What would you include in a care package to a family member in the military? Would you include food? Treats? Extra clothing? Games? Would you consider sending books? During World War I, books became an important part of the support system for those fighting overseas.
As the United States mobilized to fight during World War I, the military leadership discovered that many members of the military had limited reading skills. Some new soldiers had never left the small towns where they had grown up and had not been exposed to a variety of reading material. Military leaders wanted to encourage literacy, discourage negative behavior, and support the soldiers during difficult times at the front lines.
To provide reading materials for soldiers, the federal government approached the American Library Association (ALA) for assistance. The ALA created the Library War Service to respond to the request to provide books for soldiers. The Library War Service was headed by then-Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam and worked from 1917-1920 to support the military. In that short time, the Library War Service distributed between seven and ten million books and magazines through 36 libraries established in camps in the United States and Europe.
The Library War Service solicited book donations and asked that books be brought to public libraries. Advertisements and articles in the military newspaper “Stars and Stripes” provided information about the library program and encouraged soldiers to write in and indicate the kinds of books they wanted.
Books helped provide a connection to home and helped prevent boredom. While many of the books donated were fiction, others were textbooks intended to help soldiers learn specific skills needed during war time. The work of the Library War Service eventually helped support educational programs to help those stationed in France.
The work of the Library War Service during World War I served as a foundation for future book-related projects, especially during World War II, when the government worked with libraries and the publishing industry to create the Armed Services Editions.
Learn more about the Books for Soldiers program in online version of the Library’s exhibit on the history of World War I. Explore the posters created to solicit books and other support for the military in our website documenting the Library’s collections relating to World War I.
Students can consider whether or not they believe this kind of donation program would work today. What issues would make it easier or more difficult to be successful? Encourage students to identify the kinds of things they might want to read if they were away from their families during wartime.