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Contemporary Libraries: 1940s

Graton County, NH National Archives PDLet's examine the World War II era including libraries and war, Victory Book Campaign, military camp libraries, ship libraries, internment camp libraries, and post war rebuilding efforts.

The 1940s were a time of turmoil and rebuilding.

In 1947, the Division of Public Libraries was established. This group later became the Public Library Association.

Public libraries continued to grow around the world. While some were large city libraries, other were small facilities.

The photo on the right shows the one-room library located in the town building in Landaff, Grafton County, New Hampshire in 1941.

Watch Your Life Work: The Librarian (1946) from YouTube. This video provides a glimpse into libraries from this time period.

The Second World War was fought on a global scale from 1939 to 1945.

Libraries and the World War II

Librarians in World War II, FDR Presidential LibraryDuring World War II, people took on multiple roles to support the war effort.

The caption for the photo on the right reads "his former salesgirl, librarian, and sixth-grade school teacher has been repairing and servicing cars which used to be only open jobs for men." (Courtesy FDR Presidental Library, Photo by Ann Rosener). 

Posters were produced throughout the war as both public information and propaganda. Many of these posters focused on the duties of a citizen and the importance of freedom. Some connected to libraries.

The poster (Courtesy Northwestern University Library) below from the Office of War Information left states,

"One of the first acts of the Japanese in the Philippines was to destroy an American library. The policy of the Nazis and the Fascists toward libraries, librarians, writers of books, and readers of books has long been familiar to us. The Japanese by their act of barbarism adopted Nazi policy for themselves.

But they did more than that. They brought directly home to Americans the menace of this war to American civilization, American culture, and American books - as well as those who use American books, produce American books, and care for American books. Most of us realized for a long time that we Americans were not immune. The fact is now made apparent to all of us." - Office of War Information (1942)

The poster (Courtesy Northwestern University Library) in the middle states,

"Books cannot be killed by fire. People die, but books never die. No man and no force can put thought in a concentration camp forever. No man and no force can take from the world the books that embody man's eternal fight against tyranny. In this war, we know, books are weapons." - Franklin D. Roosevelt

To All Who Use Libraries, Northwestern, PDBooks Are Weapons, Office of War Information, PD

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Read von Merveldt, Nikola (Winter 2007). Books cannot be killed by fire: the German Freedom Library and the American Library of Nazi-banned books as agents of cultural memory. Library Trends, 55(3), 523-535.

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Read Domier, Sharon (Winter 2007). From reading guidance to thought control: wartime Japanese libraries. Library Trends, 55(3), 551-569.

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Read Spencer, Brett (2008). Preparing for an air attack: libraries and American air raid defense during World War II. Libraries & the Cultural Record, 43(2), 125-147.

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Read Peiss, Kathy Lee (Winter2007). Cultural policy in a time of war: the American response to endangered books in World War II. Library Trends, 55(3), 370-386.

The Victory Book Campaign

Victory Book Campaign, 1942From their experience in World War I, officials knew the importance of books during war. In 1941, the National Defense Book Campaign was established as a unified national effort sponsored by the American Library Association, Red Cross, and United Service Organizations (USO). The program was described a good book as a "valuable and conveniently packaged projectile of morale."

The project became known as the Victory Book Campaign ending December 31, 1943. For many,

"drives such as the Victory Book Campaign provided books not only for entertainment to the men on the battle lines but also as reminders of American cultural values with freedom of speech and history grounded in Western civilizations...

The Victory Book Campaign became an important part of the cause at Rockford College, especially because the Nazis were known for their attacks against academic freedom, including book burnings and the murders of countless university students and professors in Europe. The local public library advertised the drive with posters pointing to 'Books as Ammunition.'" (Weaks-Baxter, Bruun, Forslund, 2010, 104, 107)

Before distribution, books were examined by members of a sorting and repair committee headed by a librarian. During the two years of operation over 18 million books were submitted and about 56% selected for distribution. Books were packaged and shipped as traveling libraries to remote military camps.

The photo below (left) shows soldiers of Fort Myer, Virginia and volunteer members of the Red Cross examining books contributed in the Victory Book Campaign. The photo (below) right shows congressman donating books to the Victory Book Campaign. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Victory Book Campaign, LOC, PDVictory Book Campaign

Skim Books Join the Battle: The Victory Book Campaign.

Military Camp Libraries

31st Division Library, Like World War II, camp libraries were established.

Distribution was dependent on the location. Permanent military bases already had established libraries. However in the field, books were stored in crates in temporary library tents. In other cases, military trucks became temporary bookmobiles.

The photo on the right shows the 31st Division's Mobile Library in the maneuver area at Camp Polk, Louisiana in 1943.

(Courtesy John F Curley, Signal Corps Collection in Record Group #111)

In the photo below, American and Australian soldiers are show in the reading room of the Ballarat Mechanics Institute, Victoria, Australia in 1942.

