World War I spread tragedy and despair across the world, but the American Library Association worked to brighten the spirits of wounded soldiers. In 1917, the American Library Association provided library services to wounded soldiers and delivered books, newspapers, and magazines to more than 200 army and navy hospitals. The ALA was able to send trained librarians to 75 military hospitals to aid in the outreach.
The ALA worked diligently to advertise their services and ask the nation for donations of reading material through various promotional efforts such as printed postcards. The reading material that was provided to patients increased morale throughout the hospital. In one instance it was quoted that “one serious surgical case smiled for the first time when he was given the Herald, of Huntington, West Virginia. He said it was the only thing he wanted and nobody could get it in New York. From the hour it was put in his hand, he had more faith in the whole world.”
The libraries began by collecting fiction books from the New York Public Library and the ALA soon added over five hundred titles of poetry, history, travel, reference, and school text books. As time went on, the libraries began collecting technical books for the soldiers that wished to expand their knowledge within different fields. Stated in the Hospital Management, Volumes 7-10, “a telephone message to a well-known firm brought, by special messenger, material that made the soldier say: ‘I’ll be a better miner staying in bed than if I was working,’ and he was thoroughly content.” Technical books allowed the patients the ability to find hope and see the different opportunities available to them outside of fighting in the war.
The job of the hospital librarian was so much more than bringing reading materials to soldiers. It was about increasing morale during one of the darkest times in history and bringing hope to so many that felt disheartened. The librarians in hospitals made it their duty to serve the wounded soldiers and provide them with the reading materials they wished for in a timely manner. One librarian working at the hospital library in Quantico, VA was persistent when asking for reading materials for one man in particular. A book on photography was requested and along with the request, a note from the librarian to “please rush.”
After World War I, the hospital library service was taken over by the US army, which recognized the importance of the work provided by the ALA and the librarians. These positions continued to be staffed by professional librarians and continued to boost the morale of wounded soldiers.
For more information on the Hospital Library Service at the American Library Association Archives:
Record Series 89/1/15, Hospital Libraries, 1919-1921
Record Series 89/1/21, Caroline Webster Papers, 1917-1921