World War II Posters Collections. Published by the U.S. Government Printing Office, public domain. Northwestern University LibraryDuring the month of November 1941, three organizations, the American Library Association, the American Red Cross and the United Service Organizations (USO) formed the Victory Book Campaign (originally named the National Defense Book Campaign). This nationwide campaign's goal was for the public to donate books as reading material for soldiers and sailors serving in the armed forces and supplement the Army and Navy's library service already in place. The urgency for the campaign heightened because military numbers increased rapidly by the Selective Service Act of 1940. American males between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-five years of age were required to register for the draft.
Althea Hester Warren (1886-1958) the City Librarian of the Los Angeles Public Library was the first Director of the Victory Book Campaign. Warren considered number one in the field of women librarians had prior book campaign experience during WWI. During "the Great War" Warren campaigned for books for the soldiers at Camp Kearney near San Diego, California. Once appointed, Warren did not stay on as Director. She had received four months leave of absence from her position to work for the Victory Book Campaign, however, the Board of the Los Angeles Public Library would not continue her salary. John M. Warren assumed the directorship and remained in position until the Campaign ended in 1943.
The New York Public Library holds Center Stage
The Victory Book Campaign stationed their headquarters in the Empire State Building. On January 30, 1941, the Victory Book Campaign was launched on the steps of the New York Public Library (Stephen A. Schwartzman Building, 5th Avenue and 42nd Street). Noted personalities, musicians and artists would support the Victory Book Campaign. The following year, the legendary Benny Goodman and his band played on the front steps of the Library. The Campaign also solicited publishing companies to donate books to the Campaign. Collecting books was not limited to Manhattan. Libraries in the outer boroughs, New York State and the country did their part for the Campaign.
The 1943 Victory Book Drive was introduced by Fiorello H. LaGuardia who presented to the Director of the Library, Franklin F. Hopper, six new copies of the book "Wings Over America" by Harry Bruno. Several hundred people were in attendance on that cold morning and LaGuardia quipped that it was probably warmer in the Library. The Library's lions "Patience and Fortitude" named by LaGuardia stood guard. Over the course of the Campaign, events were held outside of the Library to attract people to donate books.
As the books came in decisions had to be made. The public was urged to donate books of good quality not books just to clean out their home. The Campaign attempted to fill requested subjects from the soldiers, camps, and military personnel held in prison camps.
The Rare Book Committee of the Victory Book Campaign
There were thousands of books passing through the Campaign clearing house. Approximately 17,000,000 books were contributed during the wartime years. The Campaign quickly undertook to sort and weed out duplicates, poor quality and books that would be deemed contraband, i.e. books on explosive making devices and maps for imprisoned soldiers in enemy camps. One challenge faced by the Campaign was how to handle donated books of high monetary value. A decision was made to form a Rare Book Committee for this purpose. Books of market value would be sold to purchase requested books needed by the military.
The New York Public Library's Edward G. Freehafer (1934-1985) volunteered his services as Chair. Freehafer noted that he was not a rare book expert but he would lend his experience as Acting Chief of the Acquisition Division. Freehafer would later become the Director of the New York Public Library from 1954-1971, and establish the Research Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center (PARC). Another library staffer Robert R. Finster also served on the multi-member committee.
The Victory Book Campaign ends their Operations
The Victory Book Campaign closed down their operations on December 31, 1943. The reason given by the William S. Hepner, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Campaign was that the War and Navy Departments embarked on a huge purchasing program where 35,000,000 books would be sent overseas. This rendered the work of the Victory Book Campaign redundant and the American Red Cross, the American Library Association and the USO agreed on the decision. The Campaign during their two year drive collected over 17,000,000 books and distributed 10,999,000. The remainder was distributed as appropriate.
Additional Note: Helen Wessells, Head of the Port Richmond and Hamilton Fish Park branches, took a leave of absence from the Library to serve as Assistant Director of the Victory Book Campaign from 1942-1943. Wessells later went on to work for the State Department and also became the editor of Library Journal. (credit information: Robert Sink, former Archivist and Records Manager of the New York Public Library; Chief Archivist for the Center for Jewish History)
But There's More...
This was not the first time the New York Public Library was involved in a book drive to support the troops. During World War I, the Library also participated in a book drive known as the War Library Book Drive. A report from that period reported that the NYPL, the central collection point, looked as though the books within the Library had burst through the Fifth Avenue doors, and overflowed down the curb. The 9th Regiment and the members of the Signal Corps stood nearby. John Foster Carr headed the local drive. William Butt Gamble of the Science and Technology Division of the New York Public Library handed out short pieces of string and would cry out "Tie this round your finger! Remember to bring a book."
Images were selected from the Victory Book Campaign Records of the Manuscripts and Archives Division and the Digital Gallery.
"The Victory Book Campaign" ALA Bulletin, June 1942. Available in JSTOR.