When Books Went to War
Posted April 1, 2016on:
In the years leading up to World War II the German government destroyed millions of books considered undesirable to the Nazis way of thinking and how others should think or what they should learn. Throughout the book burning era,” 37 archives, 402 museums, 531 institutions and 957″ libraries were destroyed. Americans and institutions such as the American Library Association took action by organizing efforts to provide books for the growing number of Americans serving in the military who lacked the basics, including reading materials at military bases. Author Molly Manning provides an interesting (and sometimes humorous) account of what transpired in When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped us Win World War II. (Houghton-Mifflin, 2014)
The initial goal of the Victory Book Campaign (VBC) was collecting 10,000,000 hardbound books through country-wide book drives. Hardbound books proved cumbersome and donated books were not always “suitable.” A newly formed group, the Council of Books in Wartime, led efforts to first purchase paperback books and the eventual publication of Armed Services Editions from 1942 – 1947. Millions of these small-sized editions representing popular and classic words of fiction and non-fiction were distributed to American military personnel throughout the world. Some titles such as The Great Gatsby and Tree Grows in Brooklyn remain at the literary forefront; others such as the popular Chicken on Sunday and Our Hearts were Young and Gay have faded from our reading tastes but provided enjoyable reading to thousands. The VBC and the ASE are credited with providing entertainment and comfort for members of the military. The projects also helped soldiers become readers and later college students under the GI Bill.
School library media specialists will relate to the familiar situations of attempted censorship of “hot” titles such as Forever Amber (always on a waiting list), limited funding, and unsuitable donations. The New York Telegraph explained, “too many people looked upon the voluntary campaign an opportunity to get rid of books that nobody would want.” There were also political issues. One senator thought the female ALA president was incapable of managing the VBC; another opposed the government’s involvement in publishing books with political overtones.
Manning’s book is an interesting and informative narrative. She become interested in the ASE and VBC when she discovered letters servicemen wrote to authors. Berlin’s Bebelplatz has a memorial to the 1933 book burning; there is not a memorial to the ASE and VBC in the United States. Manning hopes her book “may serve as a memorial to those efforts.” (Afterward)
This not too widely known aspect of life on the homefront during World War II is a unique topic for student research. Some suggested resources for student researchers are:
- Books in Action: The Armed Services Editions. Library of Congress Blog. Includes photos of the small-sized books.
- Books Join the Battle: The Victory Book Campaign. Life on the Homefront: Oregon Responds to World War II.
Photo: Victory Book Campaign. Soldiers of Fort Myer, Virginia, in Statuary Hall of the Capitol, receiving books donated by members of Congress for 1943 Victory Book Campaign