Books Join the Battle: The Victory Book Campaign
"Reading Is Even More Popular Than Poker..."
Servicemen pursued various types of recreation, some approved and some not, during the war, but no form was more highly recommended than reading. The activity would not only expand the mind, it would distract the reader from the ugliness of war during lulls on the battlefield, from the otherwise drab military camp surroundings, or from many of the tempting, but forbidden, forms of recreation often available in nearby communities. And the Victory Book Campaign to supply the millions of servicemen with wholesome and educational reading material would be yet another way in which Americans could contribute to the war effort.
The need to read
Officials knew from the experience of World War I that providing plenty of books for servicemen during war could boost morale significantly and the need showed itself soon after the United States began mobilizing large numbers of troops in 1940. The Oregon State Library excerpted a "letter received from a lad in an Oregon Camp" dated December 10, 1941 in which the serviceman wanted to "find out the possibilities of getting some kind of a start for a library here at camp. As you know the fellows are very much in need of any positive outlet for pent-up emotions & energies." One camp librarian went so far as to say that "reading is even more popular than poker, no matter what the people at home think." In fact, Private Charles Woodbury, who was stationed at Camp Adair near Corvallis but worked as a reference librarian in civilian life, noted on the regular "Ask Your State Library" radio program that reading was second only to watching movies as a recreation according to a War Department survey.(1)
And it wasn't only stateside servicemen who sought out reading material. The soldiers, sailors, and marines fighting overseas often saw long periods of boredom punctuated by the horror of battle. Many of them wanted something to fill the down time and take their minds away from the inhumanity of war. One Victory Book campaign brochure showed a soldier reading a book while resting under a palm tree with the caption: "When the fighting slackens and the quiet rest hour comes...then a book is a real companion."(2)
A national book campaign forms
Efforts to collect books for the troops began after the start of the military draft in late 1940 that would lead to millions of men coalescing in camps around the country. Many state and local libraries conducted book drives to help out nearby military camps but it wasn't until the formation of the National Defense Book Campaign in 1941 that a more unified nationwide approach came together. The campaign was sponsored by the American Library Association, Red Cross, and United Service Organizations (USO) and was led by director Althea Warren. She wrote to Oregon State Librarian Eleanor Stephens just days before the attack on Pearl Harbor: "Like most of the librarians in the country during the past year, you have probably felt the pangs from your own conscience or been urged by high-minded library users to start a drive to collect books for the camps." Warren noted that previously Army and Navy libraries had received "appropriations from Congress to buy books and feared these funds might diminish if gifts seemed too plentiful." But the camps had grown so much that the need had become overwhelming, prompting military authorities to give the "go ahead" for a national book drive. Before long, the National Defense Book Campaign operated under the more catchy name of Victory Book Campaign (VBC).(3)
The campaign sought to collect books suitable for servicemen and to supplement the library services already maintained by the military in libraries at camps, posts, and on ships as well as the innumerable company "dayrooms" and similar settings. Moreover, books could be packaged and sent in small groups as "Traveling Libraries" to some of the most remote military positions. The campaign also would provide reading materials to fill the shelves at libraries that the Red Cross and USO maintained for servicemen at clubs and centers in the vicinity of military camps as well as those maintained by the American Merchant Marine Library Association. Any surplus books would be given to libraries near industrial defense plants where population growth had left their resources wanting. Books that were not suitable for servicemen would be donated to the appropriate body or would become part of paper salvage drives.(4)
Oregon quickly organizes its campaign
