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Chapter 7: World Wars I & II: What Happens to a Library When the World Goes Crazy?

What did you learn in school today, dear
little child of mine?
What did you learn in school today, dear
little child of mine?
I learned that war is not so bad
I learned about the great ones we have had
We fought in Germany and in France
And I am someday to get my chance
That's what I learned in school today
That's what I learned in school.

-Tom Paxton, songwriter

During World War I, Madisonians ate frog legs from local marshes and carp from the lakes as substitutes for meat as part of a campaign to send beef and pork to soldiers in the war zone. Matthew Dudgeon, Secretary of the Wisconsin Free Library Commission, advised librarians to withdraw all books from the shelves "as to the patriotic character of which there is any doubt." During World War II, MFL librarians attended a class in industrial terminology and distributed pamphlets urging citizens to save waste fats to make bombs. Extreme times can produce extreme measures.

When the United States was engaged in World Wars I and II, the Madison Free Library rallied 'round the flag.' During both wars, library staff marshaled its expertise and resources to contribute to the war efforts. The library collected and distributed books, and raised funds as part of local and national campaigns to support the wars. Library staff members added new materials to the collection and publicized war-related materials already in their possession. They also distributed government propaganda pamphlets, made library facilities available for war-related meetings, and displayed photographs, books, and pamphlets designed to enlighten and enlist Madison's citizenry. When World War II ended, the library housed the Veteran's Information Center headquarters in its basement for two years to serve returning veterans. The stories of the library's activities during the wars offer a glimpse of how MFL librarians responded on the home front when they felt their country's call.

Madison Free Library's Contributions to the War Effort during World War I

In his book An Active Instrument for Propaganda: The American Public Library during World War I, historian Wayne Wiegand describes the role of librarians during the war as follows:

"When the United States entered the Great European War in April 1917, local American public librarians generally did not hesitate about what they considered their wartime duties. Their responses showed admirable creative energy. They eagerly developed programs that attempted to capture what they thought were America's wartime reading interests; they offered their facilities to numerous social service and war relief agencies; they volunteered in force, both in and out of the library; and they took special care to address local public library services to children."

This description accurately characterizes the war-related activities conducted by the Madison Free Library during World War I. In September 1917, the American Library Association initiated a fund-raising campaign to generate funds to purchase enough books to satisfy soldiers and sailors reading interests in war camps.

In an editorial on October 2, 1917 the Wisconsin State Journal urged its readers to contribute to the campaign:

"…What the Library War Council wants is dollars that they may convert those dollars not into some antiquated text books that have been collecting dust on the home library shelf ever since Uncle Charlie quit college, but into the best modern text books that the boys want and really ought to have. Let Madison do its share. Send your money for the Soldier’s Library Fund."

Approximately $1200 was collected directly by the Madison War Libraries Council, made up of members of the board of trustees of the public library and their associates. The funds primarily were applied to the purchase of technical books, since the expectation was that the public would donate fiction for the soldiers. The trustees were assisted in this effort by "Hoover Minute Women," the women who aided in the food conservation campaign.

In March 1918, the American Library Association started a book collection drive. The MFL and State Historical Library jointly participated in this campaign and, according to the Madison Democrat "were quickly 'knee deep' in books, and rushed with work to sort and catalog them before shipping them to American Library Association headquarters."

In November 1918, the MFL, several local libraries, men's clubs, and the local Red Cross collected thousands of books and magazines in response to the special request from the Great Lakes Training Station for reading material for influenza victims and convalescents. Within twenty-four hours after the call was received, packages were dispatched.

The MFL also participated in the campaign for food conservation that the United States Food Administration waged under the leadership of Herbert Hoover. During the summer of 1917, Hoover solicited local organizations to work through state councils of defense to encourage home gardening, identify improved techniques for food preservation, and advertise the need for food conservation. In her Annual Report to the Library Board at the end of 1917, librarian Mary Smith described MFL's participation in this campaign:

"What has the library done the past few months to help? Books on war and allied subjects have been bought so far as funds permitted. All garden and poultry books were in constant use. The government pamphlet, 'The Small Vegetable Garden,' was obtained in quantity and given to all garden makers who requested it. For the housewife, bulletins of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture and of several state agriculture schools were obtained for their suggestions and directions on canning and preservation of food. Books were also bought."

The library also purchased many new books related to the war, made available "war propaganda sent out by England," sent the government's Liberty Loan literature to the public schools, and sold scrap books made by children for wounded soldiers and sailors.

