Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Walter Hines Page Memorial Library

It turned out that the Walter Hines Page Memorial Library is now located in three rooms in the basement of the English Speaking Union, which, at first glance, seemed to be some sort of business gentleman’s club, of the kind that Eliot spent so much time in after he separated from his first wife. I was looked at strangely by the doorman, who called the librarian, and then was shown through the opulent lobby, across the courtyard, to the offices, and down the stairs to the library, to find Gill the librarian, who filled me in on Books Across the Sea and the Page library.

Books Across the Sea, or BAS, was founded by Mrs. Beatrice Warde, a graduate of Barnard College and an American ex-pat who was living in London in 1941 during Goebbels mis-informative propaganda campaign which fostered a great lack of understanding on both sides of the Atlantic, between the UK and the US. She was first involved with the American Outpost in Great Britain, and used their resources to make connections in the US and to begin a transfer of books between the countries in order to promote better relations and greater clarity. The BAS flourished during the war with Eliot as its president, and he worked hard even after the war to “maintain the spirit of co-operation” that had been so newly founded. In 1948, the BAS organizations merged with the English Speaking Union chapters in London and New York, and libraries to house the BAS books were built under the purview of each organization. That is how the Page library was founded.

What I found, however, was a collection of outdated books that formed a kind of caricature of the United States that is hardly ever utilized, according to the one part-time librarian who works there with help only from a septuagenarian volunteer. I called ahead of time to announce my visit, so Gill had already gone through the papers in the archives—which, she told me, she had rescued from the moldy sub-basement beneath our feet—to find the most pertinent files. I have to say that this library was the most like the libraries with which I am familiar; highly disorganized and highly underfunded, but not for lack of love on the part of the librarian or librarians staffing the facility. I was able to find more information about Eliot’s involvement with the organization, as well as some information about BAS itself and a speech that Eliot gave that has probably not been re-printed anywhere else. Gill is graciously going to post copies of these materials to me back at home.

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