Providing Books to Soldiers during World War I

This iconic book was published in 1919 by Houghton Mifflin and details the heroic efforts of the American Library Association to provide books to soldiers during World War I through their Library War Service.

Books in the War - The Romance of Library War Service (Houghton Mifflin, 1919

Books in the War – The Romance of Library War Service (Houghton Mifflin, 1919)

The cover is decorated with a famous poster done by  Charles Buckles Falls and used by the ALA to rally citizens to the cause of donating books and funds to their massive campaign to bring reading materials into the hands of soldiers.

Citizens were asked to donate books at their local libraries, which were then collected and shipped to men in the trenches, and to camps and hospitals in America and overseas. Interior, Camp Library, Camp Kearny

Interior, Camp Library, Camp Kearny

 Donated funds were used to build temporary libraries at military camps and training facilities, which were greatly appreciated by the men as places of quiet escape and peaceful camaraderie amidst the chaos of war.

A.L.A. Hospital Library, Newport News, Virginia

A.L.A. Hospital Library, Newport News, Virginia

For many, it was what made enlisted life endurable.  Cash donations were also utilized to purchase books requested by enlisted men that weren’t readily available from donations – such as non-fiction works on code-breaking, topography, mechanics, artillery, foreign languages and other knowledge useful to them in their military work.

On board the transport "Mercury"

On board the transport “Mercury”

It is hard to overestimate the importance of the books and camp libraries to the enlisted men.  It was their lifeline to home, and to more normal aspects of life.  Many soldiers who had never been readers became such through their exposure to readily available books close at hand in their isolated circumstances.

"Books in the War" Frontispiece illustration by Dan Smith

“Books in the War” Frontispiece illustration by Dan Smith

“The library records at one camp for one week show that 1050 books were borrowed by the men in camp.  Of these 548 were works of fiction, 46 dealt with war, 52 were in foreign languages, while the balance, 404, were works on technical military problems, educational topics, poetry, art, history and general literature.”

The fiction writers that seemed to be most popular during this era were O. Henry, Rex Beach, Zane Grey, John Fox, Harold Bell Wright, G. B. McCutcheon, Jack London, Chambers, Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, E. P. Oppenheim, Kipling, Poe, Booth Tarkington, Rider Haggard, Dumas, and H. G. Wells.  “Some of the books by these authors never got to the shelves as they were taken out by readers as fast as they were returned to the charging desk.” 

 Examples of non-fiction circulation on one Sunday at Camp Humphries include:  Life of Robert E. Lee; Over the Top; George Washington – The Man and the Mason; Pick, Shovel and Pluck (practical engineering); Paths of Glory; Army Paper Work; Europe since 1815; With the Zionists at Gallipoli; Tests of Metals for 1916; Office Practice; Poor Richard’s Almanac; Manual of Military Training; Bayonet Fighting; Operation of Trains; My Home in the Field of Honor. 

Other organizations collaborated with the A.L.A. to provide reading material and library space to soldiers, including the American Red Cross, Y.M.C.A. and Knights of Columbus.


Library War Service in France (Upper: Circulating A.L.A. books in a YMCA hut; Lower: Stockroom, A.L.A. headquarters, Paris)

Red Cross Hut, Orly Aviation Camp, Near Paris

Red Cross Hut, Orly Aviation Camp, Near Paris

Books were also provided on transport ships and trains, and in prisoner of war camps.


Hospital Train in France

Prisoners of War always displayed an interest in newspapers

Prisoners of War always displayed an interest in newspapers

Newspapers and popular magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post and National Geographic were also provided to enlisted men and to POWs.

Most noticeable in the photos throughout this book was the importance of the gathering place of calm camaraderie provided by these temporary libraries.  This idea was stressed repeatedly by soldiers quoted in the book – that the libraries provided an island of peaceful companionship and normalcy with their colleagues.

Between 1917 and 1920, ALA, whose membership was just over 3,300 in 1917, accomplished the following:

  • mounted two financial campaigns and raised $5 million from public donations
  • erected thirty-six camp libraries with $320,000 in Carnegie Corporation funds
  • distributed approximately 7-10,000,000 books and magazines; and
  • provided library collections to over 500 locations, including in military hospitals.

The work of the Library War Service lives on in numerous ways:

  • the creation of permanent library departments in the army, navy, and Veteran’s Bureau;
  • founding of the American Merchant Marine Library Association American, created in 1921 to “establish and promote a professional Library Service for the benefit of the personnel of the American Merchant Marine, United States Coast Guard ships, stations, lightships and lighthouses”;
  • establishment of the American Library in Paris, initially established in 1918, but continued at the end of the war, in 1920,officially, with community support and 30,000 books left from the Library War Service as a permanent memorial of the work done in France and as an example of American library methodology; and
  • stimulation of the Association’s activities in the fields of international relations and adult education.

(Statistics above taken from ALA website )


Books in the War (Houghton Mifflin, 1919)

Books in the War has become scarce in collectible condition.  We currently have one copy available; to view our offering, click Old Scrolls Book Shop.


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