Young people were not forgotten in the midst of this adult conflict. In an article published in the Wisconsin Library Bulletin in February 1918 entitled "Children and Patriotism," MFL Children's librarian Faith Allen reminded her peers not to underestimate the import of the war for children. Librarian Mary Smith’s 1917 Annual Report also reflected the consideration given to providing library service for children during the war. In her assessment of the future for the library, she articulated what she believed must be done for children as well as identified the functions of the library's collection during the war years:

"First, Children's reading must continue on the same sane lines as have been followed.

Second, All possible books should be furnished adults that will help them to a better understanding of the numberless problems of their own country and a clearer perception of conditions in other countries.

Third, The library must furnish the best books for relaxation and refreshment, books not so closely allied with the problems of the day, for in times of intense living books are one of man's great resources."

The War at Home: Madison Free Library Activities during the Beginning of World War II

"There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation has a rendezvous with destiny." - Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President of the United States

Even before the entry of the United States into World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the Madison Free Library participated in the military effort. In February 1941 the library sent two boxes of books to the 1355th Medical Regiment at Camp Shelby Mississippi where 120 men from Madison were on duty.


Shortly after war was declared, the MFL was designated by the Office of Civil Defense to be a Defense Information Center. The collection of books "America Fights" was expanded to contain pamphlets, maps, and relevant matter on the defense activities. Librarian Margaret Nordholm was given the task of collecting and organizing material for defense.

The use of the library auditorium greatly increased in 1941 and 1942 because of the requirements of the various committees and agencies engaged in activities connected with the war. The following war organizations made use of the library auditorium and committee rooms during 1942.

Madison Auxiliary Firemen
Madison Auxiliary Police
Dane County Civil Defense Committee
Dane County Red Cross — First Aid Classes
Dane County Red Cross — Nutrition Classes
Madison Veteran's Council
Army Aviation Cadet Examining Board
War Saving Stamp Campaign
War Production Board

On January 12, 1942, the National Victory Book Campaign began. The campaign was sponsored by the American Library Association, American Red Cross, and United Service Organizations, cooperating with other national service agencies. The initial estimate was that at least 10 million books would be needed to fill the shelves of service clubs established by the USO near army camps, in areas for men on leave, and in industrial defense centers.

In Madison, librarian Helen Farr was appointed local chairman. The Presidents of the East Side, West Side, and South Side Business Men's Associations cooperated by designating twenty-eight filling stations as collection depots. In addition to the filling stations, the Gisholt Machine Company, Madison Kipp Corporation, Ray-O-Vac Company, Oscar Mayer Company, and Scanlon Morris Company all agreed to set up collection boxes for their employees. Ten stores in various parts of the city, the Capitol, and the University also established one to four collection points. All branches of the library maintained collection boxes throughout the year. By February 1, approximately 4,000 books had been received.

On February 8th members of the Madison Veteran's Council and their auxiliaries assisted by Boy and Girl Scouts made a house-to-house canvass of Madison, Monona, Sunset Village, Briar Hill, Shorewood, and Westmoreland. About 6000 books were collected in this drive. The library staff, with some assistance from librarians and others in the city, then undertook the final sorting and packing of the books that had been received. A total of 12, 298 usable books were collected.

The books were distributed as follows:

To the Naval Training School at the University 157
To Truax Field 10,059
To Japanese soldiers at Fort McCoy 275
To the State Traveling Library to be used with 1,807 the workers and their families at the Badger Ordinance Works

The bulk of the books wound up at Truax Field because of a request the library received in July 1942. Captain Emmett E. Cockrum, Special Services Officer at Truax Field, sought books from the Victory Book Campaign. At that time, only a few men were stationed at the Field but they needed recreational facilities and it was desirable that some sort of library be prepared for the larger numbers of men who would be arriving before a regular camp library could be organized. The library staff volunteered their services in preparing the Victory Books for immediate use. By October, the 10,000 books collected were organized into a library that service men immediately began to use.

Some of soldiers stationed at Truax Field subsequently wrote letters of appreciation to the librarians when they returned their library cards after being sent to other posts:

"I wish to express my appreciation for the attention given me there and I want you to know that my frequenting the House of Books was very pleasant and helpful."

"Just detached from Truax. Thanks for all the books you’ve been so kind to lend me. Here's my card and Very Best Wishes."