Oregon library officials quickly organized to implement the campaign statewide. Eleanor Stephens won a vote to act as director of the Oregon VBC. She assembled a state executive committee consisting of one representative each from the Red Cross and USO as well as a number of prominent librarians from around the state. Local directors and committees also formed and armies of volunteers were recruited. An entire distribution system with collection sites, sorting centers, and regional depots needed to be developed to handle the flow of tens of thousands of books in and out of the program. Because of the probability of receiving unwanted books, national campaign officials suggested that "trained librarians with the capacity for ruthless discarding should supervise these depots." Books with only "feminine or juvenile appeal" needed to be farmed out to an appropriate distributor. Standardized paperwork, labels, and cards had to be created to deal with tracking and shipping the books. Careful inventories of the number of books collected needed to go onto weekly report cards that could then be used as "ammunition for the campaign committee." Publicity was key so volunteers mounted major efforts to develop special events and drives along with cultivating the local newspapers and radio stations.(5)
Volunteers and assistance came from wide range of entities in addition to the Red Cross and USO. Among the many groups offering help were the American Federation of Teachers, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Campfire Girls, Catholic Library Association, League of Women Voters, and the National Education Association. These were joined by countless other groups such as churches, granges, 4-H clubs, labor organizations, fraternal organizations such as the Elks, Masons, and Knights of Columbus, merchant groups, veteran groups such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, women's clubs, schools, and service clubs such as the Kiwanis, Rotary, and Lions. These entities helped by providing volunteer staff for all aspects of the process from planning to publicity to distribution as well as providing financial support, space for collection centers, or even window displays to promote the campaign.(6)
While the work continued year around, much of the publicity centered on major national drives early in the year. Local volunteers planned various kinds of promotional efforts to support the campaign. Much of the work went into planning events for the opening and closing days of the drive. For example, the 1943 campaign covered a two month period from January to March. On opening day local workers were encouraged to "dramatize" the festivities by inviting the mayor or other dignitaries to donate the first book during a public ceremony. Of course, a mayor could not pass up the chance to give a speech, which was fine as long as it extolled the virtues of donating books to the campaign. During the course of the campaign, events such as special luncheons or dinners honoring authors or servicemen could be held. Contests for the best campaign slogans, posters, essays, or collection totals could be held. Libraries could put on exhibits of rare or interesting books that had been donated. Local entertainment venues could be coaxed to accept donated books as the price of admission. A little coercion could go a long way too. Factory personnel offices could collect pledges from employees to donate a certain number of books with "section captains" appointed to make sure the books actually were donated. Offices were encouraged to install a "Five Foot Victory Book Shelf" to be filled weekly and were asked to hold inter-departmental competitions and authorize roving "volunteer book collectors."(7)
Across Oregon many local volunteers, such as Clatsop County Librarian Glen Burch during the 1942 campaign, worked hard to get the word out:
Dear Miss Stephens:
The Victory Book Campaign has been launched with a flourish with excellent cooperation from the newspapers and the radio. I've plugged it on every broadcast for the past three weeks, and am devoting practically all of this week's broadcast to it. In addition the station is putting announcements of the campaign on the air at regular intervals throughout each day. We've plastered the signs all over our windows and I'm distributing the placards. I think we could use more, if you have them to spare. The Budget [newspaper] will run by-lines on the campaign every day in the paper this next week, and use what stories I can cook up. My only trouble is finding time to do all that can be done.
