When the World War I began, the military found many recruits read poorly. Others had little exposure to a wide range of reading materials. Wanting to improve the literacy of volunteers and draftees, the Department of War engaged the American Library Association for help. The ALA established the War Library program in 1917.
The armed forces and society held strong Victorian attitudes and wanted to distract bored soldiers from drink and prostitutes. The YMCA joined the effort to improve the mental and physical health of the troops. Providing reading material offered them an alternative.
Clark County began its books-for-troops effort in March 1918, coincidentally at the start of the Spanish flu epidemic. A story in The Columbian kicked off the book drive and told people almost all books were acceptable, including fiction, biography, poetry, history, engineering texts — “all sorts of books, as long as they are good books.” The sole stipulation was that textbooks couldn’t be published before 1910; the ALS would buy newer ones. Every book donated freed up the ALA’s fund to buy technical texts.
In January 1919, The Columbian published an article informing its readers that overflowing reading rooms for soldiers and sailors forced them to sit on the floor to read. It asked county residents to deliver more books to the library for the fighting men in France, those awaiting deployment and the wounded in hospitals. Later the story reneged on the “sitting on the floor” statement.
But perhaps the exaggeration was apt. In 1919, America and Clark County were at the tail end of the influenza pandemic. Vancouver’s Carnegie Library had closed. The Vancouver Barracks had passed through several quarantines that kept men on the base and discouraged gathering in groups, including at the base library.
The War Department, complying with the era’s anti-sedition attitude, issued a list of banned books in July 1918. The censorship occurred amid the ravages of the Spanish flu. Suddenly, librarians were troubled that books might transmit disease — and equally worried that pro-German volumes could infect soldiers’ minds, making infected books a mental and physical sickness. So, ALA librarians culled out questionable books, often noting why in internal records. For example, an entry for one book pulled noted “bitter arguments against capitalism and propaganda for socialist causes.” In hospitals, they color coded books to prevent any disease cross-contamination among patients.
Although books might be doubly contagious, librarians also knew the therapeutic value of reading. Reading was one of the only ways frontline fighters could escape the daily horror they saw while fighting in the trenches. Often soldiers greatly appreciated any books finding their way to them. (It wasn’t until the 1960s that researchers found reading reduces stress.)
At the war’s end, battle-weary soldiers returned, followed by war-worn books. Over 4,000 were returned to Washington in 1920. The books had served troops in every location in the world, according to the local paper. The ALA delivered them to Washington’s Secretary of State J.M. Hill in Olympia, who distributed the volumes across the state.
Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.