Camp Lewis Library (Liberty Library) opens on November 28, 1917.

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 7/21/2016
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11255

On November 28, 1917, the Camp Lewis Library, also called Liberty Library, opens at the U.S. Army base in Pierce County. It is the first official military library. With a grant from the Carnegie Foundation and public contributions, the American Library Association (ALA) has started an official military-library program. Before this, where libraries existed at military facilities they were supported by donations and were not professionally managed. The largest provider was the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), which had small lending libraries in its tents and huts. In 1917 and 1918, as large numbers of American troops are mobilized during World War I, the ALA constructs libraries at 41 training camps. They are of a standard design, built to accommodate 10,000 volumes with seating for 200 patrons. The Seattle Public Library and its librarian, Judson Jennings (1873-1948), are largely responsible for the Camp Lewis Library's operating principles, as well as the work of cataloging and shelving its initial collection. Many prominent Pacific Northwest librarians serve their country by working as librarians on military bases and overseas.

Reading Material for the Troops

In April 1917, as the U.S. entered World War I, Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam (1861-1955) met with Secretary of War Newton D. Baker (1871-1937) to discuss providing reading material to the troops. Putnam was considering ways that the American Library Association could make reading a significant part of the military experience. On April 30, 1917, Putnam was named chairman of the American Library Association Committee on Mobilization and War Service (later renamed the War Service Committee). In late May he met with Raymond B. Fosdick (1883-1972), who headed the Commission on Training Camp Activities, an organization committed to protecting, and even improving, the morals of the millions of military personnel serving in the war.

Putnam and Fosdick explored how to provide books to military personnel. Their proposal was for the ALA to build and supply libraries at the 32 new training camps established as part of the war effort. The Commission on Training Camp Activities would cover the heat and lighting costs. The ALA would also provide books at overseas locations.

On June 22, 1917, Putnam presented this plan at the American Library Association annual meeting. The ALA approved it and initiated fundraising campaigns to pay for the buildings. On September 14, 1917, the Carnegie Foundation donated $320,000 to build the 32 libraries. A cap of $10,000 was placed on each building. Library architect Edward L. Tilton (1861-1933) donated his services to create a standard design for all the camps. Tilton's plans were for a 40-by-120-foot building with large windows and an open ceiling to create a light and airy interior. Each library would have shelf space for 10,000 books and seating for 200 to 225 patrons.

On September 24, 1917, a "million-dollar campaign" was launched to collect money to purchase books and hire staff. Two major fundraising drives were held, collecting more than $2 million. There were also public campaigns to collect books for the military libraries. Libraries and the public donated more than 1 million books.

ALA officials believed that the organization's support for the military would expose many men to libraries and reading. It was a huge public-outreach effort and expansion of libraries to a wide population. The American Library Association libraries would be the first professionally operated military libraries. Military libraries before this had been unofficial. The earliest documented was in 1821, when the USS Franklin established a shipboard library with donated books. The army had libraries at some posts where the commander recognized a need. Often these were a room with books for the officers.

Camp Lewis Library, First Official Military Library

While the ALA fundraising was underway, a committee was formed to plan for the Camp Lewis Library. It was headed by Judson Jennings, chief librarian of the Seattle Public Library. The committee members were William E. Henry (1857-1936), University of Washington librarian and professor; Charles H. Compton (1880-1966), reference librarian at Seattle Public Library; John B. Kaiser (1887-1973), Tacoma Public Library librarian; and representatives from the YMCA.

On August 5, 1917, the committee met at Camp Lewis with the base's construction chief, Major David L. Stone (1876-1959). The meeting discussed camp library plans, including book categories, hours of operation, and establishing branch libraries. The group recognized that there would not be time to slowly create a library; it would have to be done overnight. Jennings spoke of three major contributions that the library would provide: soldier contentment, efficiency through technical learning, and education that would make the men better citizens after their service.

In early October 1917 Jennings took a two-month leave of absence to go to Camp Lewis and organize the camp library. He met with Stone to identify a location for the library and to launch construction. Jennings wanted the library to be across the street from the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) Hostess House because the Hostess House was the camp's most popular place. Also, the YMCA auditorium was nearby. Stone denied this request and provided space a short distance away, nearer to the headquarters building and the main gate.

Stone arranged with the camp construction contractors, Hurley-Mason Construction of Tacoma, to build the library at the camp rate of cost plus 6 percent profit. The maximum cost was the national limit of $10,000. Stone and Jennings had an immediate crisis: The library lumber had not arrived. Stone took lumber from camp construction so that the library could be constructed rapidly. Hurley-Mason started work immediately and had the building finished by the third week of November. However, another crisis confronted Stone and Jennings. The library furniture and shelves had not arrived from an East Coast supplier. To prevent a delay, local materials were purchased. This turned out to be a blessing because the lumber bought was of a higher grade.

