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When America's Librarians Went To War

American Library Association volunteers in Paris on Feb. 27, 1919.
Courtesy of the University of Illinois Archives
American Library Association volunteers in Paris on Feb. 27, 1919.

Looking back at the nationwide support for American troops in the two world wars, we see Americans of all stripes making patriotic contributions and sacrifices — including farmers, factory workers and librarians.

Wait. What? How did librarians fit in to national security in the 20th century? In an array of ways, says Cara Bertram, an archivist for the American Library Association. Libraries were established at hospitals and military bases.

"In both wars, librarians back at home or on the front were key in collecting and distributing books to soldiers," Bertram says. "During World War I, librarians maintained camp and hospital libraries," and in both world wars, "librarians promoted books drives and encouraged donations."

Librarians were especially active during World War I. The ALA reports that between 1917 and 1920, its Library War Service established three dozen camp libraries with the support of the Carnegie Corporation and raised $5 million in public contributions. Special uniforms were created for librarians in World War I. The American Library in Paris — established in 1920 by the ALA and American expatriates, and seeded with books from the LWS — continues to this day.

A War Service Library bookplate.
/ Courtesy of the University of Illinois Archives
Courtesy of the University of Illinois Archives
A War Service Library bookplate.

Books As Weapons

On the homefront, libraries solicited books for the troops in both conflicts. During the First World War, the ALA and other organizations collected more than 10 million volumes, Bertram says. And during the Second World War more than 17 million books were gathered through the Victory Book Campaign.

Librarians volunteered to sort the books before they were shipped, Bertram says, "often weeding out books that were in poor condition or books that were not suitable for fighting young men, such as children's books and gardening books."

The books that did make it into the hands of the troops, she says, boosted morale, provided connections to people back home and offered technical guidance.

She adds that the books from home were therapeutic for those convalescing in hospitals, "helping them to get over physical and emotional pain." And certain books helped to alleviate homesickness, chase away boredom and provide training to those who wanted to land jobs when they returned home.

In the Second World War, American libraries became centers for public information and technical education. In her 2012 book Books and Libraries in American Society During World War II, Patti Clayton Becker points out that some Army bases and USO clubs featured libraries. But public libraries also served as magnets for military members.

In Lake Charles, La., she writes, several dozen servicemen used the library often to polish up on mathematics and economics. The Chicago Public Library created a special Servicemen's Center — run by volunteers — with 5,000 books. And other libraries provided music and local tourist information to visiting troops.

A glance at one of the pro-U.S. posters from World War II provides one more way that librarians and books aided in the war effort. "Books are Weapons in the War on Ideas," it says, referring to the burning of books by the Nazis. Quoting Franklin Roosevelt, the poster notes: "No man and no force can take from the world the books that embody man's eternal fight against tyranny. In this war, we know, books are weapons."

And librarians are the weapons experts.


Books in the War: the Romance of Library Service by Theodore Wesley Koch

Library History Buff

When Books Went To Warby Molly Guptill Manning

Follow me @NPRHistoryDept; lead me by writing lweeks@npr.org

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.