Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Public Libraries and the Great War

Last week’s AL Daily linked to a story giving a very favorable impression of the ALA during World War I. It’s a brief outline of the organized efforts by the ALA to provide American soldiers with wartime reading.

It’s all true, of course, and the ALA was responsible for getting millions of books and magazines into the hands of soldiers, but something bothered me about the upbeat ending: “The Armistice ending the Great War was signed on November 11, 1918, but in the end, I think we can confidently say ‘Knowledge Wins.’”

Something nagged at me, but it took a while for me to remember what. Then I recalled a book I’d forgotten I’d even read: An Active Instrument for Propaganda : the American Public Library during World War I, by Wayne Wiegand.

That book tells a slightly less upbeat story about the role of public libraries during World War I, and, as one reviewer puts it, “the picture that emerges is not a proud chapter in American library history.”

Librarians did indeed send books to soldiers, but they wanted to send wholesome books. Wiegand notes that “contemporary literary convention considered pornographic authors such as Zola, Daudet, and De Maupassant.” Not that there were probably a lot of soldiers who wanted to read Zola or Daudet, but those that did would have been out of luck.

And then there’s the censorship, lots and lots of censorship. Much of this was actual censorship, with the government actively suppressing German or pro-German literature and librarians leaping in to help them. All over the country librarians were removing books that didn’t seem patriotic enough.

Books from libraries were burned, and rarely a librarian would protest. Heck, one librarian who didn’t want to buy war bonds was fired.

One rare hero was John Cotton Dana, librarian of the Newark Public Library. When one busybody identified a number of books she wanted removed from the library for not being patriotic enough, Dana responded, “Liberty of thought can only be maintained by those who have free access to opinion.” That’s because Dana was just amazing all round.

There was also a shift in attitudes towards immigrants, of which there were a lot before the war. Before WWI, libraries had purchased material the immigrants could read. During WWI, the goal shifted to Americanization of the immigrants, especially, one assumes, those shifty German-Americans.

While it’s fine to celebrate the good actions of libraries and the ALA, and getting books to soldiers is a good thing, it’s also important to remember the dark times. In this case, the dark times actually preceded a complete change in public library values from “patriotic” suppression of books to the intellectual freedom libraries support today.

It wasn’t until 1939 that the ALA produced a “library bill of rights.” While there were early stalwarts like Dana, it wasn’t until WWII and after that librarians really began championing intellectual freedom as a library value. During WWI they were too busy championing government propaganda.

It’s hard to imagine libraries being quite so jingoistic today. I make fun of the OIF sometimes because some librarians still have the mentality that they’re fighting the sort of censorship that doesn’t really exist anymore, but it sure existed then. Some rube wanting to get rid of gay penguin books in the public library isn’t the same as the government actively censoring books and newspapers and citizens burning books from the library because of “patriotism.”

The fact that censorship of non-government documents is just about dead might explain the other value librarians have been championing in recent years: privacy.

Today, the problem isn’t censorship. Anyone can publish anything they like, as long as they don’t mind the NSA reading it. Fortunately, censorship is more or less dead. Unfortunately, privacy is as well.

I don’t see what libraries can effectively do about it, but at least they’re on the right side of the debate, unlike back in WWI.



  1. The Librarian With No Name says:

    The OIF is sort of like the fire alarm that goes off every time a casserole bubbles over in the oven. Sure, most of the time it’s just shrill and irritating for no good reason, but next time we get around to electing a congressional grease fire of censorship, you’ll be glad you had all those roundtable committees to swap out the batteries. Also, OIF members tend to be faintly radioactive.

    • Belinda Collins says:

      I really like the simile that you have used to define the duties of the OIF, and it is very true. There is never any action taken until someone blows the whistle and everyone wakes up, hits the streets, and starts protesting. I never knew that a book drive like this one took place during war time. I work in a small school, and it is very easy to evaluate the demographics of the class before assigning a novel. In doing so, we as teachers try to determine if there will be parents who will “buck” the reading of certain novels. If there is doubt of any kind that suggests that there will be problems with the text, the teachers will make changes to the assignment.

  2. There is always the other side of the story. Very interesting that librarians were banning books that they selected for their libraries. Conformity and being part of a group make people do things they would not normally do or it makes it ok to do what they really want to do. Good Dana to stand up for our right to obtain information of our choosing.

    Thank, Eddy

  3. I think the only true step toward total non-censorship is the patron initiated acquisitions (PIA) programs that are springing up around the country. Anytime any librarian alone selects any acquisition there is bias at work, whether it’s simply economics, or whether it’s more blatant censorship in conformity to community norms – it exists. I’m not condemning or supporting, just saying…..

  4. SteveM – just a thought, but I think patrons have their own biases and agendas as well so PIA programs don’t necessarily lead to “total non-censorship”. Just saying…

    • OK, I guess I need to clarify for the nit-picky readers. “Total non-censorship of the library collection by the library staff.” Based on your observation, libraries will never have totally uncensored collections.

  5. Joe Schallan says:

    John Cotton Dana wasn’t the only one:

    Meanwhile, in Cincinnati:

    • DevelopmentArrested says:

      As someone who is from the Cincy area, I have to say that I am disappointed in that part of our history. However, as a region, we are very much rooted in German culture. There was clearly a desire among the people (librarians included, I am sure) to demonstrate that their loyalty was with the US (whether it was to show patriotism or to avoid backlash, I cannot say). Whole towns hid their German heritage during that period.

  6. This reminds me of teaching my students about WWI in my class. My students didn’t know anything about Archduke Ferdinand or Russia, but they completely got hate and power. When we moved on to WWII, I showed them German maps of the world. They were astonished at the fabrication taught to school children. As we moved into the Civil Rights Movement, they were so angry about Emmit Till, and then I showed them the picture of him that brought the south under the microscope. They learned how powerful words and pictures can be. As they were encouraged to make their own society were these problems wouldn’t happen, they tried to convince their classmates to move into their world by using…words and pictures. We brought in examples from the newspaper of twisted words and images. Their eyes opened a little as we discussed the subtle way words and images can change the way we think about the world. Why should we pay teachers more…because these people teach our children how to think. Sometimes their thinking reflects the teacher and it’s good; sometimes it’s not.

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