In her Annual Report to the Library Board at the end of 1942, Helen Farr summarized the impact of the war on library activities during that first year after the US declaration of war:


"Though not involved directly in the civilian activities of America's first full year of participation in World War II, the library has been deeply affected by the preoccupation of our people in the war effort. Circulation, Book Selection, Registration, Publicity, and Reference Work reflect the change in community. All library activities have been directed toward the continuance of the library’s policy of providing information and the books of entertainment our people need."

Book News Reports during World War II: "Only an Informed America Can be an Invincible America"


In November 1942, the Madison Free Library initiated an outreach program called "Book News." Nine members of the library staff volunteered to speak at regular meetings of several local clubs, churches, and organizations. They considered this part of their "personal war work." The librarians would speak for approximately fifteen minutes reviewing six to eight current books on the war. They prepared their talks "with no thoughts of bright chatter about best sellers." Instead, their desire was to encourage the reading of books that would help to build sound public opinion. Librarian Helen Farr provided the following explanation for the development of the "Book News" report program:

"We at the library agree with the statement, 'Only an informed America can be an invincible America.' But we also realize that people are too busy these days to read everything. So, after a series of staff meetings, we developed the 'Book News' talks as a way to help busy citizens choose the current books that make the most valuable contributions to our understanding of present and post-war problems."

The librarians who prepared the reviews selected books that they personally considered imperative reading for busy people. Each speaker had a different list, and as new books appeared, they supplanted older titles. Some books had only one advocate, sometimes interest in a book spread from one staff member to another, and almost every librarian recommended specific books titles including Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers and They Were Expendable by William White. The Book News reports were so popular that they continued through the duration of the war. Listed below are titles of several of the books recommended in the talks in May 1943.

American Unity and Asia — Pearl Buck
Shooting the Russian War — Margaret Bourke-White
We’re in This With Russia — Wallace Carroll
The Mountains Wait - Theodor Broch
Bombs Away — John Steinbeck
Government Assassination — Hugh Byas

NOTE: The Seventh Cross, They Were Expendable, Shooting the Russian War, and Bombs Away remain part of the library collection in the year 2000.

The Library Collection in World War II: "Books Have a Practical and Emotional Contribution to Make to Citizens on the Home Front"

"I hope the librarians of the country will feel that they have a great obligation to help in civil defense. First, by making available to the general public official literature on civil defense, obtained from State and local Defense Councils. Second, by supplying defense councils, on request, specific information problems as they arise about which they lack general knowledge." - Eleanor Roosevelt, assistant director of the Office of Civil Defense and wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Throughout World War II, the Madison Free Library made a concerted effort to contribute to the war effort by providing patrons with pertinent and topical materials. Providing war-related pamphlets and books, as well as much needed "escapist literature," was among the many ways the library responded to the literary exigencies demanded by the war. In her Annual Report to the Library Board in 1943, city librarian Helen Farr summarized the library's attitude toward the value of books in particular during those critical times:

"Time and experience have made clear that books have both a practical and an emotional contribution to make to citizens on the home front. The industrial worker, the victory gardener, the expectant mother and the seventeen-year-old looking forward to induction into service, all find in books guidance toward a solution of their problems. Books of humor, poetry, biography, adventure and mystery give tired minds the relief they must have to remain equal to the strain of living in war time. There is satisfaction in the realization that we too are in a 'essential' industry."

Throughout the war, the Madison newspapers, the Wisconsin State Journal and the Capital Times, regularly publicized recent acquisitions to the library's collection. The following excerpts from the newspapers' descriptions of those acquisitions provide us with a record of the types of books the library acquired during World War II to respond to the new demands for printed materials. 

January 8, 1941 Capital Times

"The problems and policies of national defense are so prominent in every citizen’s mind that the Madison Free Library has arranged a special exhibit of books, pamphlets, and reading lists for those interested in the technical, political, and economic aspects of preparedness. For guidance to the flood of writing in this field, library patrons are to refer to several booklists which describe and classify defense material for laymen and technicians."

January 26, 1941 Wisconsin State Journal

"Since the first of the year, 40 new books for technicians, machinists, and apprentices have been placed on the shelves of the Madison Free Library. They cover a wide range-from radio and electricity through welding, forging, and technical drawing."

March 4, 1941 Wisconsin State Journal

"If Madison readers are any criterion of the national tempo, Americans are deserting the delights of armchair travel to inform themselves on national and world affairs and to brush up on the technical processes useful to our national defense.

