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Associations and InstitutionsAnnual 

64th IFLA Conference Logo

   64th IFLA General Conference
   August 16 - August 21, 1998


Code Number: 151-133-E
Division Number: V.
Professional Group: Government Information and Official Publications
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 133.
Simultaneous Interpretation:   No

Alexandre Vattemare's International Document Exchanges and the Collection of Foreign Official Publications of the Bibliothèque administrative de la Ville de Paris: a Historian's Treasure Trove

Pierre-Alain Tilliette
Bibliothèque administrative de la ville de Paris


The French actor and traveller Alexandre Vattemare (1796-1864) singlehandedly created the first system for the international exchange of publications, and inspired such later exchanges as those of the Smithsonian Institution or the Brussels Convention. One of the finest results of his efforts was the remarkable American Library in Paris, which by 1860 contained some 14,000 volumes, for the most part official publications of the federal government, states or cities of the early United States. Part of this collection was saved from the fire of 1871 at the old Paris city hall, and became the nucleus around which the administrative library of the new city hall in the French capital built up a unique collection of municipal documents from around the world, through exchanges of publications with foreign cities over the next fifty years. Today this catalogued collection of rare foreign official publications of the past is a treasure trove for researchers in urban history, economic history and the history of law from 1850 to 1920.


Aviation had its 19th-century pioneers, and so did the international exchange of publications. Theirs too is a story marked by risky take-offs full of promise, wonderful flights of oratory and sudden falls into oblivion. This, in brief, was the destiny of one of the bravest and most colourful of the early promoters of such exchanges, Nicholas Marie Alexandre Vattemare, who was born in Paris in 1796, died there in 1864, but travelled much between. Vattemare founded and directed the first international exchange system for publications, for which he was celebrated as a benefactor of humanity by such men of culture as Josiah Phillips Quincy, the son, grandson and father of mayors of Boston, but after his death he nearly disappeared from the memory of man.

There is not enough time here to say more than a few words about Vattemare's uncommon life, in itself a marvellous 19th-century novel spanning the decades from the Napoleonic wars to the American Civil War. His was a life of full of passions, travels and disappointments, a theatrical existence in which many of the famous crossed his path.

There do indeed exist some historical studies on Vattemare, among which one might note the thesis of the American Elizabeth M. Richards (1934), the writings of Juliette Lambertine Dargent, who was in charge of the Belgian international exchanges and had access to very interesting private archives, the work of the Canadian Elisabeth Revai, or the more recent contribution by the Italian Clotilde Frigiolini (1979). Then, why shall I speak here again of Vattemare's accomplishments? Well, you may have noticed that in the brief preceding enumeration of his biographers I did not refer to any French studies of the man , recent or not. No one is a prophet in his own country. In France, Alexandre Vattemare has not yet ended his long sojourn in the wilderness, although this too shall pass: a research team directed by writer and art historian Yann le Pichon is now working on several projects to do with Vattemare, including a biography.

As for my own interest, I am the distant heir of Vattemare's labours, since the Bibliothèque administrative de la Ville de Paris, where I work, bears precious witness to the beginnings of the international exchange of publications, by housing what remains of the splendid foreign collection assembled to Vattemare and known in the 1850's as the American Library of the city of Paris. Thus it is a pleasure for me and an honor today to render unto Vattemare the things which are Vattemare's. There is no doubt that he would have liked to hear my tribute, paid to him during a conference of librarians, and in Amsterdam no less, where his first son was born, and where on April 17, 1852, the Dutch government named him as its agent for international exchanges.

In my presentation today I shall first briefly expand on who Vattemare was and what he did. Then I shall show how he became involved with official publications, explain his role in founding the American Library of the city of Paris, located in its City Hall (Hôtel de Ville) from 1842 to 1869, and narrate how this turned into the foreign department of the Bibliothèque administrative de la Ville de Paris, a centre which exchanged municipal publications with all the world for more than fifty years, from the 1870's to the 1920's. I shall finish by showing what this collection of foreign official publications offers to historical researchers and how we try to highlight it in my library.

In his youth Alexandre Vattemare wanted to be a surgeon. He studied at Saint Louis's Hospital in Paris, but was dismissed for misbehaviour: he could not refrain from playing tricks on his teachers and fellow students through his uncommon and exceptional gifts as a ventriloquist! Stuck in Berlin and pennyless in 1814, he decided to use his unusual talent to make a living. Ventriloquist and impersonator extraordinaire, he could act plays with ten characters and only one performer: himself. He became amazingly well known: over some twenty years, under the name of Monsieur Alexandre, he met with triumph through Europe, applauded by Queen Victoria and the Tsar, by Gthe, Pushkin and Sir Walter Scott.