The completed library received decorations unlike the bleak camp buildings. The interior was painted a pale yellow, and yellow window curtains were installed. A stone fireplace was built in the reading room. Houseplants in tubs with Japanese decorations were placed on top of the book shelves. Before the library opened Jennings organized a volunteer force of 26 library staff from Seattle to catalog, put books on the shelves, and ready the library for opening.

On November 28, 1917, the Camp Lewis Library, named the Liberty Library, opened. There was no dedication or other activities to mark the opening of this first military library constructed by the American Library Association.

More Camp Libraries and Growing Demand

The Liberty Library had 12,000 volumes and a wide selection of magazines and newspapers. There were also 13 branch libraries at units across the camp, each with 1,000 to 2,000 books, for a total initial volume count of 25,000. Soldiers were allowed to check out four books at a time and keep them for two weeks, and no late fees were charged. The reading preference was nonfiction; books about the war were popular until the end of the war, when interest in them declined. About 7,000 books a month were checked out. A survey found that more than 40 percent of the soldiers were using the library. This compared with 20 percent in the civilian community.

Head librarian Edward E. Ruby (1875-1950) made regular public announcements calling for more donated books. To expand the Camp Lewis Hospital Library he asked doctors to donate their medical journals once they had read them. With donated books, the camp library system grew to more than 52,000 volumes by the end of the war. The YMCA maintained small libraries in their huts. It also had a library for black soldiers.

The ALA completed the planned 32 camp libraries with money left over. With those funds it constructed another nine libraries. One was at Vancouver Barracks in Clark County, Washington. It was smaller than the initial 32 libraries, but similar in design. Portland, Oregon, librarian Mary Frances Isom (1865-1920) guided its establishment and that of libraries at the Columbia River fortifications at Fort Canby, Fort Columbia, and Fort Stevens. These forts placed their libraries in existing buildings.

In less than one year the demand at the Camp Lewis Library had grown so great that an addition was built onto the rear of the building. It provided more reading seats and a processing office. The additional seating was especially needed for library programs to teach recruits to read; about eight percent of the draftees could not read.

Librarians at Camp Lewis and Beyond

The first head librarian at Camp Lewis, Edward Ruby, was a Whitman College librarian who had volunteered to serve his country. Louis E. Castle (1892-1957) was an assistant librarian. Before his war service Castle was the chief clerk at Seattle's Shorey's Books. Another assistant was Raymond D. Holmes (1895-1945), who served more than a year and then returned to a successful library career. He left Camp Lewis to be Assistant Reference Librarian at the Tacoma Public Library. His major career success was as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper librarian.

During the first two years of the Liberty Library, several prominent Washington librarians volunteered their time to assist in its development. In January 1919, Mabel Zoe Wilson (1878-1964), librarian at the New Whatcom Normal School (now Western Washington University), came for one month to help out. She had already achieved substantial success at the normal school, establishing a library there. Wilson would serve there 43 years, retiring from Western Washington in 1945. The school's library building was named in her honor in 1964.

In February 1919, several months after the November 1918 Armistice that ended World War I, Camp Lewis head librarian Ruby was sent to Coblenz, Germany, to operate the large library at the occupation headquarters. In Coblenz, Ruby took over for Jennings, who had served in the position one month. Ruby was the librarian there until June 1919 and then returned to Camp Lewis for release from military service. He then resumed his academic career at Whitman College.

When Ruby went to Coblenz, assistant Arthur S. Beardsley (1889-1950), a recent University of Washington law graduate, became the head librarian at Camp Lewis. Beardsley was born in Aberdeen, Grays Harbor County, and was a high school teacher for several years before attending the University of Washington. Myopia had kept him out of the military, so camp library work was a way to serve.

Ida Kidder: Pioneer in Western Library Work

Ida Kidder (1857-1920), the librarian at Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University), accepted the position of librarian at the Camp Lewis Base Hospital. She was a pioneer in Western library work. Kidder graduated from the University of Illinois Library School in 1906, and her first job was as a state documents organizer at the Washington State Library in Olympia. In 1908 she was hired as the first professional librarian at Oregon Agricultural College. Because of her low pay she lived in a women's dormitory on the college campus, where she became involved in student life and earned the nickname "Mother Kidder."

When Kidder started, the college library was just one room in a classroom building. She expanded hours, organized the collection, and located additional rooms for library space. She also fought for a library building, which was approved by the state legislature in 1917. During this time soldiers arrived at the college for training. Kidder responded by extending a welcome and special library programs for them. She came to believe it was her duty to volunteer for the camp library program.

