Saturday, September 21, 2013

When Librarians Go To War: The ALA War Service 1917-18

"[T]o make better men of the soldiers as well as to make better soldiers of the men."1
World War I lasted from 1914 to 1918, with the United States finally entering the war in 1917. In April of 1917, the American Library Association—a small organization at the time with a $24,000 yearly budget2offered to provide professional library services to U.S. military camps and to raise the funds to do so! By the end of the war, the ALA had collected millions of dollars and book donations, built over thirty camp libraries, and employed hundreds of librarians. More importantly, the idea ofand appreciation forfree library services was spread to every corner of the nation, even to communities far from early library strongholds like Boston and New York.

Today's libraries are well-established, but there are worries about public commitment to free library services. One lesson contemporary librarians can take away from the ALA's War Service is that tapping into public interests can enable services beyond what seems possible with the existing budget. Such initiatives can then boost community appreciation for free library services.

A Bold Proposal

Herbert Putnam, the Librarian of Congress, first proposed the idea of the ALA providing books to military men in a private meeting with an assistant to the Secretary of War.3 Between this meeting in April 1917 and the ALA's annual conference in June 1917, Putnam strategically promoted the idea and formed a committee.4 With this backing in place, he distributed the committee's report at the conference. The report (unsurprisingly) concluded that what the Association had before it was "an extraordinary opportunity."5 This sentiment was widely accepted and echoed. Soon afterward, Raymond Fosdick, the chairman of the War Department's Committee on Training Camp Activities, extended an official invitation. The American Library Association assumed responsibility for providing service to the nation's thirty-two domestic training camps.6

Bring Your Own Library

Each camp was populated by thirty-thousand to fifty-thousand soldiers, for a total of over 1.3 million potential readers.7 Government grants were not sought. Instead, the War Finance Committee of the ALA made plans to raise the money and collect supplies from private donors! The first step was to raise funds needed to run the main fundraising campaign. $50,000 was temporarily donated mainly from ALA's own resources, Baker & Taylor publishers, and the Rockefeller Foundation.8 These seed funds would be paid back from the main campaign, which had a goal of raising a million dollars. The Carnegie Corporation approved a $320,000 grant in September 1917 ($10,000 per camp). By April 1918, the million dollar overall goal had been reached, with an additional $750,000 beyond that!9

For a second fundraising drive, the ALA joined the YMCA and five other private organizations involved in training camp services for a United War Work Campaign. The ALA didn't sit back content with general advertising for the combined effort; library-themed posters and bookmarks were created and sent out in huge numbers.10 By a quirk of history, the first day of the United War Work Campaign turned out to be Armistice Day: November 11, 1918. The campaign raised $205 million anyway! The ALA's portion was 3.8 million, which allowed library services to continue until the ALA could hand off management to the various military branches in an orderly fashion from 1919 to 1921.11

The ALA ran a book collection drive over the same period as the first money drive. By June 1918, over two million donated books had been collected and sent to domestic training camps.12 Almost 300,000 had been shipped overseas, a riskier affair as several of the ships were sunk on the way by enemy submarines.13 Troops also received about five million magazines,14 not through ALA drives, but through a postal service program. Journals and magazines carried the following notice from the Postmaster General:
"When you finish reading this magazine place a 1-cent stamp on this notice, hand same to any postal employee and it will be placed in the hands of our soldiers or sailors at the front."15
Why bother with fundraising when books and magazines were being donated in such abundance? There was also a need to supply library buildings, pay librarians in key leadership roles, and purchase non-fiction (mostly technical) books not covered by donations.16 The ALA asked publishers to offer steep discounts on multiple copy purchases, and all major publishers agreed!17 After the Armistice, purchasing focus shifted from technical books to vocational literature. Camp librarians put together recommended reading lists on a variety of career areas and placed "Back to the Job" advertisements around the camp to market these services.18 In total, Carnegie and ALA funds were used to build forty camp libraries,19 typically including small living quarters for a librarian, which allowed long operating hours of 7 am to 10 pm every day of the week in most locations.20 The bulk of the fundraising and technical services work was, however, carried out by public librarian volunteers.21

The Subordinated Majority

Sex discrimination was strong at the beginning of the War, but became increasingly challenged as the draft pulled men out of their hoarded leadership positions. The library profession's composition as a whole was about four women to every man,22 but the ALA itself enforced an unwritten rule against women being paid for work in camp libraries. As protests to the ALA leadership and directly to the War Department grew, Herbert Putnam first falsely claimed that the ALA was only following military rules (as anyone could see by the women employed in private YWCA hostess houses). He then promised a greater role for women, but this was a transparent attempt to defuse complaints without actually doing anything. Finally, Putnam acted as if the protestors were disparaging the work done by the women who had been working in camp libraries (often running them in practice) without pay or status. He relented at last, gracelessly implying that he was only swayed by the voices of male librarians.23

By the summer of 1918, women were officially in charge of eight of the thirty-two camp libraries.24 Blanche Galloway of the Pelham Bay Naval Station was the first woman to be paid for directing an ALA camp library. In September of 1918, Ms. Galloway spoke at the New York State Library Association's annual meeting:
"The wonderful opportunities which the library has to help these young men from all stations and walks of life, the one great thing that makes it worth while is the fact that the library influence is a leveling up and never down. Every man who seeks help here is going to be able to do something better than he has done it before. This is the kind of democracy we are all proud to have a part in establishing."25
It's crazy to think the ALA had held back Galloway and other passionate librarians; it's inspiring to know she persevered for the sake of her "young men."