Wherever he travelled, Vattemare never failed to visit the libraries and museums. And he was struck by the great degree of duplication in collections, including much precious rubbish which the scholar must regretfully let fall into dust and oblivion. That was how Vattemare got the great idea to which he would devote the last thirty years of his life, with admirable zeal and energy - the idée fixe, in the words of French politician and historian François Guizot, to which Vattemare also devoted the considerable fortune he had made as an entertainer. This was the organization, on a large scale, of a system for the international exchange of publications, art objects, coins and medals, even specimens of natural history, a system that he described with much detail in his first petition for support to the French chamber.

This met with little success; indeed, as Vattemare later pointed out in his second petition to his home government, what was by then called the European Society of International Exchanges had already existed in Germany, the Italian states and Great Britain for years, without France having been willing to take advantage of it.

But, encouraged by La Fayette, Vattemare crossed the Atlantic in 1839-1841, and again in 1847-1849. In the United States he met with a formidable success, and to some extent too in Canada - but it was no longer Monsieur Alexandre the actor who was being praised, but Vattemare the philanthropist, the founder and director of the Central Agency of the international system of exchanges, whose deep purpose it was to bring a better understanding between all nations by means of the sharing of knowledge. The results were astounding: he made a significant contribution to the expansion of the public library, and even of library science, in the United States. Vattemare was, for instance, one of the founders of the famous Boston Public Library; and on June 26, 1848, he obtained the passage of a law on exchanges by the American Congress. Like Congress, many American states took legislative measures in favor of exchanges and gave Vattemare moral and even financial help (so, in 1848-1849, he received $5940 from the U.S. Congress and from 13 states, and over his last three years in America he did not spend more than $20 for his own accommodation).

Such help the French government still obstinately refused to give. By 1857, however, Vattemare was able to write down an impressive chronology of the official acts by which other governments had accepted the idea of a system of exchanges - from the letter of Lichententhaler, director of the Bavarian Royal Library in Munich in January 1832, down to the letter of the Mexican Ministry of Public Works of Mexico in June 1854. In between he had secured agreements from Austria, Denmark, Havana in Spanish Cuba, Chile, the Netherlands, Belgium, the American Congress and nineteen American States.

Inevitably the whole scheme, which was run on an ad hoc basis, ran out of money, and the same Librarian of Congress, Meehan, who had first congratulated Vattemare by saying "Your name will be pronounced with respect and gratefulness by the literary, scientific and legislative bodies of the whole world", would then denounce him and inform him of his dismissal as an official agent of United States. But the international book exchanges organized by Vattemare really did work: the number of exchanged volumes varies according to who is doing the estimating, but many thousand, maybe a hundred thousand books were involved.

In the long result, Alexandre Vattemare had sown an idea which would grow mightily after his death. The international exchanges of the Smithsonian Institution were inspired by him; in 1877, in Paris, there was at last created a French Commission of International Exchanges. In Belgium, where the system had begun humbly with the leaflet International exchanges system on a large scale by the agency of M. Al. V., there was an international conference on exchanges in 1880, followed by the signing of an international Convention in 1886.

The IFLA Section on Government Information and Official Publications is also, by its fostering of international exchanges of official documents, a continuator of the edifying story of Alexandre Vattemare: for Vattemare always emphasized exchanges of official publications and asked for them first. By their exchange, he thought, nations could better understand each other: "Tell me what your laws are, I will tell you who you are". Besides, Vattemare had a practical streak to him: Zoltan Haraszti remembered the master of exchanges telling his audience that information on finances, water supply, street paving, gained real importance under his system.

A few quotations will illustrate the significance of exchanges of official publications to Vattemare and his contemporaries. At Christmas of 1844 Vattemare wrote to the Governor of Massachusetts:

Had the people of Europe an opportunity of learning your wise and salutary laws, the peaceful and yet powerful workings of your free government, your admirable institutions [...], could this knowledge but be diffused here, Europe would at once be forced to respect and admire you [.] This desideratum could easily be obtained. A few of the extra copies of public documents which I learn fill lumber rooms in many of your capitols, a collection of your laws.