In July 1918 Kidder went to Camp Lewis to be the hospital librarian. The soldiers were as fond of her as the college students were, also calling her "Mother Kidder." Camp Lewis troops believed her nickname was so widely accepted that some soldiers bet that a letter could be addressed to just "Mother Kidder, Oregon," and it would reach her. The letter was sent, and when Kidder returned to the college, it was waiting for her.

Kidder returned to Oregon Agricultural in November 1918 and jumped into establishing the new library. However, her efforts were halted by a serious heart attack that left her immobile. The college community rallied around her and made sure the library move was successful. Engineering students designed and built her an electric wicker cart so she could move about campus. In January 1920 she requested leave without pay due to her weakened condition. College officials refused, stating they would only grant the request if she continued to receive her salary. On February 29, 1920, Kidder died, and her body lay in state at the library as requested by the student body. The library building was named in her honor (it has since been renamed).

Decline and Rebirth of the Military Library

In December 1919 the American Library Association turned over its libraries and operations to the military. This included 41 buildings and more than 900,000 books. At Camp Lewis the library remained open under the supervision of the camp headquarters. With the discharge of troops and a decline in library use, head librarian Beardsley decided to return the more valuable donated books to those who gave them. A leather-bound set of classic literature was returned to Paul Holbrook (1873-1947), an attorney in Raymond, Pacific County. He was especially proud of the nameplates in the books, which indicated they had been donated to the camp library.

In 1921 the army established the Army Library Services in the Office of the Adjutant General. That year Camp Lewis, with a population of 7,100, had an annual circulation of 62,682 volumes. Despite the heavy use there was little funding, and as professional librarians left they were not replaced. Arthur Beardsley departed in 1922 to become a law librarian and professor at the University of Washington, serving 23 years, and then went into private practice in Seattle.

Major Joseph E. Carberry (1887-1961), an ill veteran of World War I on limited duty, was assigned to the librarian position. Carberry, a 1910 West Point graduate, had been one of the first aviators, earning his wings in September 1913. In 1915 he set an altitude record of 11,690 feet flying a Curtiss Jenny plane. The next year he flew observation flights during the Mexican Punitive Expedition. In World War I he served in France establishing airfields. His library service was shortened by serious health problems and a transfer to Letterman Army Hospital in San Francisco for treatment. Carberry was medically retired in 1924 and promoted to lieutenant colonel. The librarian position would be filled with officers on temporary assignment.

The Camp Lewis Library remained in its original building until 1941. The library building was then converted to a post exchange, which operated there until the mid 1960s, when the structure was demolished. Of the 41 ALA library buildings only one survives, at the site of Camp Sherman in Ohio. It has been modified and serves as a farm storage building.

On the eve of World War II the military recognized the need for professionally run libraries. In 1940 the army created the Library Branch in the Morale Branch of the Adjutant General's Office. During World War II and since then military libraries have been professionally managed to serve the educational and recreational needs of military personnel.


Sources: Arthur P. Young, Books for Sammies: The American Library Association and World War One (Pittsburgh: Beta Phi Mu, 1981); Alice Palmer Henderson, The Ninety-First: The First at Camp Lewis (Tacoma: John C. Barr, 1918); Twenty-seventh Annual Report of the Seattle Public Library (Seattle: Seattle Public Library, 1917), copy available at copy available at Hathi Trust Digital Library website accessed July 20, 2016 (https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433003294620;view=1up;seq=125); Charles A. Cutter, "Camp Lewis Library Finished," Library Journal, Vol. 43, No. 3 (1917), 24; "Plan Library for the Lake," Tacoma Tribune, August 6, 1917, p. 2; "Stone Will Erect Library at Camp," Tacoma Tribune, October 20, 1917, p. 10; "Judson T. Jennings Handles Camp Library," The Seattle Times, October 27, 1917, p. 4; "Camp Lewis Men Need More Books," The Seattle Times, November 16, 1917, p. 8; "Camp Library Has Exceptional Facilities," The Seattle Times, December 20, 1917, p. 13; "Our Boys at Camp Lewis Eat Up Books and Cry for More," Tacoma Times, January 11, 1918, p. 3; "Fiction Takes Second Place at Camp Lewis," The Seattle Times, March 21, 1918, p. 9; "Soldiers Like to Read of the War," Morning Olympian, March 27, 1918, p. 4; "Camp Library Best in Country," Tacoma Tribune, May 26, 1918, p. 1; "Books Returned to Donor," The Seattle Times, August 28, 1919, p. 14; "Mother Kidder Is Dead," The Oregonian, March 1, 1920, p. 2; "Ruby, Ex-Dean at Whitman Dies," The Seattle Times, January 5, 1950, p. 17.

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