Meera Nair

librarians and books in WWI

In Posts on November 9, 2014 at 6:42 pm

Books in the Trenches – drawn by Edgar Wright

The book is not a history, nor an official report of results accomplished; but, as far as I have been able to make it, a human-interest story of what books and reading have meant to the morale of the army and to the individual soldier and sailor in helping them to win the war and preparing them for their return to civil life (p. viii).

 

So wrote Theodore Wesley Koch (1871-1941), scholar and librarian (last featured here), in Books in the War – the Romance of Library War Service.

Posted to London in 1917 by the Librarian of Congress, Koch became aware of British efforts to supply their soldiers with books, “in camp, trench and hospital.” By the time Koch returned, the United States had entered the war and Koch was asked to assist in the promotion of Library War Service. His chronicle of the war years was published in 1919; sadly, only a few printed copies remain in circulation. But thanks to the provision of original books from Harvard University, University of California and University of Wisconsin, digital replicas are available for the benefit of all via Internet Archive and HathiTrust Digital Library.

The initiative to provide books to the fighting forces, apparently brought out the best in people. The preliminary appeal for funding had been via private subscriptions – a one million dollar goal was quickly exceeded with nearly $2 million raised. Publishing houses joined the effort: “… discounts of from forty-five to fifty percent were not uncommon (p.10).” And some university presses and correspondence schools donated generously from their own inventories.

If there was any doubt of the value of books to soldiers, it was dispelled immediately following the launch of the libraries. Established at training bases, front line units, hospitals, convalescent homes and prisoner-of-war camps, and staffed by librarians (many of whom were volunteers), the libraries were much needed and much loved. Drawing upon original letters, reports and conversations, Koch meticulously described the impact made by the availability of reading material. His research was extensive. British sources included details of library programs for colonial troops and Koch gave the full extent of the reach of library books in World War I.

The outpouring of the soldiers’ gratitude fills many pages of Koch’s work; choosing a favorite thank-you is difficult. But one anecdote remains prominent for me:

‘Please send us some books. We ain’t got no books at all. We are regulars and get just as lonesome as national guards.’ This was the appeal sent by a private from a small camp to a public librarian in the East. Into the first of several shipments the thoughtful-librarian slipped a supply of candy and tobacco. The response was immediate. ‘If you ever done good to a man you done good to me,’ wrote the soldier, ‘but please don’t waste no more space for eats. Just send the books.’ (p.23).

The span of reading material provided to the men was vast. That fiction would be in high demand was expected, but many requests came in for vocational training material as soldiers endeavored to maintain the knowledge and skills necessary for their civilian trades. So too were requests for material that would aid a soldier’s realm of duty. Koch gave the details of a request from a private in the Engineers’ Corps of Camp Devon:

[He] asked for books which would explain the psychology of camouflage. He was something of an artist and had been successful with colour photography.  … Material was found for him and he succeeded in hiding guns so well with paint that he deceived his own captain (p.31).

But beyond technical matters, also desired were books of poetry, literature, biography, mathematics treatises, and, maps and histories of the regions where soldiers were posted. Newspapers and magazines were no less appreciated by men far removed in space and time from life back home. And, given the diversity of cultures among the soldiers, materials were needed in Arabic, French, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Russian, Spanish and Yiddish, just to name a few of the languages spoken. It is no exaggeration to say that most soldiers emerged from World War I more well-read or better educated than when they entered.

The extent to which education was promoted through the libraries and librarians ranged from instruction for men whose background had not included any schooling, and hence were illiterate, to formal programs of study. A Canadian higher education venture came in for special mention from Koch:

An interesting educational experiment was carried on at Witley Camp, occupied by some of the Canadian forces in England. There the library hut of the Y.M.C.A. and the three adjacent huts were handed over by the authorities for educational purposes and became the pioneer college of the “Canadian Khaki University.” .. Credits were given for work properly done in English, French, the classics, mathematics, and agriculture. .. Examinations were held and certificates given, and men were helped to complete an interrupted academic course and to prepare themselves for satisfactory positions after the war (p.55).

Perhaps most thought-provoking among Koch’s accounts are those concerning the supply of books for prisoners-of-war. The value of books was commonly held on both sides of the Great War. Within camps, prisoners would organize themselves into teaching groups; professional and learned men of civilian days became teachers for their fellow prisoners. Koch wrote that “hundreds of schools were maintained in the prison-pens of the contending armies by the American Y.M.C.A;” the ensuing demand for thousands of volumes was met by the American Library Association. “What this meant to the prisoners in the camps cannot be overestimated; to all it meant hope and joy, to some perhaps even life and sanity (p.266).”

The Y.M.C.A’s operation reached far beyond Western Europe. A secretary writing from Siberia, indicated that the German and Austrian prisoners spent a great deal of time in study. The difficulty was that most of the books available were only in Russian. While prisoners who had a general knowledge of Russian could translate for others, eventually “thousands of German books arrived for the prisoners and so enabled many of the advanced students to continue studies interrupted by war (p.267).”

Allied forces were also recipients of bibliophile generosity. Among those stories, Koch includes the experiences of Canadian Lieutenant J.H. Douglas. His time as a prisoner of war began in a German hospital:

“Lieutenant Douglas exchanged lessons in English for instruction in French with a French captain in the hospital. They managed to have textbooks bought for them in the city and did serious work for two hours every day … [The] knowledge of French proved of great value to Lieutenant Douglas later when he was transferred to Switzerland, where he and some of his fellow prisoners were allowed to register at the University of Lausanne and took courses in engineering and French literature (p.273-274).”

World War I is not known to stand out on the historical stage for its humanity; but that some was found courtesy of librarians and books should not altogether surprise us. Koch’s work is exemplary and its digital existence, replete with all the original images, help with the quest, lest we forget.

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