Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Herbert Putnam and ALA's Library War Service
The United States declared war on Germany and entered World War I ninety-five years ago this month. In the same month Herbert Putnam, Librarian of Congress, initiated events that led to the creation of the American Library Association's Library War Service, perhaps ALA's most ambitious and successful undertaking in its history. According to Arthur P. Young in Books for Sammies: The American Library Association and World War I (Beta Phi Mu, 1981), Putnam presented his idea of furnishing books to the American army in a meeting with Secretary of War Newton D. Baker who responded positively to the idea. Following that meeting, the ALA Executive Board established a Committee on Mobilization and War Service Plans and Putnam was appointed chair of the committee on April 30, 1917. Putnam presented the committee's recommendations at ALA's annual conference on June 22 in Louisville, KY. The committee felt that an ALA operation on a "vast scale" was desirable. ALA members responded favorably to the recommendations of the committee, and at the end of the conference ALA President Brown appointed a permanent War Service Committee headed by James I. Wyer. Putnam assumed the leadership for the administration of the ALA Library War Service while continuing as Librarian of Congress. The Library War Service was administered from a conference room in the Library of Congress. Putnam managed the Library War Service until December 13, 1919. Young writes about Putnam's role: "Few individuals are indispensable, but it is difficult to imagine another librarian who could have galvanized the Association's war program as Putnam did. Self-assured, meticulous, and urbane, Putnam was a formidable administrator and an equally good judge of character. He was able to identify and to attract to his staff many of the nation's most promising librarians who were at the threshold of distinguished careers." Jain Aikin Rosenberg in The Nation's Great Library: Herbert Putnam and the Library of Congress, 1899-1938 (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1993) also discusses Putnam's role with the Library War Service. She notes one negative aspect of that role. When selecting camp librarians, Putnam refused to consider applications from African Americans, German Americans, or women. A female librarian was finally hired in May, 1918 shortly before eight "angry female librarians protested the War Service employment policy at the ALA conference that summer."