“Knowledge wins: Public library books are free.” Image courtesy of the North Carolina State Archives. Find out more about the 500+ WWI posters they have online.
In this, my third post in a series that looks at references to World War I found in digitized North Carolina State Publications, I’m pairing something that may seem unlikely – labor and libraries.
During the War, as I’ve previously mentioned, efforts on the home front were linked closely with the success of the War abroad. So it’s only logical to talk about the impact of the War on the labor force. The Department of Labor and Printing, which began as the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1887, published annual reports chock full of statistics about workers in different industries in the state. From farming, to textiles, to newspapers and railroads, you can find factory names, outputs, employees, and more. Here is a quote from the Department’s 1916-1917 annual report:
The wage-earners [of North Carolina] … realize that victory for civilization upon the battle-fields of France can be won only by the full exertion of the man-power of the entire country ; that full mobilization of that power means not only the placing of a sufficient number of soldiers in Europe, but the unstinted exertion of every able-bodied person in the United States in some field of adequate and useful employment ; that the war must be fought by the nation at home as well as by the soldiers upon the field of conquest (page 22).
This idea, of fighting the War through a strong home labor force, may bring to mind factory jobs and increased crop yields. But there’s another way that labor at home assisted the War effort: through the work done by libraries. Consider this testimonial quoted in the 1917 annual meeting minutes of the State Literary and Historical Association, in an article discussing the traveling libraries managed by the State Library Commission:
My oldest son is married and lives in another county. My daughter recently married and left me. My youngest child volunteered two hours after war was declared. So you can understand what good reading matter means to me now (page 120).
Traveling libraries, which in 1917 reached 92 North Carolina counties, were essentially libraries by mail. They were groups of books loaned to a community for a very low cost – no more than $1 (about $18 today). According to Elizabeth H. Smith, traveling libraries were “a way to provide books for communities where interest in their small reading collection had dwindled and where special resources were needed for clubs, debate teams, or graduation essays” (p. 67). These libraries strengthened rural communities through recreation as well as education about the War.
In addition, the Commission reported the following “war activities of North Carolina libraries” during 1917-1918:
- War publicity
- Collection and preservation of local war records
- Assistance in the food campaign
- Cooperation in Liberty Loan and War Saving campaigns
- Cooperation with the Red Cross, YMCA, and other agencies of war relief
- Provision of library facilities for military camps, hospitals and small detachments,
- Participation in the library war service of the ALA [American Library Association] (page 10).
So while I am biased about how much libraries contribute to communities during war and peace, these examples provide some documentation about librarians’ labor during the War and how it strengthened the home front. I can also testify that librarians labor for their communities just as much today as they did then.
If you know of other examples of libraries and their efforts during wars, mention them in our comments below.
Source: Smith, Elizabeth H. “Retrospection: The First Hundred Years of North Carolina’s Libraries – 1915.” North Carolina Libraries. (2005): 66-72.