In 1940, patrons of the Madison Free Library increased their reading of books about technical industrial processes 13 per cent over that of 1939. Circulation of books on domestic and foreign affairs experienced an identical rise, but the reading of travel books, formerly one of the most popular types of non-fiction, decreased 17 per cent."

April 25, 1943 Wisconsin State Journal

"Womanpower is the subject for discussion in the current exhibit at the War Information section of the Madison Free Library. New books and pamphlets review wartime need for women in industry, patriotic work, and efficient home management."

April 6, 1941 Capital Times

"Now that one of every five young men is being called to the colors, civilians are taking increased interest in the observance of Army Day today. At the Madison Free Library, books about the army are in continuous demand."

"…William H. Baumer has written two books, which, because of their practical information and concise writing have been most popular. They are "21 to 35, What the Draft and Army Training Mean to You" and "How to Be An Army Officer."

February 14, 1943 Wisconsin State Journal

"February is more than a pencil-pushing month for gardeners. The days of this shortest of months can be utilized for pruning fruit trees and shrubs, planting in hot beds, and getting tools in order for an early start on the 1943 Victory Garden. Books and pamphlets on successful food production are now available from the War Information section of the Madison Free Library. Material on display has been chosen for its value to many types of gardeners-the experienced, the inexperienced, and the flower cultivators who are patriotically converting suitable soil to vegetable-growing."

March 18, 1945 Wisconsin State Journal

"We are taking seriously the statements of more than one authority that ‘every soldier, and not merely the wounded, is in need of rehabilitation,’ and are preparing to meet the new demands for books and pamphlets that will help both the veterans and their families to meet their problems of readjustment to peacetime living," Helen E. Farr, city librarian said Saturday."

"…The importance of the subject is shown by the fact, reported in a recent survey by the American Library Assn., that libraries throughout the nation are doing intensive planning for providing adequate information to aid and supplement the work of regular counseling agencies. They point out that while vocational and personal problems will not be handled by the libraries, reading related to the veteran’s reeducation and employment will be encouraged by the trained workers in charge of those agencies."

During World War II, the Madison Free Library also made available to patrons war-related publications produced by the MFL and many government publications. "Since Women Must Work" is an example of a MFL publication. This reference list of books related to work for women included such titles as:

Listen Little Girl Before You Come to New York
Dress Trader: Fashion is Spinach
Modeling for Money: How to Be a Successful Mannequin

The Government Publications distributed by the MFL included:

"What Can I Do: A Citizen Handbook for War"
"Save Your Waste Fats to Make Explosives"
"Preparedness through Books"
"War Jobs for Women"
"Handbook of First Aid"
"The Consumer and Defense- Feeding the Family"

The "What Can I Do?" pamphlet promised "V-Home Certificates to those families which have made themselves into a fighting unit on the home front." The V-Home certificate stated:

"We in this home are fighting…we solemnly pledge all our energies and all our resources to fight for freedom and against fascism. We serve notice to all that we are personally carrying the fight to the enemy in these ways:

  1. This home follows the instructions of its air-raid warden …
  2. This home conserves food, clothing, transportation, and health, in order to hasten an unceasing flow of war materials to our men at the front.
  3. This home salvages essential material, in order that they may be converted to immediate war uses.
  4. This home refuses to spread rumors designed to divide our Nation.
  5. This home buys War Savings Stamps regularly.

We are doing these things because we know we must "Win This War."

Urging housewives to "hang this up in your kitchen," the 1943 War Production Board publication "Save Your Waste Fats to Make Explosives" pleaded with citizens to contribute their waste fats to make glycerine, which in turn could be used to make explosives. This extraordinary document is reproduced below.

Waste Fats BrochureWaste Fats BrochureLibrary Exhibits During World War II: Bringing the War Home

The Japanese attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor brought the United States fully into World War II. Never before had a greater proportion of the country participated in a war: 18 million served in the armed forces, 10 million overseas; 25 million workers purchased war bonds. The Madison Free Library participated in the domestic effort to support the soldiers in a variety of ways including heading the Victory Book Drive, presenting reviews of recent war books for community organizations, offering current books on the war, and increasing the quantity of technical volumes in the collection.

In the course of the conflict, the MFL also supported the war effort by displaying several war-related exhibits. The following excerpts from articles in the Wisconsin State Journal describing several of these exhibits provides a lens through which to view another dimension of the library staff’s contributions to the war campaign.

