Books and Libraries in American Society during World War II: Weapons in the War of Ideas (review)
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Books and Libraries in American Society during World War II: Weapons in the War of Ideas. By Patti Clayton Becker. New York: Routledge, 2005. vii, 294 pp. $85.00. ISBN 0-415-97179-9.

Whenever I visit public libraries I find them teeming with people—using computers, taking part in children's story hours, examining displays of new books, talking to reference librarians, browsing the stacks, and yes, sometimes using the library as a place to meet or snooze. Public libraries are vibrant and vital, and they fill an immensely important role in the life of American communities. Yet historically, librarians and library leaders have spent decades trying to counter an image "of librarians as timid, apolitical guardians of print culture" (200). Although ubiquitous, as Wayne Wiegand likes to remind us, "public libraries have been plagued by the problem of purpose" and historically serve residents by meeting recreational rather than educational needs (1).

In Books and Libraries in American Society during World War II Patti Clayton Becker argues that American Library Association (ALA) leaders, especially Executive Secretary Carl Milam, viewed World War II as an opportunity to strengthen the public library's legitimacy "by demonstrating the importance of libraries to democratic society" (4). Specifically, Milam hoped that libraries as cultural institutions could shore up their collective identity by becoming information agencies and intelligence centers working in concert with government agencies. This vision,he believed, would enhance the professional authority of librarians, but, as Becker clearly illustrates, it failed when those agencies "favored the wider-reaching, more powerful mass media over public libraries as conduits for government propaganda" (203).

Becker has crafted her meticulously researched doctoral dissertation, completed at the University of Wisconsin–Madison under the directorship of Wayne Wiegand, into a fluidly and engagingly written monograph. Scouring the ALA archives for correspondence, press releases, and meeting minutes, she also examined comparable documents at a number of American public libraries as well as numerous professional periodicals from the era to obtain both the national and local perspectives. For those less familiar with the history of the public library, the first chapter provides an overview of its evolving sense of purpose through the 1930s. Seven subsequent chapters explore, in chronological fashion, many facets of the public library's role during the war.

Chapter 2 considers the initial response to the prospect of war by leaders of the ALA (who wished to capitalize on wartime opportunities) and the Progressive Librarians Council (PLC), consisting of members who opposed U.S. involvement in the war. Librarians, as chapter 3 illustrates, believed they were ideally situated to "rouse the American people to defend wholeheartedly 'its own chosen way of life'" (65), [End Page 86] yet the government preferred to make appeals through mass media and motion pictures. In chapter 4 Becker argues that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor made library leaders like Milam even more determined for libraries to become official war information agencies. Chapter 5, focusing on 1942 and 1943, compares the work of agencies such as the Office of War Information with the war service work of American libraries. Librarians provided a vital service by holding film forums, mounting patriotic exhibits, collecting reading material for armed forces libraries, and providing reading material of all kinds for "tired minds" (208). As Becker reminds us in chapter 6, American librarians had collected millions of books for soldiers during World War I. The Victory Book Campaign of World War II consumed librarians' energy and time, with mixed results. Chapter 7 explores a slough in the wartime history of the public library. Library use dwindled when budgets declined and staff shortages combined with deteriorating book stock to weaken librarians' morale, made worse by the cancellation of annual conferences. The book concludes with a final chapter and epilogue capturing the consequences of Milam's ambitious plans for government partnerships.

Because recent works about the World War II homefront by such eminent scholars as Michael C. C. Adams, David M. Kennedy, and Gerald D. Nash render libraries painfully invisible, Becker's fine study fills a critical void in the historiography of the American homefront during World War II. Admittedly, public libraries have tended to...