Campaigns relied on large and elaborate networks of collection centers serviced by bookmobiles and other collection vehicles. Public libraries provided the most obvious collection centers but they were by no means the only ones. School, college, and special libraries also participated as did a wide array of locations that drew both foot and car traffic. Suggestions included beauty parlors, drug stores, factories, hotels, theaters, grocery stores, office buildings, oil stations, post offices, railroad and bus stations, and schools. Committees enlisted manufacturers and schools with shops to volunteer to build containers to collect the books donated at the various sites. Local "motor corps" were formed to clean out the collection sites on a regular basis and move the books to the local collection center, usually the public library. Boy scouts, girls scouts, members of the Junior Red Cross, and similar groups were recruited to make house-to-house collections as well.(9)
Not just any book requested for donation
Of course, the campaign didn't want just any book. State director Eleanor Stephens asked every Oregonian to give at least one good book, but she admonished the reader not to go "to the attic for these books. Our boy's don't want musty cast-off volumes. Give the books that you yourself like - give books that are worthwhile, books that are desirable." While most of the donations were valuable, many were not. Ruth Stratton, who succeeded Eleanor Stephens as state director, described finding "such things as the Ruth Fielding series, old college catalogs, Women's club directories, books on obstetrical nursing [surely not a favorite with the troops], as well as many books in bad physical condition." Private Charles Woodbury echoed the need to be selective as he decried fiction from 1912 that servicemen saw as old fashioned. When asked on a radio program if he would want to receive such a book, Woodbury replied: "Definitely no, a thousand times no, in fact!" Even though some of these books had been best sellers in their day, he claimed that "the plot and the stilted conversation are as out-dated as the illustrations." In support, the radio host agreed:
"Yes, those illustrations showing 'the little woman' all done up in a high-necked, long skirted number, certainly wouldn't make me want to read the book either!"(10)
In addition to describing the books they did not want, campaign officials spared no effort in talking about those they hoped to collect. Among the most sought after according to Army and Navy surveys were current best sellers such as those featured as Book of the Month, Literary Guild, and other book club selections. They also wanted other popular fiction and non-fiction books dating back to about 1930. Adventure, western, detective, and mystery fiction proved to be very popular. Servicemen studying for promotion or those looking forward to new careers at the end of the war wanted access to technical books, but only if they were less than about seven years old since the information typically became dated quickly. Popular topics included architecture, aeronautics, chemistry, mechanical drawing, mathematics, military science, navigation, radio, and physics. As a counterpoint to the dry technical books, servicemen also asked for joke books as well as books including humorous stories, anecdotes, cartoons, and games. Pocket books were popular since they were portable and could be taken into the field.(11)
More anecdotal reports of preferences supported the rankings made by larger surveys. According to one report, two categories of adventure/westerns and detective/mystery fiction were most in demand. Some military post librarians commented that "the horse as a means of escape ranks ahead of murder and that Zane Grey is the American Army's No. 1 author." One librarian, Louis Nourse, noted that "one book that seldom stays long on the shelves is Steinbeck's 'The Moon is Down.'" He went on to remark that books about Germans, Japanese, Chinese, and Russians were popular. The librarian claimed that there was little interest in novels about World War I. Instead, the servicemen had "a great curiosity about the Napoleonic campaigns and the length of tomes like Tolstoy's 'War and Peace' does not daunt them." Nourse claimed that foreign language books were in demand while "interest in biography has slacked off in favor of books on current history." He noted that interest in the classics such as Shakespeare was high as was the demand for poetry since servicemen were searching for "an understanding of the universe" that poetry, philosophy, and religion could provide. Not just any poetry would do, however, since according to Nourse "they don't much care for poetry by little-known authors or material of the erudite university-thesis type."(12)
Officials praise the campaign
