Throughout their 100-year history, American Spaces have taken countless shapes, sizes and styles. Descriptions and missions have included libraries, schools, even theaters, but one defining component has never changed: people.
American Spaces are, and have always been, places where people meet people, talk to people and listen to people. These are the places where people learn and share ideas, express their thoughts or cordially debate a sensitive topic—often all while learning English.
The concept of what is now called an American Space—a term that encompasses several categories—formed at the advent of World War I as a means of countering disinformation and influencing international public opinion. When the United States began conducting public diplomacy in overseas buildings separate from official U.S. posts, American Spaces were born.
Various components of the U.S. government have overseen American Spaces throughout their history. The U.S. Department of State managed them from the 1930s until the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) opened in 1953, and again after USIA closed in 1999. The types, missions and ownership of American Spaces has varied with the countries, agencies or world events that spawned or guided them.
Formed by private organizations, binational centers were among the first American Spaces, and they are still a large contingent. Governed by local boards of directors, the more than 100 binational centers in the Western Hemisphere region are major hubs for English language learning and cross-cultural dialogue. The Office of American Spaces provides support funding to binational centers. The first binational center was the Instituto Cultural Argentino-Norteamericano, founded in Buenos Aires in 1928.
Libraries and Information Resource Centers
As guardians of free speech and enemies of censorship, libraries embody the principles of democracy and civil society, and they constitute a major theme running through the history of American Spaces. From World War II through the early 1990s, various numbers of American libraries—in binational centers, in American Centers, and free-standing—populated the globe. A 1990s movement toward database storage and web-based services inspired a new name for some American libraries: Information Resource Centers. Security concerns began to push many of them onto enclosed embassy grounds (compounds) and prompted them to close to the public, but they continued reaching students and researchers through their web-based services.
The forced absorption of off-compound American Spaces into fortified embassy compounds under the 1999 Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act (SECCA) presents significant challenges for public diplomacy engagement that the Department of State is trying to address. While most IRCs remain on compounds, the Office of American Spaces is working to help them return to their roots as places of in-person interaction.
Contributing to complexity surrounding the definition of American Spaces is the term “American Center,” which dates to World War II. Historically free-standing and separate from embassy compounds, these flagship centers have been known as American Libraries, Information Resource Centers, American Cultural Centers, America Houses and more. The defining factors are ownership and purpose. American Centers are U.S.-government facilities. They exemplify the American Space as a venue for a broad range of programming that reflects U.S. policy objectives. For many reasons, including budget and security concerns, most of these centers closed in the 1990s. But those that remain capture the essence of American Spaces.
Originating just past the millennium, the newest and by far most prevalent type of American Space is the American Corner. Innovative and economical, these are typically located in sections of buildings owned and operated by non-government organizations, schools, universities and other hosts who agree to provide space and staff.
American Corners vary widely in size and scope. Most have shown they can provide creative programming that builds understanding about the United States, its people and its policies—often reaching targeted populations outside the range of embassies in large city centers. In some areas, American Corners specialize in specific strategic programs, such as science, technology, invention and entrepreneurship.
On the Front Lines
The State Department’s long-term planning process—known as the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review—recognizes the strategic significance of American Spaces, identifying partnerships and direct engagement with community groups and individuals as critical components for advancing U.S. foreign policy objectives. American Spaces enable the implementation of these strategies.
Imparting a distinctly American culture that stands sets them apart from embassy and consulate buildings, American Spaces promote an American spirit that feels positive and welcoming. By exemplifying freedom of expression and interaction association, they counteract negative narratives and help develop new generations of global leaders. Throughout their history, American Spaces have offered places to reach out, inspire and illuminate, epitomizing the American ideals of freedom and opportunity.
The historical information in this article is based on Mark Tauber’s 2013 article on the history of American Spaces. Tauber is a former director of the Office of American Spaces.