Thoughts of World War I do not necessarily conjure up images of soldiers reading for leisure. Rather, we tend to recall seeing photographs of brave young men engaged in trench warfare and scenes of the horrific aftermath of brutal battles. But through the efforts of the American Library Association, thousands of U.S. servicemen and allied forces were given an opportunity to step away from the training camps and battlefields and into the pages of a book, magazine, or newspaper sent from the home front.
Founded in 1876, the American Library Association (ALA) is the oldest and largest library organization in the world. The War Department’s Commission on Training Camp Activities extended an invitation to the ALA to provide library service to soldiers and sailors in America, France and several other locations. In 1917, the American Library Association established the Committee on Mobilization and War Service Plans, later known as the War Service Committee. ALA was among seven welfare groups associated with the Commission; together, they were often referred to as the “Seven Sisters”. The other partner organizations were as follows: Young Men’s Christian Association, Young Women’s Christian Association, Salvation Army, Jewish Welfare Board, Knights of Columbus and War Camp Community Service.
ALA’s Library War Service programs were directed by Librarian of Congress, Herbert Putnam, and later by Carl H. Milam, who earned the nickname of “Mr. ALA”. At the time of the Library War Service’s inception, ALA had a membership of only 3,300 members and an annual budget of just $25,000. Yet through the dedication and perseverance of both library employees and American citizens, they were able to accomplish amazing feats during a tumultuous time in U.S. history. In a guide published by the ALA War Service, the author notes that “previous wars had shown us how to equip and administer commissary departments and canteens, but they taught us little of present day value as to what the men would need in the way of literary or intellectual equipment.” He goes on to state, “Not only do the students in khaki call for more than the soldiers in blue and gray, but more is demanded of them in return.”
Every library in the United States was urged to participate not only as a collection site and repository for donated books, but as a source of promotion and publicity for the campaign. Librarians were encouraged to join the “Dollar-a-Month-Club” whereby they contributed their own money to the cause. Library staff catalogued books and placed a War Service label in the front cover and circulation card in the back. Volunteers were solicited to sort, pack and ship the materials to military members at home and abroad. Citizens were invited to place a one cent stamp on the cover
of their magazines and place them in the local post box to be mailed to our servicemen. In this 1918 letter Salvator Cillis, a soldier at Camp Upton, Long Island, writes: “You have no doubt seen the little notice printed on all the periodicals, about when the reader gets through to put a one cent stamp and it will be sent to soldiers and sailors. Well in one corner of our barracks there are several piles of them…”. His accompanying sketch brings the scene to life. Cillis continued to send heartfelt, humorous letters with sketches home to his friends and family, even during his time in the trenches.
The American Library Association mounted two massive financial campaigns and raised several million dollars in public donations and corporate funds. With the help of thousands of library workers (including 212 librarians in the field), ALA was able to collect and distribute over 5 million books, magazines and newspapers to servicemen stationed here in the states as well as overseas. They provided library collections to over 1,500 Army, Navy, and Marine Corps camps and stations, military hospitals, naval vessels and even troop trains. Reading material ranged from local newspapers to classic literature, popular magazines to mechanical/technical guides. Military members could make special requests for items they were interested in receiving. Books in braille were provided for those who had lost their sight in battle.
In 1918, the American Library Association established a library for American military personnel in Paris. Using many of those wartime books as a core for the collection, the library continued and was renamed The American Library in Paris, in 1920. In the spirit of triumph over adversity, the library promoted its mission with the motto: “Atrum post bellum, ex libris lux”, which translates to, “After the darkness of war, the light of books”. Nearly a century later, The American Library in Paris flourishes with twelve provincial branches and remains the largest English-language lending library on the European continent.
The original efforts put forth by the Library War Service left lasting legacies. Their prosperous path led to the creation of permanent library departments in the Army, Navy, and Veteran’s Bureau. In 1921, the American Merchant Marine Library Association was founded for the benefit of personnel in the Merchant Marine and U.S. Coast Guard. The Library War Service was also undoubtedly influential in ALA’s ongoing involvement in adult education and international relations. The Armistice ending the Great War was signed on November 11, 1918, but in the end, I think we can confidently say “Knowledge Wins”.