PAST TIMES: Not all heroes wear capes

The life and times of a most unlikely woman of adventure and intrigue

By Stacey McKenna

Special to the Observer

Curious Willistonians have been asking about Helen Oustinoff, the woman honored on the bench outside the Dorothy Alling Memorial Library on the town green. She is a woman who lived a rich and rambunctious life, and is the inspiration for a main character in this month’s library book club feature, “The Paris Library” by Janet Skeslien Charles. Spoilers ahead: This book is the selection for the June 28 book club, so if you have not yet read the book, you may want to stop reading now!

Helen was a trailblazer. She was born Helen Margeurite Fickweiler in 1909 in New York, and graduated from Pembroke College, the then women’s branch of Brown University, in 1930. Given that only 8 percent of women went to, and graduated from, college during this time, this was quite an achievement. 

Librarians Lori Ledak (right) and Debbie Roderer (left) pose on the bench that celebrates Helen Oustinoff outside the Dorothy Alling Memorial Library on the town green. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

After graduation, she worked at Brown as a reference librarian. She resigned from Brown in 1939 to take a job at the American Library in Paris. This library, which is now the largest English language lending library in Europe, grew out of a collection of materials donated by American libraries to military service members working with our European Allies after World War I.

Imagine travelling across the ocean and into foreign lands 100 ago, where the language is not your own. Now imagine doing this while the Nazis had started their march across Europe and had already invaded Poland, and other world leaders had yet to decide how to handle Germany’s lunatic for a leader. Was Helen courageous? Fearless? Foolhardy? Yes, yes, and yes.

The timing of her arrival in Paris, unfortunately, could not have been worse …. or, depending on your point of view, could not have been more perfect. She arrived in Paris, via Lisbon, just three weeks before World War II was declared. Unexpectedly, she met the love of her life while working there.

At her position in Paris, Helen met many other women who had the same zest for living life; she must have felt that she had finally found “her tribe.” Neither she, nor any of the other foreign women at the American Library, left Paris after the American embassy advised them to return to the states. The director of the library, Dorothy Reeder, started delivering books — on foot and on bicycle — to American and French soldiers three days after war was declared. Dorothy also did not kowtow to Hermann Fuchs, the Nazi’s “library protector” who informed her that certain people — Jewish people — were not allowed to visit the library. Defiantly, Dorothy Reeder snuck the books to them. Clearly, Dorothy was knit from the same wiry cloth that Helen was.

As the Nazis advanced through Europe, Helen caught the eye of another library employee, Pierre (Peter) Oustinoff. After 18 months at the American Library in Paris, seven of which were under Nazi occupation, Reeder insisted her staff leave, as the threat of becoming Nazi prisoners was growing by the day. 

Helen and her beau, Peter, returned to the U.S. and married in Agawam, Mass., in October 1942. After the wedding, the couple lived in New York City, where Helen was the librarian for The Chemist’s Club, a private club that welcomes anyone interested in chemistry.

Eventually Helen and Peter moved to Williston, and Helen became assistant director of the University of Vermont Library. While there, she developed a process called the Oustinoff System, which made doing research simpler and speedier than it was before. Remember, this was pre-internet, so research was a painstaking process in which one fact or anecdote in a book might require further explanation, so the source of the fact would need to be found. Usually this was accomplished by the researcher looking at the original book’s bibliography, then requesting source books from the librarian via a handwritten request card. This process could be repeated through multiple cycles until the researcher was satisfied.

This process — of one source leading to potentially multiple new lines of inquiry, and those then leading to yet more lines of inquiry — is often referred to as “going down the rabbit hole.” By using a Polaroid camera, Helen made research much faster and more accurate. Polaroid was so impressed with this use of their technology, they made Helen their model for an advertising campaign that went across the U.S.

She also volunteered her time and expertise by being a trustee of our library in Williston, and served as its interim director for many months. She passed away in 1988, having lived an unusual, unexpected, happy and fulfilling life.

Comment here