Ballarat Mechanics Institute

Ship Libraries

Most military ships were supplied with libraries serving as an important recreational and educational activity. Although it's roots date back to 1794, the Navy Department Library was formally established on March 31, 1800. President John Adams directed Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert to

"to employ some of his clerks in preparing a catalog of books for his office. It ought to consist of all the best writings in Dutch, Spanish, French, and especially the English, upon the theory and practice of naval architecture, navigation, gunnery, hydraulics, hydrostatics, and all branches of mathematics subservient to the profession of the sea. The lives of all the admirals, English, French, Dutch, or any other nation, who have distinguished themselves by the boldness and success of their navigation or their gallantry and skill in naval combat."

Numerous orders and rules for US Navy Libraries can be found beginning in the late 1800s such as

"The Ship’s Library is intended for the use of the officers of the ship. The Department trusts that all officers will cooperate in keeping the Library in an orderly and efficient state by a strict and cheerful compliance with instructions." (F.E. Chadwick, Chief of Bureau of Equipment, June 19, 1897)

The photo below shows the library on the U.S.S. Pennsylvania.

USS Pennsylvania Library, PD

By 1931, the US Navy Departmental Library has more than 777,572 volumes. Libraries were found on all large ships including battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and gunboats. Shore libraries were also available. In the case of larger stations and hospitals civilian librarians were hired. The collections ranged from 150 to 2000 volumes depending on the number of personnel aboard (US Navy Libraries).

Military ships from many countries provide libraries. The image below (left) shows an Australian nurse reading aboard a military ship during World War II. The image below (right) shows an Australian corporal reading on board his ship.

Nurse Reading Australian War Memorial 000542 PDCorporal reading Australian War Memorial, 056963 PD

Dig DeeperDig Deeper
Read Maack, Mary Niles (Winter 2007). I cannot get along without the books I find here: The American Library in Paris during the war, occupation, and liberation, 1939-1945. Library Trends, 55(3), 490-512.

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Read Makinen, Ilkka (Winter 2007). Libraries and reading in Finnish military hospitals during the Second World War. Library Trends, 55(3), 536-550.

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Read Shaw, Tamara (Winter 2007). Doing their part: the services of the San Diego Public Library during World War II. Library Trends, 55(3), 570-582.

Internment Camp Libraries

Manzanar Wikimedia Commons, NARA 1372774Beginning in 1942, Japanese American internment camps were established by the United States government housing around 110,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese who lived along the Pacific coast of the United States.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the internment with Executive Order 9066. The order was intended to exclude those of Japanese ancestry from the general population.

The photo on the right shows a barrack building being converted into a library at the Manzanar Relocation Center. Books were donated by friends. Shelving was built and a trained evacuee librarian was in charge.

Centers were established and operated by the Department of Justice (DOJ), Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA) and the War Relocation Authority (WRA).

Manzanar Relocation Center in 1942, NARA, PDThese assembly centers, relocation centers, and internment camps were intended as temporary facilities set up in horse racing tracks, fairgrounds, and large meeting areas. In other cases they were established in remote farming communities.

The photo shows a woman at the library at Mazanar Relocation Center in California in 1942.

Clara Estelle Breed
San Diego, California

Clara Breed was a children's librarian at the San Diego Public Library when World War II broke out. Many of her young patrons were sent to internment camps during the war. On the day of their departure, Breed distributed stamped and addressed postcards asking her young friends to write and describe their experience.

As a result of these letters, Breed was moved to provide books to the camp libraries. Her work on the ALA Newbery awards committee provided her with access to many children's books that she passed along to young Japanese American readers at the camps.

Her story and the original letters can be read online at the Clara Breed Collection at the Japanese American National Museum. Use the links on theleft to browse the resources.

Skim the award-winning children's nonfiction book Dear Miss Breed: True Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration During World War II and a Librarian Who Made a Difference by Joanne Oppenheim (2006). You'll find it in most libraries for children.

Learn more at Scholastic.

View the primary source Clara Breed Collection.

Learn more at Miss Breed.

Destruction in War

Many libraries were destroyed in World War II through bombing raids, fire, and looting. While some destruction was a byproduct of war, in other cases the destruction was intentional.

On June 14 1953 in a speech at Dartmouth College, Dwight D. Eisenhower stated,

"Don't join the book burners. Don't think you're going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don't be afraid to go in your library and read every book..."

Dig DeeperDig Deeper
Read Schidorsky, Dov (2007). The library of the Reich security main office and its looted Jewish book collection. Libraries & the Cultural Record, 42(1), 21-47.

Libraries of China

Japanese troops targeted Chinese libraries for destruction. Millions of books were destroyed including the following libraries in China:

National Library of Serbia
Belgrade, Yugoslavia

Established in 1932, Dimitrije Davidovic, publisher of the first Serbian newspaper requested that he be allowed to establish a national library to honor Miloš Obrenovic. During World War I, the building was damaged by bombings but reopened.

In April 1941, Nazi Luftwaffe bombed and destroyed the library along with 500,000 volumes and over 1000 manuscripts.

After the war came an intense effort of reconstruction. The library opened again in 1947. A new building was constructed and opened in 1973.

Zaluski Library
Warsaw, Poland

Between 1747 and 1795, the Zaluski brothers established the first Polish public library. It became the largest library in Poland. The image below shows the library in 1801.

