What Soldiers Read

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

During World War I, the American Library Association (ALA) undertook a million-dollar campaign to bring libraries to soldiers in United States training camps and cantonments. The ALA detailed these efforts in its regularly published War Library Bulletin and War Libraries, distributed by its Library War Service.

"Action in the New York City campaign." From War Library Bulletin, volume 1, number 6, April 1918.

“Action in the New York City campaign.” From War Library Bulletin, volume 1, number 6, April 1918. Click to enlarge

The ALA asked each United States city to contribute monetarily in “an amount equivalent to 5% of its population” and collected books and magazines at local libraries. These materials went to ALA-established collection centers throughout the country before being forwarded to camps. (The Red Cross and Y.M.C.A. took on the work of distributing reading materials to troops abroad.) By January 1918, the ALA had raised more than $1.5 million dollars to build and staff libraries, buy additional titles, and transport materials.

What kind of reading material did soldiers want?

"What books do the men read?" From War Library Bulletin, volume 1, number 4, January 1918.

“What books do the men read?” From War Library Bulletin, volume 1, number 4, January 1918.

Soldiers also read for pleasure. As Burton E. Stevenson wrote in the January 1918 War Library Bulletin article “What Soldiers Read”:

"Men now have time to read." From War Library Bulletin, volume 1, number 4, January 1918.

“Men now have time to read.” From War Library Bulletin, volume 1, number 4, January 1918.

There is an impression in some quarters that our soldiers have no time to read. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most of them have more real leisure than they ever had before. They are free practically every evening, and not only free, but without the distractions most of them had in civil life. There are no parties, no dances, no social engagements, and many of them find that the most pleasant way to spend an evening in camp is with a book. So, in one camp, one man has started to read Boswell’s “Life of Johnson.” Another is wrestling with Bergson’s “Creative Evolution.” Another has started Gibbon, and is working hard to finish it before he is sent to France. Still others are beginning courses of reading in various branches of English literature, under the direction and guidance of the librarian.

The cover of the June 1918 War Library Bulletin trumpets the campaign’s successes:

The front cover of War Library Bulletin, volume 1, number 7, June 1918.

The front cover of War Library Bulletin, volume 1, number 7, June 1918.

"Delivery counter at Camp Lewis A. L. A. library." From War Library Bulletin, volume 1, number 4, January 1918.

“Delivery counter at Camp Lewis A. L. A. library.” From War Library Bulletin, volume 1, number 4, January 1918. Click to enlarge.

But there was still more to be done: the August 22, 1918 War Libraries issued a new challenge: “We are going to ask the American people, in the week beginning November 11, 1918, for $3,500,000 with which to carry on the Library War Service for another year.”

On the very date selected by the ALA, of course, World War I ended. The next year, President Wilson proclaimed the date Armistice Day; in 1954, November 11 became Veterans Day to honor all American veterans, not just those from World War I.1

By the end of the war, ALA’s Library War Service had raised more than $5 million and distributed more than 10 million books and magazines. There were also long-term results: the Library War Service’s work led to the founding of the American Library in Paris and American Merchant Marine Library Association.2

The back cover of War Library Bulletin, volume 1, number 7, June 1918. Click to enlarge.

The back cover of War Library Bulletin, volume 1, number 7, June 1918. Click to enlarge.

References

1. United States Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs. History of Veterans Day. Available at: http://www.va.gov/opa/vetsday/vetdayhistory.asp. Accessed November 6, 2014.

2. Online Archive of California. Preliminary Inventory to the American Library Association War Service Records, 1917-1923. Available at: http://www.oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/tf8n39n9nm/admin/#did-1.7.1. Accessed November 6, 2014.

One thought on “What Soldiers Read

  1. Pingback: Reflections on the Great War #2 | From guestwriters

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