The Library in Wartime

During the 1940s wartime years the State Library, as it had during the Great Depression, tailored its services to meet the current situation. After Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, the federal government began stressing the need for vocational education as American involvement in the spreading war seemed increasingly imminent. The State Library responded almost immediately, with the acquisitions of new books reflecting contemporary needs.311

New additions in the library began to include books about radio, aeronautics, gun construction, and blueprint reading, as well as tool-making and metallurgy. In addition, books on citizen morale, war laws, blackouts, civilian evacuations, nutrition, housing, and protection of vital records also began to line the shelves. Like the rest of the collection, any Illinoisan could borrow these vocational books as part of the interlibrary loan program. Reading courses were also offered in industrial topics like diesel engineering, sheet metal work, welding, and machine shop practice.312

After the American entry into the conflict in 1941, the library increased its role as a source of current war information. In June 1942, the library established a War Information Center in the third-floor reading room, offering the public an array of data relating to the war effort. A full-time, trained librarian oversaw this collection containing pamphlets, charts, maps, news releases, and serial publications on the war. Exhibits and display cases were set up to provide additional information.313

Assistant State Librarian Helene Rogers reviews the Victory Book Campaign with Illinois campaign director Ralph McCoy, center, and state USO President Corwine Roach.

Assistant State Librarian Helene Rogers reviews the Victory Book Campaign with Illinois campaign director Ralph McCoy, center, and state USO President Corwine Roach.

Similarly, the Library Extension Department prepared lists of subject headings to help other libraries set up their own war information centers. The State Library also distributed four sets of posters on the war effort, and the Archives Department compiled lists of state and county records that had priority in case of air raid or other disaster. The library also produced “photographic copies of air raid material, including pictures of bombers of all nations” for distribution to civil defense workers statewide.314

In 1943, Helene Rogers described the types of books that were being requested at the library over the previous two years. Men and boys “expecting to enter the service” wanted books on requirements for enlisting, aviation repair, aircraft blueprint reading, meteorology, mathematics, camouflage, the wiring of marine engines, and submarine construction. Books in demand “in defense areas” included machine shop work, explosives, music in factories, time and motion study, electrical engineering, plastics, and plans for cafeterias in such areas. Farmers and homemakers wanted books on rationing, nutrition, victory gardens, farm budgets, and rural electrification. Relatives of servicemen searched for books on the geography where their loved ones were stationed, as well as the daily routine of the men and how to properly display flags. Clubs and discussion groups wanted material on post-war plans, the effect of the war on children, news propaganda, war music, the role of women in the war effort, and diplomacy.315

In training camps, books on technical subjects and recreational reading were in constant demand, and camp libraries could barely keep up with the servicemen’s thirst for reading. The federal government supplied books to each military facility, but the collections were far too small to meet the extreme demands of the soldiers. In July 1941, Rogers accompanied the Sixth Service Command librarian on a tour of the six Illinois camps to determine what role the State Library could play in getting reading material to those in service.316

On Jan. 12, 1942, a national effort to collect books for servicemen began, and the State Library played a key role in the program. Dubbed “The Victory Book Campaign,” the program asked citizens to donate suitable books for distribution to men in the armed forces. The effort in Illinois was coordinated by the State Library and the Illinois Library Association, with library staff member Ralph McCoy as director. Public libraries became drop-off centers for the books, with 20 public libraries serving as “regional” depositories.317

A group of library science students tour the State Library in the 1940s.

A group of library science students tour the State Library in the 1940s.

The State Library and the Chicago Public Library were designated as the two state depositories by the national “Victory” headquarters. Boy Scouts helped shelve the books at the State Library. Secretary of State Edward Hughes was a foremost promoter of the campaign, declaring that, “the men in our armed forces are a cross-section of American life. For relaxation and inspiration, they need good books. Give the men books that you, yourself, value.”318

Similarly, local efforts urged that donations be of good quality, with “no attic cleanings wanted…give a book you have enjoyed–give a book you would rather keep.” Illinois residents responded in kind, and books poured into local drop-off centers. Carlinville claimed the honor of being the first to report the delivery of books to the depository, while the city of Moline sent handbills to every home in the city, urging donation of books to the VBC. In northern Illinois, the town of Orion mailed letters to every town and rural boxholder. In Pontiac, all retail Chamber of Commerce members allowed their businesses to serve as collection centers, while in other towns, mayors made proclamations urging participation. Sunday school classes held their own book drives in some cases, while ministers made announcements from the pulpit. Illinois trucking firms donated time and drivers to transport the books. Additional money to transport books was raised by the sale of worn-out, or badly used, book donations for waste paper.319