Oregon's Victory Books program proved to be a success in the course of its approximately two-year run during which just under 127,000 books passed through the doors. Most libraries in the state collected books that were then sent to the Oregon State Library for distribution. Military forces stationed in Oregon then had first crack at getting the books, with the remainder shipped to other locations. Most books collected in Multnomah County were distributed to the merchant marines. By June 1943 about 44,000 "carefully selected books" found their way to "all Army Camps, Posts and Stations in Oregon. This includes many general collections for Army hospital libraries, many Traveling Libraries for isolated detatchments [sic], books for Negro troops, for day rooms, and many requests for specific books by individual soldiers."(13) About 4,000 books from Oregon were sent to people of Japanese descent held at internment camps located in Idaho, California, and Arizona.(14)
By 1944 the national campaign had ended, apparently after having met the bulk of the need for providing books for servicemen. Looking back on the effort, the USO office in New York tallied some impressive totals. Over the two-year life of the Victory Book Campaign, Americans donated nearly 18.5 million books. Of that number, about 10.2 million books, or 60 percent of the total, were found to be "suitable in context and condition for distribution." Overall, the Army received the lion's share of the donated books, totaling over 5.8 million volumes of which nearly 4.5 million were for use in the United States. The Navy got 1.7 million volumes while the merchant marine received over 650,000 books. USO, Red Cross, and related libraries accepted about 1.5 million volumes and about 45,000 books were set aside for "war prisoners." Looking back at the campaign, officials expressed pride in the lean operation, saying that "the low cost of 2.07 cents per book for collecting, cleaning, repairing, and distributing this vital reading material to our fighting forces is final indication of the campaign's success."(15)
1. Excerpt from Serviceman's Letter, December 10, 1941. Folder 1, Box 29, Oregon State Library Records, OSA; "The Community Forum: Dedicated Today to Books - The Weapons Against Might" Radio Program Transcript, Station KSD, January 3, 1943. Page 5, Folder 48, Box 29, Oregon State Library Records, OSA; "Ask Your State Librarian" Radio Program Transcript, Oregon State Library, October 28, 1942. Pages 1-2, Folder 49, Box 29, Oregon State Library Records, OSA.
2. "Send Your Favorite Book to a Fighting Man" Leaflet, Illinois Victory Book Campaign Committee, circa 1943. Folder 42, Box 29, Oregon State Library Records, OSA.
3. Letter from Althea Warren to Eleanor Stephens, December 2, 1941. Folder 1, Box 29, Oregon State Library Records, OSA.
4. "Victory Book Campaign" Descriptive Leaflet, Victory Book Campaign Committee, 1943. Folder 50, Box 29, Oregon State Library Records, OSA.
5. "Victory Book Campaign Aids to State Directors" Manual, Executive Committee for Oregon, 1943. Folder 42, Box 29, Oregon State Library Records, OSA.
6. "Victory Book Campaign Activities Program for Commerce and Industry Groups," Victory Book Campaign Committee, 1943. Folder 25, Box 29, Oregon State Library Records, OSA.
8. Letter from Glen Burch to Eleanor Stephens, January 18, 1942. Folder 5, Box 29, Oregon State Library Records, OSA.
9. "Victory Book Campaign Activities Program for Commerce and Industry Groups," Victory Book Campaign Committee, 1943. Folder 25, Box 29, Oregon State Library Records, OSA.
10. "Keep 'Em Reading, Too! Oregon VBC Urges All" Press Release, Oregon Victory Book Campaign Committee, January 12, 1942. Folder 4, Box 29, Oregon State Library Records, OSA; "The Victory Book Campaign 1942 and 1943" Memorandum by Ruth Stratton, Oregon State Library, 1943. Folder 28, Box 29, Oregon State Library Records, OSA; "Ask Your State Librarian" Radio Program Transcript, Oregon State Library, October 28, 1942. Pages 6-7, Folder 49, Box 29, Oregon State Library Records, OSA.
11. "Victory Book Campaign Activities Program for Commerce and Industry Groups," Victory Book Campaign Committee, 1943. Folder 25, Box 29, Oregon State Library Records, OSA.
12. "The Community Forum: Dedicated Today to Books - The Weapons Against Might" Radio Program Transcript, Station KSD, January 3, 1943. Page 5, Folder 48, Box 29, Oregon State Library Records, OSA.
13. Oregon Victory Book Campaign Press Release, Oregon Army Branch Library, June 21, 1943. Folder 36, Box 29, Oregon State Library Records, OSA.
14. Memorandum from Capt. Tony Frank to Camp Adair Office of the Director of Supply, February 5, 1943. Folder 27, Box 29, Oregon State Library Records, OSA.
15. Press Release Re: Victory Book Campaign Termination, United Service Organizations, April 27, 1944. Folder 39, Box 29, Oregon State Library Records, OSA.