Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Thousands of books for 2 cents apiece: Pennsylvania's Victory Book Campaigns

Two Saturdays ago, while combing through the vast correspondence records of the Erie Public Library, I was thrilled to find a file drawer that seemed to document its activities during World War II. Because it was late in the afternoon on the last day of my visit, though, I blindly photocopied 3 entire folders, trusting my instincts that "good stuff" was inside. Similarly, I made a quick run to the PaLA archives in Mechanicsburg last week in search of material on the association's efforts during the 1940s. I hurriedly copied those items, too. Thus I brought 2 hefty tote bags filled with paper back to my home in Middletown.

These past few days I have felt like a trick-or-treater who dumps her loot on the dining room table and sorts the Milky Ways (yum!) from the Mary Janes (blah!). When I finally got to the papers of William Bacon, EPL's director during the 1940s, I felt I'd hit the mother lode. In 1943, Bacon was the state coordinator for Pennsylvania's Victory Book Campaign (VBC), part of a nationwide effort sponsored by the American Library Association, the Red Cross, and the USO to gather used books for soldiers. Yet at the moment, I didn't see a publication opportunity there, because Patti Clayton Becker has already chronicled the VBC from a national standpoint. Also, at least one state-level effort (Oregon's) is documented through a reputable web site.

Still, Bacon's papers proved fascinating to read. They evidence his role as state coordinator, as well as the book drives of Erie city and Erie County, which were led by his staff. They show Bacon's own sense of humor, which clearly ingratiated him with staff at national headquarters (a March 31, 1943 letter from Bacon to John Connor, complaining about short-staffing at Erie Public Library, described departed colleagues as "1 WAAC, 2 wooed, 2 worn out"!). Furthermore, Bacon's files include copies of material from the previous year's campaign, which was coordinated by Horace Byrnes of the State Library of Pennsylvania. I was grateful that Erie Public Library kept this material, because Pennsylvania Library Association Archives, the State Library, and the State Archives do not offer such a rich collection of pertinent correspondence and reports. 

Judging from the materials I have found, the VBC was quite a sophisticated network of volunteers. I marvel at what they accomplished, especially given the relative lack of instantaneous computational, inventory, and word processing software that we have at our fingertips today. The national headquarters in New York was responsible for designating state coordinators, which it often appointed at the advice of state librarians. It also supplied posters, press releases, radio scripts, and other publicity. In addition, headquarters received and compiled statistical reports of the number of books collected, and coordinated the distribution of the volumes  to military installations.

In Pennsylvania, state coordinators Byrnes and Bacon identified county-level leaders for the campaign, often, but not always, choosing the head librarian of the largest library. They also assigned each county a quota for the number of volumes to be collected. Byrnes and Bacon ordered appropriate numbers of publicity materials and distributed them throughout the state, while also adapting national press releases and radio scripts for Pennsylvania audiences. In addition, they handled day-to-day procedural questions from county and local campaign directors. Finally, they kept statistics on the number of volumes received from each county, and controlled a small fund that could be tapped to pay for publicity or transporting materials.

The Victory Book Campaign aimed to raise the morale of servicemen and others associated with the war effort. (Folder 42, Box 29, Oregon State Library, OSA)
Victory Book Campaign poster. Image courtesy of the Oregon State Archives, "Books Join the Battle: The Victory Books Campaign,"available online at

In Pennsylvania, it appears that the duties of county- and local-level coordinators varied depending on the size of municipalities. Judging from what I have seen of Erie's records, as well as those of the Albright Memorial Library (which coordinated the VBC of Lackawanna County -- see documents in its vertical files under "Scranton Public Library"), county VBCers often identified leaders within each city or town to spearhead the campaigns. Also, in many Pennsylvania counties, county coordinators were assigned the highest book quotas, so their efforts to sort and pack donations were particularly intense. Local VBCers were typically expected to coordinate volunteers (often local troops of Boy and Girl Scouts) who collected the books. Local VBC leaders also collaborated with nearby businesses, community organizations, and news outlets to spread word about the drive. As donations came in, they weeded and packed materials. However, in some rural areas, county-level coordinators assumed some of these responsibilities, especially for communities that lacked public libraries.

Patti Clayton Becker has determined that the VBC was mostly a failure. Even after extending deadlines repeatedly, the book drives of 1942 and 1943 did not gather 20 million volumes (10 million per year) as ALA had hoped. The effort was not repeated in 1944. Becker cites confusion over the purpose and operational procedures of the drive; poor distribution of resources (especially advertising materials); the low quality of donated items; and lack of military support as reasons for the VBC's shortcoming. While I don't necessarily disagree with her conclusion, it is worth noting that her book relies largely on the ALA archives, published articles in the library professional literature, and primary sources from selected libraries in the Midwest. In her chapter on the VBC, Pennsylvania does not figure prominently, even though it generated nearly 1/10 of all the volumes collected. All that is said is that William Bacon and other Pennsylvania librarians had "not-so-tender recollections" when informed that the 1943 effort was being planned. Becker also states that only half of the books contributed by Pennsylvania were considered usable by the military. (Becker, Books and Libraries in American Society During World War II, 131-134, 136-137, 142-145, 147-148).

After examining records at the Erie Public Library, the Albright Memorial Library in Scranton, and the Pennsylvania Library Association Archives, I am not certain that Pennsylvania's campaign was so ill-starred, especially compared to other states. A February 28, 1944 form letter from Neola Carew, Administrative Secretary for the national Victory Book Campaign, indicated that Pennsylvania gathered 1,058,182 volumes in 1942, and 564,709 in 1943, a total of more than 1.6 million books. Thus it ranked #3 among the states. Perhaps such a high total should be expected, given that Pennsylvania was the second most populous state at the time.

Statistics reported by Bacon in 1943 suggest substantial variation in different counties' ability to answer the call. Notably, Pennsylvania's most populous areas often fell shy of their quotas, while rural populations frequently went "over the top." For example, in 1943, Philadelphia collected 13,255 volumes, only 26.5% of its quota; Montgomery County, 2,046 (20.1%); Lackawanna County (which includes Scranton), 2,808 (28.1%); Lancaster County (including Lancaster city), 4,200 (46.8%); and Allegheny County (which includes Pittsburgh), 27,409 (78.3%). On the other hand, tiny Snyder and Sullivan Counties exceeded their quotas by more than 500%, and Crawford and Monroe Counties more than doubled expectations. Clinton, Elk, Forest, Montour, Potter, and Wyoming Counties, all among Pennsylvania's smallest, brought in more volumes than they were assigned  (undated letter from William Bacon to county VBC Coordinators, Erie County Public Library, Correspondence Files, "Victory Book Campaign" folders).

There is no way of knowing whether such statistics simply reflect low expectations of rural areas and unrealistic goals for urban communities, or whether they illustrate more interesting cultural phenomena. Was there a greater tendency to read among country people, or were they especially eager to participate in wartime charity? The facts that VBC headquarters expected coordinators to obtain their own packing materials, transportation, and other support from local companies; that publicity materials from headquarters were scarce; and that wartime restrictions on gasoline and unnecessary travel complicated the collection of books over wide areas, all suggest that we view rural areas' achievements in a new light. As Bacon reported to local press, he was quite proud to have moved more than 40,000 books through Erie at a cost of 2 cents per volume (Erie Dispatch, April 24, 1944). Although I initially didn't think that more needed to be said about the Victory Book Campaign, I now sense that more histories of state, county, and local efforts should be written.

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