The Books They Read: Library War Service in WWI

Found in record series 89/1/13, box 6.

ALA book campaign advertisement

During the course of U.S. involvement in World War I, the American Library Association collected $5 million in donations for the Library War Service, a service that accumulated a collection of ten million publications and established thirty-six camp libraries across the United States and Europe. It was the ALA Library War Service’s mission to provide “a book for every man.”

The Library War Service accomplished a great deal in a short time. According to the June 1918 War Library Bulletin, there were 385,310 books shipped overseas. At that time, there were also 237 small military camps and posts equipped with book collections and 249 naval and marine stations and vessels supplied with libraries. [2] The books were well-received by soldiers and sailors alike, and unmistakably utilized widely. Vice-Admiral Albert Gleaves of the US Navy wrote:

“Do the sailors read very much? Do the soldiers read very much? I know from personal observation that the books were in constant demand, and that they were in constant circulation. They were placed as a rule near the troop compartments for the soldiers, and for the sailors they were placed in their compartments. The books were allotted to them and they would draw these books; they were not responsible in any way for their condition or what became of them. If the books were lost, that was profit and loss to the A. L. A., and didn’t concern the sailor man. There was no compulsion, no restraint; they had free access to these books.” [3]

Found in record series 89/1/13, box 6

Soldiers reading inside a library in France.

The previous year, Theodore Wesley Koch, Chief Order Division of the Library of Congress at that time, said in the Thirty-Ninth Annual Conference proceedings, “If anyone has a doubt as to whether these books and magazines are appreciated, a glance through the hundreds of letters kept at headquarters will dispel it.” [4]
In the June 1918 War Library Bulletin, it was estimated that 2,100,000 gift books in service had been received and 411,505 books had been purchased. But what books were they providing for every man, and what were the soldiers and sailors most interested in reading?

Of the 411,505 purchased by the Library War Service as of June 1918, most books were technical in nature. Reading was not always for pleasure, but rather a way for soldiers to pass the time until they returned home and needed a job. Passing the time wisely meant reading materials that would give them skills in various areas such as business, engines, plumbing and carpentry, and trains, in order to prepare them for jobs after the war. Vice-Admiral Albert Gleaves of the US Navy also spoke to this, stating:

“I think the enlisted man does not care so much nowadays about reading wild west stories as he does about something adequate to prepare himself for civil life when he leaves the service. Many of them have only one enlistment, but every man that goes out into the great body politic from the Navy, if he is the right sort of man, is better equipped than when he entered the service. So they want to prepare themselves for civil pursuits, and there has been a great demand, I understand from some of the officers of the Association, for technical books, on electricity, steam, boilers all that sort of thing.” [5]

Although the Vice-Admiral did not think the soldiers were keen on reading for pleasure, Theodore Wesley Koch mentioned that, “The first and second sixpenny series of the ‘Hundred Best Poems’ go out in generous installments; so do the ‘Hundred Best Love Poems.’ Shakespeare is preferred in single plays…The officers ask for new six shilling novels and all kinds of lighter biographies, what Robert Louis Stevenson calls ‘heroic gossip’. Travel books of all sorts are acclaimed; so too, are the light-to-hold editions of Thackeray, Dickens, Poe, Kipling and Meredith.”[6] Koch also mentioned that some libraries included games departments for soldiers, stating, “There is a never ceasing demand for playing-cards, dominos, draughts, and good jigsaw puzzles—even with a few pieces missing.”[7]

Found in RS 89/1/13, Box 2, Group #8 - PublicityMilitary men were also provided with materials related to warfare, in an effort to help win the war. M. S. Dudgeon, Camp Librarian in Great Lakes, IL, published an article in the Fortieth Annual Meeting Conference proceedings titled, “What Men Read in Camps,” and prefaced the article saying, “A man in camp reads books upon the subjects in which he is interested, just as you do, just as I do, just as any trained worker reads. Now, the one subject in which the man in the camp is most intensely interested is: winning this war, and as a result he is anxious to read anything that will help him lick the Kaiser.” [8]  Several of these books, however, were retracted from the libraries if they were deemed pacifist or in support of Bolshevism. In a letter dated to April 21, 1919, A. G. Hubbard, Assistant to the Director of the Library War Service, wrote to ALA Representatives and librarians with a list of books, “that should not be in the hands of impressionable young men. These titles were approved by the Book Department before bolshevism was such an apparent menace to the country.”[9] Included in this list were titles such as Bessie Beatty’s The Red Heart of Russia and Leon Trotsky’s The Bolsheviki and World Peace. A more comprehensive list from a September 1918 letter can be seen in the image below.

Found in RS 89/1/65

List of Books Removed From Camps

 

 

[1] W. H. Brett, “Sending Books ‘Over There,’” Papers and Proceedings of the Fortieth Annual Meeting of the American Library Association (Saratoga Springs, 1918), pg. 183, Record Series 5/1/2, American Library Association Archives at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

[2] American Library Association, War Library Bulletin (Washington D.C., 1918), vol. 1 no. 7, Record Series 89/1/10, American Library Association Archives at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

[3] Albert Gleaves, “Books and Reading for the Navy, and What They Have Meant in the War,” Papers and Proceedings of the Fortieth Annual Meeting of the American Library Association (Asbury Park, 1919), pg. 156, Record Series 5/1/2, American Library Association Archives at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

[4] Theodore Wesley Koch, “Books in Camp, Trench and Hospital,” Papers and Proceedings of the Thirty-Ninth Annual Meeting of the American Library Association (Louisville, 1917), pg. 106, Record Series 5/1/2, American Library Association Archives at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

[5] Albert Gleaves, “Books and Reading for the Navy, and What They Have Meant in the War,” Papers and Proceedings of the Fortieth Annual Meeting of the American Library Association (Asbury Park, 1919), pg. 156, Record Series 5/1/2, American Library Association Archives at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

[6] Theodore Wesley Koch, “Books in Camp, Trench and Hospital,” Papers and Proceedings of the Thirty-Ninth Annual Meeting of the American Library Association (Louisville, 1917), pg. 104, Record Series 5/1/2, American Library Association Archives at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

[7] Ibid.

[8] M. S. Dudgeon, “What Men Read in Camps,” Papers and Proceedings of the Fortieth Annual Meeting of the American Library Association (Saratoga Springs, 1918), pg. 221, Record Series 5/1/2, American Library Association Archives at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

[9] Library War Service Committee to ALA Representatives, April 21, 1919. Series 1: Miscellaneous, 1917-1919, arranged by title, Record Series 89/1/65, Box 1.

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