“Public Library of the High Seas”: ALA and the American Merchant Marine Library Association

The connection between the ALA and the American Merchant Marine Library Association (AMMLA) is a little-known example of collaboration and cooperation between organizations. AMMLA developed out of the World War I Library War Service and ALA’s efforts to provide books and resources to men aboard U. S. vessels. (For more information about the Library War Service, please see our research guide). After the war ended, the library service for American servicemen was turned over to the War and Navy Departments, and the Library War Service Committee hoped that it’s work aboard U.S. ships would be taken over by either shipowners or another organization [1]. Finally, after the request from ALA to form a peace-time library service for this purpose, Alice Sturdevant Howard, Chief of the Social Service Bureau of the Recruiting Service of the United States Shipping Board, organized the American Merchant Marine Library Service in 1921 [2]. To aid the effort, ALA donated the leftover book stock used in the Merchant Marine Service as well as some unexpended funds [3].

The Seamen's Handbook for Shore Leave, 6th Edition, 1937

The Seamen’s Handbook for Shore Leave, 6th Edition, 1937

It began with four port offices in San Francisco, Sault Ste. Marie, Boston, and New York City [4], and in its first 15 years, it placed libraries on an average of 1,300 ships per year and circulated more than 3,400,000 books. The books in these ship libraries were a combination of educational (practical textbooks, history, biography, treatises on navigation and engineering, and technical manuals), recreational (fiction, especially adventure stories from Kipling, Dumas, and Bret Harte), health-related (pamphlets from the United States Public Health Service), and standard texts across vessels (the Bible, a manual on citizenship, and The Seamen’s Handbook for Shore Leave) [5].

The Seamen’s Handbook for Shore Leave was a guidebook for around 400 ports, which included information about seamen’s agencies; hotels and seamen’s homes; medical and legal aid; amusements, excursions, and other points of interest; and locations of American Consulates. The first volume was compiled by Mrs. Howard, and she went on to edit six succeeding editions [6].

March 10, 1941, Subject File, 1897, 1922-1933, 1936-1952, Record Series 7/1/6, Box 23, Folder: Vinton Collection - American Merchant Marine Library Association, 1937-41.

Press Release for 20th Annual Book Drive, for release after March 10, 1941, found in record series 7/1/6.

AMMLA relied heavily on donations to supply ships with books, and in 1941 they held the 20th Annual Book Drive, calling on the public for “one hundred thousand good books” because “unlike the personnel of the Army and Navy in the defense training camps, the men of the merchant fleet do not have a library service provided for by official appropriation” [7].

Subject File, 1897, 1922-1933, 1936-1952, Record Series 7/1/6, Box 23, Folder: Vinton Collection - American Merchant Marine Library Association, 1937-41.

Letter from Esther H. Dixon to Mrs. Henry Howard, March 15, 1939, found in record series 7/1/6.

ALA and AMMLA kept in communication over the years. The letter above mentions ALA’s assistance with a Chicago Book Drive, and related correspondence files documenting the work done were sent to AMMLA in 1939 due to space constraints [8]. Carl H. Milam, Secretary of ALA, served on AMMLA’s National Board of Directors. In 1939, Leonard Sullivan, the newly-appointed Executive Secretary of AMMLA, wrote to Milam for some advice regarding a plan to make arrangements with local libraries to collect donations, asking, “Do you think this would be a workable plan, and could we through your cooperation depend on the endorsement of the American Library Association?” [9]. Milam replied a week later, “I am sure you may count upon the A.L.A. for general approval of your work and for a sympathetic understanding of your needs” [10].

In 1946, after 25 years of operation, AMMLA Trustees asked for an external review “for the purpose of finding corrective measures for a general betterment of the Association’s service.” Subsequently, a special committee of ALA formed in 1946 to “study and make recommendations concerning the operation, organization and progress of the American Merchant Marine Library Association” [11]. This original committee consisted of three members: Louis Bailey (chairman) from the Queens Borough Public Library in Jamaica, New York; Lieut. Luis E. Bejarno from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Library in Kings Point, New York; and Nell Avery Unger from the Library Association of Portland, Oregon [12].

Louis J. Bailey, ca. 1918, Photographs and Slides, 1917-20, Record Series 89/1/13, Box 2, Group #7 - Personnel.

Louis J. Bailey, ca. 1918, found in record series 89/1/13.

