A Gift that Keeps Giving: The American Memorial Library in Berlin

By Svenja Dörflinger

“Today we are lay­ing the cor­ner­stone of the Amer­i­can Memo­r­i­al Library. It is to be open to all who desire to enter and learn what men of all nations and all beliefs have thought and writ­ten. It is the free­dom to learn, to study, to seek the truth. This is the essence of a free soci­ety. This is the source of our great­est strength.”

It’s the year 1952 – a hot June day in West Berlin. The city’s may­or, Ernst Reuter; U.S. High Com­mis­sion­er for Ger­many, John McCloy; and Amer­i­can Sec­re­tary of State, Dean Ache­son, are lay­ing the cor­ner­stone for the first Amer­i­can pub­lic library in Ger­many, the Ameri­ka Gedenkbib­lio­thek (Amer­i­can Memo­r­i­al Library). In his speech, Ache­son not only gives hope to the peo­ple of Berlin – who live in a divid­ed city after a hor­ren­dous war – he also deliv­ers a mes­sage that is per­haps more top­i­cal than ever.

Short­ly after McCloy’s and Acheson’s vis­it to West Berlin, the con­struc­tion for the Amer­i­can Memo­r­i­al Library – based on designs by the Ger­man Amer­i­can archi­tects Fritz Borne­mann and Willy Kreuer – begins on Blücher­platz in Kreuzberg. In recog­ni­tion of the cit­i­zens’ courage and resilience dur­ing the Berlin Block­ade, the library was financed through a dona­tion by the Amer­i­can peo­ple and par­tial­ly sup­port­ed by the Mar­shall Fund. As a sym­bol of edu­ca­tion­al free­dom and free­dom of speech, the Amer­i­can Memo­r­i­al Library was offi­cial­ly inau­gu­rat­ed in 1954.

User reg­is­tra­tion at the open­ing day of the Amer­i­can Memo­r­i­al Library on Sep­tem­ber 20, 1954. Pho­to cred­it: AGB Archiv

The attrac­tive­ness of the Amer­i­can Pub­lic Library was the ser­vice-ori­ent­ed help offered and the research sys­tem which allowed vis­i­tors to search with­in a the­mat­ic field. The library was open to all, no mat­ter what social or edu­ca­tion­al back­ground, and its goal was to make knowl­edge acces­si­ble to everyone.

Besides books from the human­i­ties and social sci­ences, pop cul­ture also found its place: Right from the start, the library had a pho­net­ic depart­ment with more than 1,000 records which made it very pop­u­lar with young users. The first reg­is­tered user with card num­ber 00001, Herr Lohmann, explained that he was so curi­ous and excit­ed that he pre­tend­ed to have a toothache so he could leave work and par­tic­i­pate in the open­ing ceremony.

With the con­struc­tion of the Berlin Wall and the phys­i­cal sep­a­ra­tion of the city in 1961, the con­cept of an acces­si­ble library became a priv­i­lege for the cit­i­zens of West Berlin only. The library’s direc­tor, Dr. Fritz Moser, remem­bered some emo­tion­al sto­ries: A father who apol­o­gized for his son’s late book return because the son was arrest­ed at a train sta­tion in East Berlin. Anoth­er user said he was sor­ry that he couldn’t return his books because he escaped the East and had to swim through the Tel­tow canal.

Even­tu­al­ly, how­ev­er, both the polit­i­cal atmos­phere dur­ing the Cold War and the involve­ment of the Unit­ed States in Viet­nam led to an increas­ing­ly hos­tile stance towards the Unit­ed States. Even the vis­it of the Min­is­ter of Jus­tice, Robert Kennedy, and his wife in Feb­ru­ary 1962 did not decrease ten­sions in the upcom­ing years. Instead, an arson attack in 1969 as well as sev­er­al bomb scares were dai­ly occurrences.

Pho­to cred­it: AGB Archiv

Only Germany’s reuni­fi­ca­tion in 1990 changed the library’s down­ward spi­ral. Due to an increased demand, the Amer­i­can Memo­r­i­al Library (in for­mer West Berlin) and the Berlin City Library (in for­mer East Berlin) became one. The Berlin Cen­tral and Region­al Library (Zen­tral- und Lan­des­bib­lio­thek Berlin) now has more than 3.4 mil­lion media material.

Today, 65+ years after the open­ing of the Amer­i­can Memo­r­i­al Library, the polit­i­cal cli­mate across the Atlantic is once again chal­leng­ing. This encour­ages us to remem­ber the essen­tial idea of this library in a once divid­ed city: Open­ness, tol­er­ance, and diver­si­ty – val­ues that can tear down imag­ined walls until today.

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Sven­ja Dör­flinger received her B.A. in North Amer­i­can Stud­ies and Cul­tur­al Anthro­pol­o­gy from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Göt­tin­gen. For an intern­ship at the Ger­man Amer­i­can Cham­ber of Com­merce, she spent one year in New York. At the moment, she’s pur­su­ing her master’s degree at Hum­boldt Uni­ver­si­ty of Berlin in Cul­tur­al Anthro­pol­o­gy, focus­ing on women in pol­i­tics, espe­cial­ly in the light of this year’s U.S. pres­i­den­tial election.