The response of the Assembly of Massachusetts is also very significant; for in its resolution of February 1845 to promote literary and scientific exchanges with foreign countries, the exchange of official publications is not only accepted, but it is stated that fifty additional copies will be printed and bound for this purpose - a provision that is found again in the Federal law of June 26, 1848. Or then there is what Asbury Dickins, secretary of the American Senate, wrote to Vattemare on July 6, 1848: "The judgment of the civilized world has sanctioned your scheme of international exchanges. Of that comprehensive work, one of the most important branches is the prompt communication, among enlightened nations, of the proceedings of their several legislatures, and the documents connected with them. Each is thus enabled to profit early by the wisdom and experience of all."

The same idea of mutual advantage had already occurred in 1842 in a report by Edouard Thayer to the city council of Paris: "In an international system of exchanges, we must prefer above all the documents that allow us to know each country, its laws and customs, in a word the administrative and statistical documents. Those published in France will expose to the inhabitants of the New World the results of the experience acquired by an administration born in the most remote times, whereas those collected in America will make the old societies acquainted with the resources that a young people knows how to find in its energetic industry". And although most of the French administrative authorities showed themselves unenthusiastic about the system of exchanges, the city of Paris, by a resolution of the December 21, 1842, decided to respond in kind to the gifts of New York, Boston, Baltimore and the state of Maine.

Very soon thereafter, we can see in Vattemare's activities, in his reports, in his public addresses, a sequel to his earlier work taking shape, a new objective of library science being identified: the American Library of the City of Paris. For instance, when the authorities of Paris decided to allot a room of the library of the Hôtel de Ville to their American collection, Vattemare declared, during a meeting in Albany, New York, on November 27, 1847, that "one of my greatest desires is obtained, for we shall have, hereafter, a special and permanent exhibition of American genius in the most splendid mansion of the metropolis of the old world". Touching a patriotic chord, he appealed to America's citizens to assure the existence of this library with their gifts. "Those gifts have different origins," he writes on December 29, 1850, to the Prefect of the Seine Department - "some from the President of the United States, some from secretaries of State, some from the general in charge of the army, some from Congress, from particular legislatures, from municipal corporations, from learned societies, scientific institutions, universities or colleges, some even from ordinary citizens, orators, scholars, writers, publishers, bookbinders." Of the 25013 books Vattemare dispatched to 39 French depositories from 1847 to 1851, 10000 were for the American Library of Paris, far more than for the Chamber of Deputies, which got 3000, or the Imperial Library of Napoleon III, which got only 2277. In 1857, Vattemare noted that the American Library owned a copy of every title sent to the Central Agency of the international exchanges by America.

This library became the meeting place of journalists, men of letters, economists, lawyers searching for information on the United States. An American in Paris confessed that he found there more information on his country than in any library of the United States, while at the same time, as William D. Johnston remarks in his History of the Library of Congress, a Congressman in Washington could, thanks to Vattemare's efforts, more easily find documentation there on France than on any state of the Union.

The American Library of the City of Paris had a good press on the other side of the Atlantic. So much is proven by the letters to Vattemare of the mayor of Washington: "Stimulated by the example of your native city, ours will have in a near future a municipal library where the works of the city of Paris relating to the health and welfare of its immense population will be kept and consulted" (August 30, 1848); of the mayor of Boston (September 21, 1849); or of the mayor of New York: "So, in the two greatest cities of Europe and the United States, you have become the founder of public libraries that will remain as eternal monuments of your work" (December 4, 1850). So, in the same vein, wrote Charles King, president of Columbia College, to the French Minister of Public Instruction.

Some authors have wrongly written that the American Library of Paris has now wholly disappeared, lost during the fire of May 1871 that destroyed the Hôtel de Ville of Paris. In fact, this American collection, whose volumes are easily recognizable by the stamp "Système d'échange international d'Alexandre Vattemare" __ equivalent to a duty free stamp __ or by their dedication bindings, manuscript notations, or "gift plates" like the one printed by Boston in 1849, still in part survives. Only the more beautiful books, like the Audubons or the Natural history of the State of New York, were still at. the Hôtel de Ville when it burned. The remaining and more important part of the collection had been transferred to Passy, in the16th district of Paris, in 1869. The official publications and the books of law and history from the American Library of Paris were afterwards sent back to the Bibliothèque administrative of the new City Hall, where they contributed to its organization in two departments, the French section and the foreign section.

The foreign section of the Bibliothèque administrative de la ville de Paris was the logical extension of the American Library. "One must recognize," said Edouard Dardenne in 1883, "that Paris, in spite of its marvels, may borrow examples and even models from other great cities. It is possible to say that, in a way, the foreign library makes present for the science of administration the progress that the great international exhibitions have made present for industry; like these industrial exhibitions, our administrative library gives opportunty for a continual exchange of thoughts and works between the various nations of the world."

