Tour guide Andre Lecoz looked surprised when travelers cheered and applauded as he introduced them to the Carnegie Library in Reims, France. “We’re from Pittsburgh,” they shouted proudly. It was the first place he showed us as we drove through the quaint city on a bus.
The top of the stone building reads Bibliotheque and although it was closed the day we toured the town, Andrew Carnegie’s bust greets visitors at the entrance.
It’s one of three European cities to have library funded by the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace. Besides Reims, there are libraries in Leuven, Belgium and Belgrade, Serbia. Reims was chosen for a specific reason according to Lecoz. “This city had been terribly damaged by the war and Carnegie decided to do something,” he said.
The foundation gave $200,000 to begin construction in 1920, the year after Carnegie’s death. It’s innovated curved design allows what would amount to 10 kilometers of books to be stored on five levels in a semicircle. It was completed in the 1927. On the walls you can find 14 intricate mosaics in marble representing intellectual, physical and work activities.
Standing under a restaurant awning to avoid the rain, Lecoz explains what Carnegie hoped for his libraries. “In his mind when people read books, they could become enlightened and prevent wars. After a short pause Lexoz added, but it did not.”
Reims actually did play a part in the peace process though, as it was the site of the unconditional surrender of the Germans in WWII on May 7, 1945. The room where the historic agreement was signed has remained unchanged since that day, well almost unchanged. Lecoz told the story of witnesses to the signing removing all the ashtrays at the end of the day, taking them as souvenirs. Decades later an American tourist visiting the site, pulled one of the ashtrays out of his pocket and gave it to the Museum of Surrender. His father had walked out of the room with the ashtray on that day in 1945.