Posted September 16th 2010 at 6:02 pm by
in The Library and Society

The Library's Meanings: From WW1 to the Depression

THESISFinalSmallBlog_Smaller An event to collect books for soldiers at the New York City Public Library during WW1, 1918. Source: Jones, p. 1

In this series, I am exploring the changing role and intentions of American public libraries throughout history.  In my last post, I explained how the founding of the public library system in the mid-1800s was connected to high rates of immigration into Boston, and the City’s need and desire to acculturate foreigners.

The beginning of World War I in Europe intensified these Americanization activities in public libraries in response to reports that twenty-five percent of the entire male population old enough to vote had been born abroad and that less than half of these foreigners had become citizens.  Military personnel responsible for training foreign-born citizens for participation in the armed forces realized that many immigrant residents could neither speak English well enough to understand instructions nor follow orders.  Thus, the American Library Association established the Committee on Work with Foreign Born (CWFB) to address the needs of immigrants for library services to help “Americanize” newcomers.

Meanwhile, by 1917 philanthropist Andrew Carnegie had invested approximately $41,000,000 for the erection of 1,679 public library buildings throughout the United States.  Carnegie was a conservative and in his famous writings Gospel of Wealth, he stated the main consideration of where to build a new library and provide access should be to help those who will help themselves and to provide part of the means by which “those who desire to improve may do so.”  The idea, according to him was to give the “best and most aspiring poor the opportunity to improve…”  With Carnegie’s support, the public library system flourished in America until the Great Depression.

The Great Depression cut library budgets, curtained book purchases, and decreased library staff salaries and hours.  Interestingly enough, the public library was able to endure because demand for more materials increased. Scholar Stephen E. James labeled this phenomenon “the Librarians’ Axiom” asserting that “public libraries prosper whenever the country is experiencing economic stringency.” People who had lost their jobs turned to the library for alternative options and to develop new skills required in a changing economy.  Libraries provided citizens with information to cope with circumstances, whether to learn about more economical meals or home vegetable gardens or automobile repairs.  “The public library added to the basic balance and stability of the American people that carried the country through hard times (Martin, 1998, p. 50).”

In the next post, I will discuss how the library’s functions changed during WW2 and the Civil Rights Era.  If you have a story to share about a library, please email me at


Plummer, Jones. Libraries, Immigrants, and the American Experience. (1999). Greenwood Press: Westport, Connecticut

Martin, Lowell A. (1998). Enrichment: A History of  the Public Library in the United States in the Twentieth Century. Scarecrow Press, Inc.: Lanham, Maryland.

Aditi Mehta completed her Master in City Planning degree from MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning in May 2010.  For her thesis, she researched the history of Boston’s Chinatown branch library, and the present-day community movement to reopen this branch. Her other series on CoLab Radio include Who’s on Broad?

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