At the AMMLA Annual Meeting in May 1947, Carl H. Milam presented the committee’s survey. Among their observations, the committee found that though the work of AMMLA had expanded greatly, little planning had been done for the postwar period. The organization’s objectives and policies had not been adequately stated, nor had the duties of officers, staff, and volunteers been clearly defined. Additionally, there was a “failure to recognize the distinctive character of the AMMLA as a Library system” [13].

In lieu of these observations, the committee recommended reorganizing the Executive Officers, emphasizing the library function of the association, revising the By-laws and Constitution, pressing federal legislation for national incorporation of the association, and appointing a committee of its own to review this report and act upon it as it saw fit [14]. The ALA committee also drafted a Constitution and revised By-Laws.

Organization Reports File, 1911-1974, Record Series 18/1/26, Folder: Committees - American Merchant Marine Library Association, 1947

Committee Report on the American Merchant Marine Library Association, May 1947, found in record series 18/1/26.

The committee continued even beyond its original purpose, in order “to serve as a liaison in the affiliation of the AMMLA to its parent organization, the ALA, in order to assist wherever possible in the fulfillment of AMMLA objectives. These objectives include the provision of exchange libraries to seamen and officers on American merchant ships and stations, and the maintenance of shoreside library service at the Association’s various port offices throughout the United States” [15]. But by May 1953, committee members recommended that it not be reactivated, since they felt they had completed the work they had set out to do [16]. At a meeting of the ALA Council on Feb 4, 1954, the committee was discontinued.

 

Today AMMLA continues its work as a non-profit, non-sectarian organization affiliated with the United Seamen’s Service. In 2012, they distributed 23,000 books and magazines to the American Merchant Marine, the U.S. Navy and the Coast Guard, and those aboard vessels of allied nations [17].

 

Here at the ALA Archives, AMMLA-related materials can be found in the following record series: 92/25/12/4/60, 7/1/6, 18/1/26, 85/7/6, and 89/1/52.

 

1. Neal, James G. “The American Merchant Marine Library Association: The First Decade of Its Development, 1921-1930.” The American Neptune 41 (January 1981): 5-24.

2. Books on Board: The Story of the American Merchant Marine Library Association. New York, 1937.

3. Report presented at the Annual Meeting, May 25, 1950, Subject Files, 1948-74, Record Series 92/25/1, Box 1, Folder: ALA Committee on the American Merchant Marine Library Association – Correspondence and Reports, 1948-52. American Library Association Archives, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

4. “Seagoing Libraries: Thirtieth Annual Report,” 1951, Subject Files, 1948-74, Record Series 92/25/1, Box 1, Folder: Annual Report of the American Merchant Marine Library Association, 1951. American Library Association Archives, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

5. Books on Board.

6. Ibid.

7. Press Release for Release After March 10, 1941, Subject File, 1897, 1922-1933, 1936-1952, Record Series 7/1/6, Box 23, Folder: Vinton Collection – American Merchant Marine Library Association, 1937-41. American Library Association Archives, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

8. Esther H. Dixon to Mrs. Henry Howard, March 15, 1939, Subject File, 1897, 1922-1933, 1936-1952, Record Series 7/1/6, Box 23, Folder: Vinton Collection – American Merchant Marine Library Association, 1937-41. American Library Association Archives, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

9. Leonard Sullivan to Carl H. Milam, September 14, 1939, Subject File, 1897, 1922-1933, 1936-1952, Record Series 7/1/6, Box 23, Folder: Vinton Collection – American Merchant Marine Library Association, 1937-41. American Library Association Archives, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

10. Carl H. Milam to Leonard Sullivan, September 21, 1939, Subject File, 1897, 1922-1933, 1936-1952, Record Series 7/1/6, Box 23, Folder: Vinton Collection – American Merchant Marine Library Association, 1937-41. American Library Association Archives, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

11. Report presented at the Annual Meeting, May 25, 1950.

12. Committee Report, December 10, 1952, Subject Files, 1948-74, Record Series 92/25/1, Box 1, Folder: ALA Committee on the American Merchant Marine Library Association – Correspondence and Reports, 1948-52. American Library Association Archives, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

13. Report presented at the Annual Meeting, May 25, 1950.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Terence J. Hoverter to Flora B. Ludington, May 5, 1953, Subject Files, 1948-74, Record Series 92/25/1, Box 1, Folder: ALA Committee on the American Merchant Marine Library Association – Correspondence and Reports, 1948-52. American Library Association Archives, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

17. United Seamen’s Service – American Merchant Marine Library Association. “AMMLA (American Merchant Marine Library Association).” Accessed November 2, 2016. http://www.unitedseamensservice.org/ammla-american-merchant-marine-library-association/.

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