The International Youth Library opened its doors to the public on September 14, 1949. Housed at the time in a villa in downtown Munich, it was the first library for international children’s and youth literature in the world. Its founder, Jella Lepman, was a Jewish author of children’s books and a journalist. Lepman returned to Germany from British exile on contract with the American occupational forces to act as a consultant for the “cultural and educational matters of the women and children in the American occupied zone.” Lepman made it her mission to help children and teens who had been traumatized by the war and had endured national socialist indoctrination. “Let us begin with the children, to slowly straighten out this utterly confused world. The children will show the adults the way.” Lepman tempted her target patrons not with chocolate and chewing gum, but with nourishment for their minds. She solicited international publishing houses for book donations and in a short time had collected 4,000 children’s books from 14 countries. In July 1946, these were exhibited in the Munich art museum in an “International Youth Literature exhibition.” This exhibition gave birth to the idea of establishing an International Youth Library. It would take another three years before the library was financially secured, and the numerous bureaucratic barriers had been overcome. From its inception, the Library offered open access holdings following the American model and laid claim to a broad offering for children and adolescents.
The International Youth Library opened with a holding of about 8,000 books. For the children and adolescents of the post-war period, it soon became something of an oasis for mental and spiritual freedom. Here they could read American comics next to other foreign books, and they could talk about new publications in book discussion clubs. Renowned German writer Erich Kästner, good friends with Jella Lepman, directed a youth theatre group. Authors were critically interviewed, foreign language courses and pedagogical talks were offered. Children could come in to work on easels in a painting workshop directed by the charismatic art educator Ferdinand Steidle, and in the “Children’s UNO” (Model UN) children’s rights were front and centre. Carl Zuckmeyer called Jella Lepman’s Foundation a “work of real humanity – the work of a great heart.” Cross-cultural understanding being an urgent ideal, international children’s books were meant to help build a bridge between nations that could ensure a peaceful, democratic, and tolerant future for the growing generation.
While the institutional profile and work of the International Youth Library have changed significantly since that time, the library remains indebted to Jella Lepman’s heritage. Her ideals and goals remain timely and help to shape the programmatic tasks of the Library. Thus, special attention is given to children’s and youth books as messengers of universal moral values such as tolerance and international understanding, and cross-cultural dialogue is continuously promoted through exhibitions, workshops and talks.
© for all photos: International Youth Library Foundation