By 1886, the city of Paris was exchanging publications with 266 foreign partners, at the national, provincial or municipal level. At the municipal level in particular this was an important technical investment (one consequence of which, chiefly of interest to information specialists, was a standardization of the material appearance of municipal reports). But this vigorous exchange program was also an investment, we may say, on the emotional and cultural level, to create links with other cities (see the numerous dedication bindings, or the high-level correspondence in the exchange archives, signed by such personages as secretaries of State, mayors, or ambassadors).

This large-scale and sophisticated system of official publications exchange slowed down with the First World War and came to a full stop with World War II. Today, the resulting collection of about 50000 volumes of foreign official publications is a unique and harmonious whole, coherent both by reason of its period of coverage, crossing the boundary between the 19th and 20th centuries, and by reason of its subject fields: central administration, local administration, statistics, urban history, economic history, the history of law.

The jewel of the collection is of course what remains of the Vattemare collection, rare books now, which furthermore are the only surviving testimonies of the old library of the city of Paris. These items from the old American Library include records of the first sessions of the House of Representatives and of the American Senate, the first statutes of the different states of the Union, and original editions of famous titles, some of them with dedications.

But what above all renders this collection original and makes it valuable for historians is of course its emphasis on the official publications of the world at the local level __ proceedings of provincial and municipal councils, budgets, accounts, and reports from many different departments of local government (public works, health and hygiene, public roads, the police, charitable institutions, educational institutions, libraries, museums...). These official materials are complemented and explained by non-governmental monographs and serials, particularly in the fields of administration and law (treatises on city management or on urban development, municipal codes), but also by historical and geographical studies, old descriptions of cities, maps and photos.

The official publications of the 19th century have today a great added value of rarity. Often printed on bad paper, they were not highly regarded when first published (William Taft is said to have remarked that when he wanted to conceal some information he just put it in the appropriate annual report). But today many serial runs of these publications have turned out to be as rare as almanacs from the 16th century. Nor can historical research any longer neglect these long forsaken sources. The professionals agree now on the urgency of their preservation.

The Bibliothèque administrative de la Ville de Paris has always tried to highlight and make the most of the old official publications of which it has such large collections. I will especially mention here the work we have done on the Parisian official publications of the past century, which is very important since those sources suffered great damage during the Commune. As far as its foreign collection is concerned, our library has for several years had a policy of publishing printed catalogues which are true manuals for the historian, with an administrative classification, extremely detailed bibliographical notes, and illustrations chosen from the official publications themselves (as M.L. Cooke, director of public works in Philadelphia in 1914, said of his reports: "At least, look at the pictures!"). Professor André Kaspi, prefacing the first volume of our American collection catalogue, writes that "it proposes subjects of research and opens new perspectives".

Not only is the library's collection of old official publications, with its primary sources, a veritable mine of documentary information for each political or geographical entity represented, but it also allows the researcher to do comparative historical analysis. One could study, for instance, municipal organization, or the development of public education, at the end of the 19th century in Russia, Italy, the United States, Australia, and the Netherlands.

Alexandre Vattemare, who was also a member of the International Congress of Statistics and of the International Association to Achieve a Uniform Decimal System of Weights, Measures and Currencies, had the insight to perceive the true richness of the official publications whose exchange he began, publications that he dreamt to see collected in a large international library of the two worlds, public and free. Of course, he was a dreamer, but in no wise the charlatan that some people have made him out to be: otherwise, would have he consecrated his life and his fortune to the service of an idea ? would have he been supported by so many men of good will ? Would his touching personality have been celebrated by Gthe or Pushkin? One anecdote will serve to depict him as he truly was: when the American Congress passed his law on the subject of the exchanges, when the speaker announced the result of the unanimous vote, his emotion was so strong that he fainted away for about six hours! His generosity is shown also by his desire that as many people as possible might take advantage of his noble enterprise. For instance, when he was here in the Netherlands, he wanted to make sure that his exchanges could extend even to the East Indies, and so the Bibliothèque administrative de la Ville de Paris still holds today the reports of commerce and navigation in Java for the years 1837 to 1853, published in Batavia. And if the project of the American Library of the City of Paris was so dear to the heart of Alexandre Vattemare, it was because he thought that there should remain in one collection a permanent testament of the useful but evanescent work of international exchange of publications of which he made himself the apostle. In this way not all his achievement would disappear with him.

So too it is for his successors who maintain his legacy. For the retrospective use of official publications by historians imposes on us who manage them today, often under urgent conditions and in many media, a corresponding duty to conserve our past and current collections for future researchers.