The increasing role of technology in early twentieth-century warfare made greater than ever intellectual demands on fighters. It was now "a war of mechanism and of exact science."26
"At one typical camp a single day's circulation included books on the following: French history, mechanics, topography and strategy in war, self propelled vehicles, hand grenades, field entrenchments, bridges, chemistry, physics, astronomy, hydraulics, electricity, medieval history, calculus, civil engineering, geography, American history, surveying, materials of construction, general history, masonry, concrete. About three-fourths of the books taken out were non-fiction."27
This should make it clear that relying on second-hand, outdated gift books from civilians would not have been adequate to the task of making better soldiers of the men. Camp librariesand especially overseas book distribution—also addressed psychological needs. Major General Glenn of Camp Sherman gave library materials credit for "producing contentment" in men drafted into the new environment of military life.28 Mystery and adventure novels were especially popular. The more elitist librarians liked to tell each other stories of patrons asking for high-brow literature, confident they were making better men of the soldiers.29 As mentioned above, camp librarians took on the role of occupational counselors toward the end.

Beyond reading material itself, libraries provided a quiet place to get away from the usual routine. According to one soldier at Camp Devens:

"Your alcoves are godsends. The barrack's social room in which 75 to 125 are talking and playing cards, where a piano and phonograph are rivaling one another, and where at any moment a basketball may knock your head sideways, is certainly no decent place to read, let alone trying to do any studying."30

Spreading an Idea

Support for the war effort was high, as shown by the generosity of the donors and volunteers who made the ALA's War Service such a fantastic success. Soldiers' need for reading materials would have been a good enough motivation by itself; but even from the beginning, the ALA had an eye on promoting the value of professionally staffed free libraries. In a paper handed out at the Association's 1917 conference, Frank Hill and George Utley said, "if we succeed in this emergency in rendering national service, libraries are going to be a national and community force as never before." Otherwise, libraries would be "looked on as weak, dreary, go-sit-in-the-corner affairs that are not worth public support."31

Public library services were familiar to soldiers from the more progressive, urban areas. This wasn't true for many soldiers from poor or remote regions. Camp librarians often had to explain that borrowing was free.32 The war brought everyone together, then sent them back with raised expectations. The War Service was, in a sense, a public library advocacy campaign in disguise.

Still, it's important to understand that the War Service's most clear-cut accomplishment was its direct effect on domestic military camps. Overseas support was relatively weak. The ALA's post-war "Enlarged Program" campaign was a failed, overconfident attempt to grow the Association's wealth and influence in the new style, but without the unifying effect of patriotic fever.33 Two federal bills which would have brought national support to library services fell flat in 1919, with more of the same in the 1920s.34 The ALA had caught a wave during the war and found that it couldn't do the same in peacetime. It would take more time and steady political alliances to bring about substantial nation-wide support for public libraries.35 The War Service years were an exciting time in U.S. library history that showed what can be accomplished by paying attention to current events and jumping at new opportunities. It was significant partbut only a partof a much longer process of transforming public library service from a luxury found in liberal cities to an assumed part of American life.

  1. Theodore W. Koch. War Service of the American Library Association (Washington, D.C: A.L.A. War Service, 1918), viii. 
  2. Arthur P. Young. Books For Sammies: The American Library Association And World War I (Place of  publication: Publisher, Year of publication), 10.
  3. Young, Books for Sammies, 10.
  4. ibid., 11.
  5. ibid., 12. 
  6. ibid., 13.
  7. ibid., 38.
  8. ibid., 20.
  9. ibid., 21.
  10. ibid., 23.
  11. ibid., 87.
  12. Koch, War Service, 18.
  13. Young, Books for Sammies, 63.
  14. Koch, War Service, 18.
  15. Committee on Public Information, "Regulation for Forwarding Magazines To Men At Front," The Official Bulletin (Washington, DC), July 18, 1917. 
  16. Young, Books for Sammies, 20.
  17. ibid., 27.
  18. ibid., 55-56.
  19. ibid., 25.
  20. ibid., 46.
  21. ibid., 94.
  22. ibid., 126.
  23. ibid., 34-35.
  24. ibid.
  25. N. Louise Ruckteshler. "Library Week at Lake Placid Club, September 23-28, 1918." New York Libraries.6, no. 5. (Nov. 1918): 134.
  26. Koch, War Service, vi.
  27. ibid.
  28. ibid., 16.
  29. ibid., 26.
  30. ibid., 27.
  31. Young, Books for Sammies, 19.
  32. Koch, War Service, 22.
  33. Young, Books for Sammies, 90.
  34. ibid., 97.
  35. ibid., 98.

Committee on Public Information, "Regulation for Forwarding Magazines To Men At Front," The Official Bulletin (Washington, DC), July 18, 1917.

Koch, Theodore W. War Service of the American Library Association. Washington, DC: A.L.A. War Service, 1918.

Ruckteshler, N. Louise. "Library Week at Lake Placid Club, September 23-28, 1918." New York Libraries.6, no. 5. (Nov. 1918).

Young, Arthur P. Books For Sammies: The American Library Association And World War I. Pittsburgh, PA: Beta Phi Mu, 1981.

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