As a result, the September 1942 edition of Illinois Libraries reported that over 1.6 million books were received in the first eight months of the effort. Within a few months, that total had risen to 3 million, ranking Illinois in the top three states in terms of total collection. Donations were equally divided between Chicago and downstate. Springfield set a national record in the opening weeks of the campaign by collecting 30,000 books in three hours on one Sunday afternoon. In all, over 350 communities participated in the Victory Book Campaign.320

The books were distributed across both the state and the nation. In Illinois, 10 army camps, 21 USO houses, seven naval stations, and a secret service camp received a total of 200,000 books in 1942. Donated books that were geared for women or children – and therefore unsuitable for the camps – were sent to five defense areas within Illinois and 28 small libraries in or around crowded industrial areas. Hospitals and a civilian public service camp in Indiana also received books, as did a Japanese-American interment facility in Arizona. Books were sent to armed forces camps in nearly every state in the nation, with nearly 10,000 books going to camps in Texas alone. Tens of thousands of books went to Canada and to ports of embarkation for shipment with troops.321

Servicemen received the shipments with great enthusiasm. Highest in demand were Westerns and mysteries, which were reported in 1943 as “always the most popular.” Current best sellers, technical books published after 1935, books with jokes or cartoons, and pocket-sized books were prized as well. Cash contributions were also received for the campaign to purchase books. Among the books in greatest demand for purchase were pocket Bibles. One woman donated a copy of Gone With The Wind, with a letter attached; “If the first boy that reads this book will write to me I will send him a chocolate cake.” Ralph McCoy wrote that he “hand-carried the book to the Fort Sheridan librarian, who agreed to plant the book where it would be found by a cake-hungry soldier.”322

An open letter to Eastern Illinois University, one of many sites that collected books, from an alumnus serving as librarian at a training base in Washington showed the thirst for all types of reading exhibited by his comrades.

“I think that the Victory Book Campaign is wonderful. This is a truck company and every pocket in every coat is filled with books. If a five minute break comes, out come the books and magazines.

I wish that the people at home could see these boys. They are mad for reading material. They read two or three books a day. Soldiers don’t read? Every good soldier hopes to return to the good life which he is trying to preserve. And when he returns he wants to return with knowledge of the world. He wants to retain what he does know and he wants to learn more. Textbooks! We can’t keep them on the shelves. Every branch of mathematics…is in great demand. Language texts are impossible to keep on the shelves. Either they know a foreign language…or they are learning a foreign language.

Some of the fellows can read only with difficulty, and have asked for very simple readers. As soon as we have more help in the library I am going to have a class in reading. To the thousands in the field, books are a treat and a godsend. When they have leisure time, reading is even more popular than poker, no matter what the people at home think.”323

The Victory Book Campaign was renewed in 1943, and the State Library continued to be at the forefront of organization. Nearly 1.2 million books were collected in the 1943 campaign in Illinois, which was another example of the continued effort by the library to meet the needs of Illinois citizens in wartime. Although the national effort was closed in 1943, the State Library and the Chicago Public Library decided in 1944 to continue the book collections on their own, and another 175,616 books were raised. The June 1942 edition of Illinois Libraries was devoted largely to the war, including articles titled “Libraries in War and Peace,” “War-Time Work of the Chicago Public Library” and a 14-page bibliography of war-themed publications “for the small public library.” Beginning in 1942, some of the WPA library stations were converted into War Information Centers, with 116 such centers listed in the September 1942 issue of Illinois Libraries.324

The State Library staff was also directly affected by the war. Ralph McCoy, the director of the Victory Book Campaign, was forced to step down in 1943 when he entered the Army. In addition, library staffer Jack Dempsey enlisted as a flyer in the U.S. Navy in May 1942 and was stationed on an aircraft carrier in the South Pacific. Ensign Dempsey was reported missing in action on Jan. 16, 1943, and his death was confirmed in early April. He was survived by his wife of just over a year.325