Library Focus Weaponising libraries

fines for late return, a sacred dut in the library profession, were sometimes forgiven or forgoten for those in uniform. In times of war, especially for those outside the immedi-

Andrew Pettegree & Arthur der Weduwen

In an extract from their forthcoming The Library, the authors examine the complicated roles played by libraries during the World Wars

Wartime history W

hen the US declared war on Germany on 6th April 1917, the American library communit threw off three years of uncomfortable neutralit and devoted itself to the nation’s cause. The library became an engine of war, vying with other agencies in the fervour of its patriotic engagement. Librarians took a practical role in ensuring citizens had access to books explaining the causes of the war. Pro-German titles were discreetly withdrawn from circulation, as a general assault

unfolded on German language, literature and even food- stuffs: sauerkraut became libert cabbage, Frankfurters were libert sausages. Everet Perry, appointed head of the Southwest Division of the Library War Council, directed his librarians to root out any books that “sing the praises of German Kultur”. As prominent public buildings, libraries paid their full part in promoting war bonds, recruiting for the Red Cross and pointing the way towards the nearest recruiting office. For the American Library Association (ALA), war was a major opportunit to prove its worth. By November 1918, with the co-operation of the YMCA and Carnegie Foundation, the association had built and stocked libraries in each of the stateside training camps and shipped over a million books to the American Expeditionary Force in France. In 1941, the Japanese atack on Pearl Harbor produced a similar outpouring of patriotic bibliophilia. Althea Warren, chief librarian of Los Angeles, took four months’ leave to run the Victory Book Campaign, a nationwide drive to gather books for army reading rooms, military hospitals and training camps. By March 1942, six million titles had been prepared for despatch to troops deploy- ing overseas. These efforts were acknowledged when President Roosevelt provided a keynote address for the ALA Convention in 1942. England’s librarians had been similarly engaged in both wars. Opening hours were extended to accommodate new shiſt working paterns, and troops stationed away from home were issued with temporary reading cards. Even

30 3rd September 2021

Libraries were never just the innocent victims of war; they themselves became weaponised... Their role became more important than ever

ate theatres of conflict, a sense of powerlessness can be as corrosive as fear. Libraries helped channel the boundless energies of populations commited to a patriotic cause, as the economic and human demands of total war brought radical change to the rhythms of life. In these unsetling times, books were a familiar anchor, a source of both comfort and escape. Hitler, too, had his eye on libraries. One of his first acts on coming to power in 1933 was to announce a new public libraries programme, focused particularly on small towns and villages. Until this point German public libraries had relied mostly on giſts and local grants to build their collec- tions, which were oſten out of date and unappealing. Now a major infusion of public funds transformed the face of the public library. In 1934, Germany had 9,494 libraries. By 1940, that number had risen to 13,236. Of course, all of this had a clear ideological purpose. Unsuitable books or books by disapproved authors were removed from circulation, though the extent to which such instructions were followed depended on the zeal of the local librarian, and how well they knew their stock. It was easier, when war came, to throw themselves into the task of gathering books for fighting men. In the autumn of 1939, public libraries in Germany despatched eight million books for the troops. The Luſtwaffe opened over a thousand new libraries on airbases, and all of those had to be stocked. While the tide of war ran in Germany’s favour, directors of the major libraries were seconded to scour the libraries of conquered Europe for representative texts of German culture to be repatriated to the libraries of the Reich. The cultural treasures of enemy groups marked out for extinction were rooted out and obliterated. War brought both a relaxing of boundaries and a coarsening of taste; this, too, was reflected in the wartime history of libraries. Whereas at the beginning of the wars patrons sought out works of history, by 1943 German librarians were noting an overwhelming demand for light fiction, “books with cheerful content”. As the bombs rained down, books were a means of escape from current woes, a desperate means to banish care, if only for a brief interval before realit must once again be confronted. The heightened emotions of war brought peaks of elation, triumph, horror and catastrophe. The library communit shared in all these experiences and played a crucial role in stoking the emotions that moved both fighting men, and those who supported them at home, to deeds of which in peacetime they would scarcely have been capable. Libraries were never just the innocent victims of war: they were themselves weaponised. At a time of total war, their role became more important than ever.

The Library: A Fragile History by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen will be published by Profile Books on 14th October 2021, priced at £25 for the hardback (9781788163422). Audio and e-book editions of the title will also be available.

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