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On February 5, 1947, twenty-nine year old  Ruth McBirney set sail for Europe. Ahead of her was a great adventure: six years in Paris and the opportunity to witness the "City of Light" come back to life after the grim experience of German occupation during World War II.  The Paris that Ruth McBirney found in 1947 was beset by food shortages, labor unrest, and political instability, but the cultural life was vibrant, and the young librarian from Boise, Idaho, took full advantage of all it afforded.

Ruth McBirney already had four years of experience behind her working in New York at Columbia University when she learned of an opening at the American Library in Paris, a private institution founded by the American Library Association in 1920.  Its  purpose was to be "the recognized center for information about America for Europeans and to promote among students, journalists, and men-of-letters in Europe a closer acquaintance with American literature, institutions, and thought."  It also became a public library of sorts for expatriate Americans and counted among its patrons some of the great American writers of the twentieth century.  After an interview with the library's newly-appointed director, she was hired and soon on her way to France.

Miss McBirney was part of a new management team sent over to Paris after the war.  Together with director Ian Forbes Fraser and librarian William K. Harrison III, she built up the library's collections and extended its outreach by establishing branches across France.  During their first year in Paris, the three of them rented a house together in the Parisian suburb of St. Cloud, complete with a maid left behind by the absent owners.  That home was her base for exploring the rich cultural life of Paris, an experience documented in weekly letters she sent home to her parents in Boise.  Those letters are preserved in the Special Collections Department of Albertsons Library.  So too are letters from her French friends, many of whom remembered her as "Chère Mac."  

   After six years in France, the tug of home and family brought Ruth McBirney back to Idaho.  In 1954, she became head of the Boise Junior College Library, a small collection of 20,000 volumes housed in one wing of the Administration Building.  By the time she retired in 1977, the size of the book collection had increased tenfold, the junior college had become a university, and the first two phases of the present Albertsons Library building were constructed.  Ruth McBirney died in 1991.  The Ruth McBirney Room commemorates her years of service to Boise State University.

Ruth McBirney at her desk at Boise State,1969.  University archives photo

Ruth McBirney's experiences in France are best told in her own words, in letters she sent home to her parents.  Here are some excerpts from her letters, with images (some of them photos she took herself) to accompany them. 

Click to enlarge 


It was a thrill to come ashore at Calais.  There is a great deal of bomb damage visible.  All along the way to Paris there were many places, just shells.  Bologne looked quite dead--or perhaps it was Amiens, I forget--just blocks and blocks of rubble.
                            February 15, 1947




I'm wondering now whether the idea of the three of us [her friends and colleagues Ian Forbes Fraser and Bill Harrison] sharing an apartment may sound a little too bohemian....Don't worry about my morals--they are as straight as they ever were, even tho I may drink a beer or glass of wine occasionally.

                        February 26, 1947


Ruth McBirney with Ian Forbes Fraser       MSS 113, Photo 231

MSS 113, Photo 212
Did I say my driving tactics have completely changed since I have become a Parisian driver?  I started out by being polite & following the rules I grew up with, but found myself getting stuck while everyone else went past or around me--so now I barge right in & thru, honking my horn like a good Frenchman & let everyone else look out for himself....
                  July 14, 1950





Again I am mad at Bill & Ian....I am told about their going to one of the night clubs, that I would like to go to....I'd like to know how I'm ever going to get to one of those dives if they don't take me.  Of course I quite understand why they didn't take me; they no doubt thought I'd be shocked by the show because I'm a "nice girl", but I am also curious....
                                       September 14, 1947

Her colleague Bill Harrison     Photo 228



Paris is beginning to suffer from a bread shortage which Marthe says will probably last until July.  The same thing happened last year.  It started a few weeks ago--the first manifestation was requiring bread tickets for pastries.  And now people are having to queue up for bread.
                                                       April 23, 1947

Breadline, Sunday, April 20, 1947
Ian coming out of door with a
bagette [sic] in his hand (bread
an inch to 2" thick & about a
yard long.)  There were more in
line but they were told there was
no more bread & not to wait.

MSS 113, Photo 251



A 1947 view of the American Library in Paris, then located at 9 rue de Teheran, not far from the Arc de Triomphe.


MSS 113, Photo 215



Toasting the opening of a branch of the American Library in Toulouse, 1951. Ruth McBirney (on the right) with Ian Forbes Fraser (beside her) and Philippe Ganeval (smoking).


MSS 113, Photo 320

MSS 113, Box 9, Folder 10

Long before he achieved an international reputation, the mime Marcel Marceau perfected the character "Bip" in small theaters in Paris. This image is from a handbill for a 1949 performance found in Miss McBirney's papers.  She must have become acquainted with Marceau, because her papers indicate that she lent him the considerable sum of 10,000 francs.  How did he use it?  How did she meet him?  And did she contact him when he performed in Boise State University's Morrison Center in 1989?  We don't know.  Her papers are silent.

Go to Miss McBirney's autobiography with more information about her years in France

Go to the online finding aid for Ruth McBirney's papers


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