even the smallest collection is very touching and makes me feel that we cannot work hard enough to give them the very best possible service.

Burton E. Stevenson
Found in RS 18/1/57, Box 27, Folder: Librarian Photographs ST-SW

For more information:

[1] Vince, Thomas L., “Stevenson, Burton Egbert.” Dictionary of American Library Biography. Littleton, Libraries Unlimited: 1978.

[2] Stevenson, Burton. Letter to Doctor Frank P. Hill. June 28, 1918. Circular Letters, bound volume 2, RS 89/1/55, Box 1, American Library Association Archives.

Correspondence of Burton Stevenson can be found at the ALA Archives in the following record series:

Read more ALA Archives blog posts about the American Library in Paris and WWI library service: “A Book for Every Man” and “After the Eleventh Hour.”

Burton E. Stevenson’s Personal Papers are held at the Library of Congress.

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