Librarians Help Win the War

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Man reading at S. A. T. C. YMCA camp library at University of Kentucky, 1918. University of Kentucky Special Collections Research Center.


War Service Library bookplate, 1917. Library of Congress.

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"The Camp Library is Yours - Read to Win the War" poster, 1917. Library of Congress.

While books might not be what one immediately considers vital to winning a global war, librarians are well aware that books possess the power to educate, provide comfort, or even just help a lonely soldier pass the time in between deployments. In the age before smartphones and laptops, reading material provided soldiers a vital link to the world they remembered as well as an escape from the stress and doldrums of military life.

Librarian Margaret I. King (1879-1966), University of Kentucky Library's first librarian and person for whom the oldest library building on campus is named, saw the need to educate and entertain the 1,100 newly arrived men on campus for the Student Army Training Corps. (S.A.T.C.) with reading material suitable for men headed into war. She participated in the American Library Association’s Library War Service program to establish and maintain a special camp library for the S.A.T.C. camp at the University of Kentucky. King, who had only recently been allowed to employ a few full-time staff members at this time, collaborated with the Lexington Public Library, YMCA, and other local civic groups to collect materials and raise funds to purchase books and magazines for the library.

The American Library Association, the national professional association for librarians, reacted to the war effort by creating the War Service Committee to supply books and periodicals to military personnel abroad and at home. They conducted book drives and raised funds to purchase books—from popular fiction to educational books on practical matters such as electricity, wiring, and mechanical repair. They maintained lists of what books were appropriate for camp libraries and what materials were not allowed. Notably, books that were deemed inappropriate were books of a pacifist nature or ones where the German people were viewed positively.

In all, the Library War Service raised $5 million from public donations, built 36 camp libraries, and distributed nearly 10 million books and magazines during the war. Lasting legacies of this initiative included the establishment of permanent library departments in the U.S. Army, Navy, and Veteran’s Bureau. The American Library in Paris was created with 30,000 of the remaining books left behind and today serves as a permanent memorial of the American librarians’ work supporting soldiers during the Great War.

Documentation was not uncovered to explain how the S.A.T.C. camp library books at the University of Kentucky were dispersed after the end of the war disbanded the camp. It is possible the books found their way into the collections of the library at UK or the Lexington Public Library.

Listen to history! UK alum and former head librarian of the UK Experiment Station Library, Grace Snodgrass, discusses her work as a library assistant who worked for Margaret I. King at the original library on campus in 1916.