1942: "Books Banned by Hitler Go on Display"

"Adolph Hitler has not yet admitted his fear of our armed forces, but he long ago admitted his fear of the books we read in America. At the Madison Free Library, a current display of books banned in Germany includes the work of Jack London, Helen Keller, and Theodore Dreiser, in addition to the writing of "non-Aryan" Germans and political anti-Nazis….

Of course, books by Jews like Leon Feuchwanter, Sholom Asch, and Emil Ludwig are banned, as are those by anti-Nazis including Eduard Benes, Winston Churchill, Arthur Koestler, Ignace Silone, and Franz Hoellering….American correspondents are dangerous too. John Gunther's Inside series, H.R. Knickerbocker’s Is Tomorrow Hitler's? and Louis Fischer's Men and Politics stand beside volumes by Nobel prize winners Sigrid Unset, Thomas Mann, and Albert Einstein."

1943: "Display Features Pictures of Authors on Nazi Blacklist"

"In recognition of May 10 as the 10th anniversary of the burning of books in Germany, the Madison Free Library is devoting display space to photographs of authors whose work is considered dangerous enough to be honored by the Nazi ban. These include, not only Europeans whose books were burned, but also men and women who have been fighting Nazis with pen and ink and typewriter since 1933…."

The list of banned authors included Erich Maria Remarque, Andre Malraux, Rainer Maria Rilke, Stephen Vincent Benet, Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Ernest Hemingway, Reinhold Niebuhr, Herbert Agar, Archibald MacLeish, Max Lerner, and many more.

1944: "Effect of War on European Children Shown in Photographs"

"An exhibition of 'Europe's Children,' 1939-43 pictorial record by Theresa Bonney, internationally known photographer and war correspondent, opened on Saturday morning on the second floor of the Madison Free Library.

The showing of this series of 11 panels which tells the story in pictures of what the war has done to the children of Europe, is sponsored by the Madison War Chest, and was opened by the Madison French War Relief Society. It is a sequenced, synchronized story, with a beginning and an end-written by a camera. The story begins with happy children, like ours. Then suddenly war comes and children on the roads, in barns, harassed, exhausted, wounded, stricken, and starving wonder about their day to day existence."

1944: "Books Advised for Prisoners"

"Books Behind Barbed Wire" is the title of a new exhibit at the Madison Free Library, arranged by staff members in cooperation with the Dane County chapter of the American Red Cross as a guide to friends and relatives of prisoners of war in Europe.

Up-to-date regulations for mailing and for types of books accepted by enemy censors have been posted at the library, according to Helen E. Farr, city librarian.

'Suggesting suitable titles for mailing is the chief purpose of the exhibit,' Miss Farr explained, 'although the display may serve to remind friends of war prisoners that it is possible to send them books.'"

The Lengths Those Dedicated Librarians Will Go To Serve Their Patrons: The "Odd" Course for Librarians on Industrial Terminology in 1944

Librarians Receiving Technical Lesson"Library Women Tame Industry’s Tough Words," the Milwaukee Sentinel declared. "Now Librarians Know What's Inside Those Technical Books," the Wisconsin State Journal noted, while the Christian Science Monitor reported "Madison Librarians Return to School to Brush Up on Industrial Sciences."

Those were the headlines regarding one of the most unlikely courses Madison librarians have ever taken. Early in 1944, librarians had been besieged with reference questions that they couldn't answer. With hundreds of people shifting from non-essential to essential industry during World War II, there was a great demand for technical books. An article in the Library Journal explained the transformation occurring in libraries at the time:

"Here, as in other libraries all over the country, the people's library has an increasing share in the educational program. A new job at Badger Ordnance Works? Quick instruction is in order. An opening at Gisholt's local tool manufacturers? Qualifications may well be met by earnest application to a book from the library."

Librarians Receiving Technical LessonIn order to provide better service to patrons requesting technical books, fifteen MFL librarians took a class in industrial terminology. Library Director Helen Farr had arranged with A.R. Graham of the Madison Technical School for a course of five sessions to be taught on such subjects as die casting, forging, welding, and factory inspection.

Without exception, the fifteen librarians who took the course reported personal gratification and an increased respect for workers: "I've got a lot more respect for the working man," said one librarian at the end of the course. "Some of them have a terrific knowledge of physics and other subjects that have me completely baffled."

A commentary on the success of what they learned was expressed by one library patron: "You did a mighty fine job for me, and I got a raise on the basis of what I learned from the books you got me."