Challenging Students to Consider the Roles Books Played During Wartime

This post is by Kathleen McGuigan and Abby Yochelson of the Library of Congress.

In the May/June 2020 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article challenged students to consider the roles books play during wartime.

Victory Book Campaign. Soldiers of Fort Myer, Virginia, in Statuary Hall of the Capitol, receiving books donated by members of Congress for 1943 Victory Book Campaign. Alfred T. Palmer, 1943

The article begins by asking students to brainstorm the apps they use to entertain themselves during their downtime. Building on that list, students can imagine if they could not stream or use an electronic device, how they would keep themselves engaged using analog ways. The article suggests that when they mention books, probe further and ask students to list how they currently access books and what the pros and cons are to having physical books on hand. Use this as a way to introduce students to the young people serving as soldiers, especially those who served in the World Wars of the 20th century, and how they entertained themselves and passed time during long tours of inactive duty.

The article discusses the book exchange program during World War I and goes on to explain that when the United States entered World War II in 1941, it opposed nations that had banned and burned books. The Victory Book Campaign was launched as a joint project of the USO, the Red Cross and the American Library Association. The campaign depended on the voluntary donation of used books by civilians and it was deemed that more than 40% of the books were unsuitable – due to different sizes, bindings and being too hard to ship. The books were mostly for training camps in the United States and only 10% shipped overseas. The photograph shows soldiers of Fort Myer, Virginia, in Statuary Hall of the Capitol, receiving books donated by members of Congress in the Victory Book Campaign in 1943.

Great Gatsby Armed Forces Edition

To enable a wider distribution of books, in 1943 the Council on Books in Wartime – a nonprofit founded by booksellers, publishers, librarians, and authors – began delivering pocket-size paperback volumes to soldiers in every theater of war. Thirty to forty different titles per month were disseminated. By 1947, approximately 123 million books – consisting of 1322 titles in every genre – had been printed and distributed as Armed Services Editions. The program rescued from obscurity a now-classic book, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), and Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943) became a national favorite. Designed to appeal to a wide variety of reading tastes, the Armed Services Editions (ASE) included best sellers, classics, mysteries, and poetry. More about the ASEs can be read from this Library blog post in 2015.

These books laid the groundwork for broad popularity of mass market paperbacks in post-WWII America. Today, they are loved by collectors, and the Library of Congress’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division holds the only complete set.

In addition to providing context on the Armed Services Editions, the article offers specific activities to use with students. If you tried these suggestions, or a variation of them, with your students after reading the article earlier this month, tell us about your experience!

One Comment

  1. Brad Swain
    July 2, 2020 at 9:27 am

    For those seeking more information on this. I can not recommend highly enough the book, “When Books Went To War”. Highly engaging and readable!

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