Libraries, the Military, and Reading in WWI

The ALA's Wartime Activities

What did the American Library Association do during World War I?

Throughout World War I, the American Library Association (ALA) vigorously encouraged reading and self-improvement among troops. They collected books and money for stocking training camp libraries, coordinated volunteers to run those libraries, and ran large-scale publicity campaigns aimed at soldiers and sailors.

Why did the ALA do it?

The ALA likely had several motivations for this work. On the one hand, book drives and camp libraries were logical ways for libraries to contribute to the war effort. As the Library of Congress notes, "military leadership discovered that many members of the military had limited reading skills," and promoting literacy helped soldiers and sailors learn (while also keeping them out of trouble.)  

Yet, like so much in history, this was probably more complicated than it initially seems. Library historian Wayne Wiegand argues that World War I helped solidify a faltering identity among libraries and librarians. Prior to the 20th century, libraries generally helped people obtain reading materials and recommended "the best" books to their patrons. But in the early 20th century, more and more people bought their own books and magazines, and the traditional canons of the 19th century were being questioned and disrupted (meaning that few people, including librarians, knew what "the best" books were in the first place.) 

Wiegand writes that through their participation in the Great War, libraries and librarians “were galvanized by the war effort into activity that endowed the former with increased visibility and helped consolidate their positions in local communities, and gave the latter a clearer sense of purpose and usefulness" (5). In addition to providing access to books, libraries could encourage literacy and facilitate self-improvement through books.

What happened after the war was over? 

One thing that remained after the war was the ALA’s willingness to use publicity to sell itself and its goals. As Arthur P. Young points out, “library publicity, used sparingly before the war because of its tainted association with the business world, became a powerful medium for the [ALA's] Library War Service” (94). The many posters, billboards, and bookmarks used during the war are not unlike today's publicity materials that encourage reading or promote annual events like Black History Month or Poetry Month. 

What will this exhibition cover?

This exhibition will help you learn more about the ALA’s book drives, fundraising efforts, and self-improvement campaigns during World War I. Simply click through the pages by following the path outlined below, or use the table of contents (bulleted icon at the top left) to browse what interests you most.  

Contents of this path:

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