Librarians In Uniform


There were several different types of positions people could volunteer for in the Library War Service. RS 89/1/79

Many librarians volunteered for the Library War Service and had the opportunity to serve in different functions, such as reference and circulation assistance, library administration, sorting and distributing books, and general office work. The volunteers served a vital role in maintaining the library collection, obtaining new books and periodicals, and running programs to help boost the morale and aid in the education of the soldiers. By the end of the Library War Service in 1920, over one thousand people worked in American Library Association administered military libraries.

While the Library War Service was a volunteer organization, the Association recognized the need to pay their volunteers as many were on leave from their jobs at libraries to help in the war effort. Using funds raised in their campaigns, the ALA provided salaries for their librarians. In January 1918, it was noted that no salary was paid in excess of $2,000 a year and that the standard salary for a librarian was $1,200 a year and $900 for his or her chief assistant. Still, many were not paid at all or were put on loan from their employing library who paid their salaries.

Librarians were stationed all over the world to manage libraries of varying sizes and capacities. Harriet C. Long and Ethel McCollough served along the Mexican border, running two traveling libraries that brought books to soldiers. Burton E. Stevenson served as ALA’s representative in Europe and as the director of the Army Library Service in Paris. And Harry Clemons was the ALA representative in Siberia, providing library services to the American Expeditionary Forces who were stationed there. Their work did not go unappreciated, as Long noted in a letter home, where she described an interaction with a colonel with a harsh reputation, “When I said that I came out to find out how things were going, and what we could do more he immediately said ‘Don’t ever send any fewer; we need them all.’”



Hospital library service at a US General Hospital. RS 89/1/19

The Library War Service also sent volunteers to work in military hospitals to provide books to the wounded. It was the appointment of Caroline Webster to the ALA’s Washington, D.C., staff in February 15, 1918, that marked the beginning of ALA’s efforts towards providing hospital library services. Webster coordinated the efforts of librarians and ALA representatives in various military hospitals. She felt that women were the most suitable for providing library services to injured soldiers and touted the significance of their work, mentioning that the doctors reported that the therapeutic value of books could not be overestimated.

After being in the hospital library service for several months, librarian Jacqueline Overton echoed the importance of the work being done by the hospital librarians by describing her own experience in reading aloud to a wounded soldier:

Perhaps the most interesting thing that has developed lately has been the opportunity for reading aloud. This has come about quite spontaneously or by the man’s own request, and since it has become known that I am ready and willing to do it, others have asked. Two afternoons were spent with Red Saunders and Richard Harding Davis, while the man with his eyes bandaged lay and chuckled quite forgetful for the time of the pain and loneliness which he acknowledged ‘nagged him all the time he was alone.’

The hospital librarians worked in coordination with public libraries, which helped to provide books and magazines to wounded servicemen. Some of the most popular materials they provided were periodicals and newspapers from the hometowns of the servicemen. The ALA also worked with the Red Cross, which invited the ALA extend their library services to the convalescent houses that the Red Cross opened in the camps.



The Library War Service was not unique in having a uniform, as many volunteer groups active in World War I had their own distinctive uniforms, notably the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. However, World War I was the first war when many women had the opportunity to wear a uniform while serving their country.

There were two main styles of uniform in use by the ALA volunteers, the main style for camp librarians in green wool, with versions for men and women, and the hospital style in natural-colored pongee fabric. The women’s uniforms were made by Best & Co. of New York City and men’s uniforms were made locally by a tailor, with official ALA-issued accessories of brass pins and an embroidered patch for all librarians.

Hospital librarians had a unique uniform. The hospital uniforms were a belted dress of natural-colored pongee, with a white collar and a brown ribbon or Windsor-style tie. This uniform also had a straw hat with a brown band. The hospital librarians were also allowed to wear the wool suit uniform instead if they wished.