Paul LeClerc '63 oversees one of the premier libraries in the world.
By James Dempsey
The New York Public Library building on Fifth Avenue has all the style, excess and braggadocio you would expect of a Manhattanite.
The two-block monument to Beaux-Arts exuberance and optimism squats on some of the most expensive real estate in the world, and, since its opening in 1911, it has watched over the eternally passing scene of midtown New York. The library was built to impress, to outdo the library of old rival Boston built half a century before, and to inform the world that New York City was taking its place among the cultural capitals of all time. From the world-famous and much-photographed marble lions that guard its main entrance to the dizzying perspective of its massive reading room located on the third floor of the building, the library is the kind of place that encourages absolutes. And Paul LeClerc '63, president of the library, is happy to provide them.
"This library is one of the greatest in human history," he says. "Indeed, it was the library of Alexandria that inspired this one, a universal collection that covers all cultures. We have everything from clay tablets from Mesopotamia to the highest-end I.T. stuff."
Impressive as the famous Fifth Avenue building may be, it is, in fact, only a small part of the system that LeClerc manages. Its actual name is the Humanities and Social Sciences Library, and it is one of the 90 facilities in the Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island that make up the New York Public Library. The entire system, which employs 3,000 people, has an annual budget of $300 million. The NYPL has both branch and research libraries — allowing it to serve both the general public and scholars.
LeClerc has been president, chief executive officer and trustee of the library since 1993. His career has been unusual in that this former Voltaire scholar, whose distinctions include France's Legion of Honor and 11 honorary degrees from various institutions — Holy Cross, the Sorbonne and Oxford, among others — has successfully made the often risky leap from academia to administration.
LeClerc is of French-Canadian stock. His grandparents immigrated to New England around 1900 in search of work — they were part of a huge exodus from Canada drawn to the busy mill towns of the eastern United States. LeClerc's grandparents settled in Woonsocket, R.I., where his parents were born.
"They were both high school dropouts because of the Depression," LeClerc says. His father, Louis, joined the Nabisco Co. at the age of 17, starting as a floor sweeper and working his way up to a managerial position. In 1939, he was transferred to the Lebanon, N.H., distribution center as a branch manager. LeClerc was born in Lebanon in 1941. He grew up speaking French-Canadian at home.
"It was sort of a patois made up of French Canadian — which is different from French in vocabulary and pronunciation — and an overlay of American words pronounced the French-Canadian way," he says. "So it is a kind of dialect."
The culture in which LeClerc matured was distinctly Gallic and Catholic. He had relatives in various French religious orders and, at Sunday Mass, sermons were always in French. His maternal grandmother, he recalls, did not speak English at all.
"There was a decided identity that was French-Canadian," he says, "but I don't remember it ever being problematic."
LeClerc found himself bridging two cultures early, moving easily from one language to the other. His English was learned at school, in the streets and from the family radio. The Lone Ranger was a particular favorite.
As Louis LeClerc was further promoted and reassigned at Nabisco, the family moves continued, first to New London, Conn., and then to Worcester, where the family lived on Roxbury Street; LeClerc walked through Elm Park every day to attend first grade at Blessed Sacrament School. More moves followed, first to Maplewood, N.J., and then to Queens, N.Y. It was after the move to Worcester that LeClerc and his brother, Henri, stopped speaking French.
Keeper of the Books, continued >>>