Zaluski Library, PD Wikimedia Commons

During a 1794 uprising, Russian troops seized the collection. The Russian government returned some volumes in the 1920s as part of the Treaty of Riga. However in 1944, German troops burned the library during the Warsaw Uprising.

Post War

In the years following World War II, colleges and universities overflowed with veterans. With a growing belief in the value of higher education, enrollments continued to rise and libraries expanded to meet these demands.

Dig DeeperDig Deeper
Read Dyrbye, Martin (2008). Anglo-Danish library connections in the Post-War era: an illustration of cultural aspects of the transition from warfare to welfare societies in the years 1945-1964. Library History, 24(3), 230-239.

Dag Hammarskjold Library (United National Library)
New York City, New York, USA

As early as 1693, William Penn suggested the need for a general parliament that would convene the "princes of Europe." It wasn't until 1920 that the League of Nations Covenant took effect and 1945 that the Charter of the United Nations was signed. The United Nations Secretariat plays acts as the parliamentary clerk. Part of this role is providing library serves for United Nations delegates. According to Doris Dale, the library serves two functions:
"It must provide library services not only to delegates but also to the Secretariat staff; and it must provide service to the press, the nongovernmental organizations, and the scholarly community. The purpose of the library, as of the Secretariat, is to aid the parent organization in fulfilling its goals." (p. 5, 1970).

The library was established in a small room in London. When the League of Nations was officially established, library was merged with sectional libraries to become the Legal of Nations Library in Geneva. The first librarian was an American named Florence Wilson. After developing plans for the library organization based on American systems, it was suggested that international aspects needed to be considered. Because letters of the alphabet were not international, a number-based system was put into place based on the Universal Decimal Classification system.

It wasn't until 1927 that funding enabled the library to become more international in scope.

In 1945 a conference was convened in San Francisco to draw up the Charter of the United Nations. A conference library was established at the meeting to stress the importance of a library as part of the United Nations. In 1946, New York City was selected as the interim headquarters of the UN and a small library was established.

In 1949, it was decided that the League of Nations Library would become the foundation for the United Nations Library.

Dag Hammarskjold, Copyright UN/DPIIn 1961, the new library building was dedicated in the memory of Dag Hammarskjold in honor of his work in established the library. His photo is shown on the right. (Courtesy UN/DPI).

The library established both local and international relationships. It's close connection to the New York Public Library includes that ability for interlibrary loan of even non-circulating materials. The international reach includes a number of other organizations such as UNESCO and the World Health Organization.

In terms of the collection, Dale states:

"a special collection designed for special clientele would provide the best type of library service. That the library has been so successful is due in no small measure to this principle. It is evidence that the library will continue to develop as a special library, molding its collection and services to fit its own needs, but by so doing the library will also provide an invaluable service to international scholarship (1970, 155).

School Libraries

In 1945, the School Libraries in Post-War Reconstruction in the United Kingdom outlined the important role of

"the school library in providing material on subjects taught in class, providing scope for the carrying out of individual and group research, encouraging the child to love and to care for books, giving opportunity for instruction in the use of books, preparing the way for the use of larger libraries, and give scope for social training through the exercise of simple responsibilities." (Clyde, 1981).

A 1947 Report on School Libraries in London suggested that "every school of 400 pupils or more should have a full-time teacher-librarian". This should should ideally be trained as a librarian. However, the reality was different than the vision. Five years after the report, school library facilities ranged from non-existent to poor or reasonably adequate. The main barrier was financial.

In the years following the war, economic growth and school development was found in many countries in Asia and Africa that were gaining independence. This educational expansion led to school library development in places like "Jordan, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Tanzania". (Wedgeworth, 1993, 744)

Dig DeeperDig Deeper
Read Lyons, Chris (Winter 2007). "Children who read good books usually behave better, and have good manners": The founding of the Notre Dame de Grace Library for Boys and Girls, Montreal, 1943. Library Trends, 55(3), 597-608.


Becker, Patti Clayton (2005). Books and Libraries in American Society During World War II: Weapons in the War of Ideas. Routledge.

Clyde, Laurel A. (1981). The Magic Casements: A Survey of School Library History from the Eighth to the Twentieth Century. PhD Thesis, James Cook University. Available: http://eprints.jcu.edu.au/2051/

Dale, Doris Cruger (1970). The United Nations Library: Its Origin and Development. ALA.

Great Britain. (1952). Department of Education and Science. The School Library.

London County Council (1947). Report on School Libraries.

US Navy Libraries: Historical Documents. Available: http://www.history.navy.mil/library/online/library_docs.htm

US Navy Libraries, World War II. Available: http://www.history.navy.mil/library/online/bupers42lib.htm

Weaks-Baxter, Mary, Bruun, Christine, & Forslund, Catherine (2010). We Are a College At War: Women Working for Victory in World War II. SIU Press.

Manual for State and Local Directors (January 1942). Victory Book Campaign.

Wedgeworth, Robert (1993). World Encyclopedia of Library and Information Services. ALA Editions.

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