Monday, September 12, 2011

Lighthouse Traveling Libraries

From the February 1885 issue of The Library Journal (still in print, minus The):
From the Christian Union.

Out of our seven hundred and fifty-five lighthouses and twenty-two lightships, fully one-third have each a library of about fifty volumes. The case for the books is so arranged that it "has a double debt to pay." Let it be shut, locked, and laid on its back, and it is a brassbound packing-case, with hinged handles by which it may be lifted ; stand it on a table and open its doors, and it becomes a neat little bookcase, two shelves high, each twenty-one inches long, one adapted to hold ten octavos of the size of a bound volume of the "Century," and the other the right height for holding good-sized twelvemos. As a matter of fact many of these cases contain on the lower shelf ten volumes of bound magazines, and on the upper a judicious selection of biography, history, popular science, and good novels—from twenty-five to thirty volumes, according to thickness. A little space above the second shelf, about an inch and a half high, is utilized on one side by a copy of the New Testament, with Psalms, the octavo pica edition of the Bible Society, and on the other by the octavo edition of the Prayer Book, with hymnal attached, published by the Protestant Episcopal Publishing Society, but now out of print, as the Lighthouse Establishment took up the remainder of the edition.

Each book-case has two doors, opening outward. On the inside of the left-hand door is a manuscript catalogue of the name and number of each book. On the right-hand door is tacked a blank form, properly headed, on which is entered the name of each lighthouse to which the library was sent, together with the date of its arrival and its departure. Among the smaller books is a little blankbook. In this, when a library reaches a station, the name of each reader is entered at the top of a page, and under his name is entered the title of each book he takes out, and the date it is taken and returned. The case is examined by the Lighthouse Inspector on his quarterly round, and its condition is reported. Any reader who loses or injures a book is required to replace it, if possible, in kind, and it is one of the rules that the books shall not be lent from the stations, so that none but actual residents of lighthouses and lightships, the keepers and their families, shall have the use of them.

It is the policy of the Lighthouse Establishment to put a library into every lightship, lighthouse tender, and isolated lighthouse, and to supply the latter in the order of their respective phases of isolation, the work going on simultaneously in each of the fifteen Lighthouse Districts. There are now about 380 such libraries in use, and as each lighthouse has an average of five readers, it can be readily seen how many people are affected.

The coasts of the Atlantic, Pacific, the Gulf of Mexico, the Great Lakes, and the Great Rivers are divided, as before said, into fifteen Lighthouse Districts. Over each district an inspector is placed, who is an experienced officer of the navy. As such, he is responsible for the maintenance of all those aids to navigation in it, and for the discipline of its personnel, including the light-keepers. He visits every light-station quarterly, makes a formal inspection and report as to its condition, and pays each keeper. To care for the buoys and inspect the lighthouses he has a steam tender of some 300 tons. When he visits a lighthouse that has a library he takes it away and replaces it with the one on the tender. Thus each library changes its station quarterly, and four libraries find their way to each station in the course of a year. Among the more than 150 light-stations in one district, about one-third are entitled to the use of libraries, and about fifty book-cases are working their way around among them, and will, in the course of twelve years or so, visit each of these stations. When a library has spent three months at each station in a district it is transferred to the next district. So, under this plan, it is possible that a library may start from the light-station at Eastport, Me., and work its way clear round the coast, stopping at every large lighthouse in every Atlantic and Gulf State to the Mexican frontier; then, after visiting every large lighthouse on the Lakes, finally makes a tour of the lights on the Pacific coast. So the problem is presented, How long will it take for 380 libraries to spend three months each at 4oo different lighthouses?

This system of peripatetic libraries is a growth rather than a creation. One of the lighthouse officers, seeing the avidity with which light-keepers seized on any reading matter that came in their way, sent to individual keepers such spare books and odd magazines as he himself had, and then he pillaged the shelves of his friends for the same purpose. Finally the Lighthouse Board, which had no funds under its control from which it could buy books, found that book-cases could be properly paid for as furniture, and twenty-five of the pattern now used were supplied, it being understood that the books to fill them were to be provided by private funds. Then a systematic raid was made through the press, on everyone within reach, for books, odd numbers of magazines, and paper-covered novels, it having been found that they could be bound at the Government bindery. The friends of seamen responded readily, especially as the Lighthouse Establishment paid the expressage on packages of reading matter received. All was fish which came into the net, and the first twenty-five cases were filled with a mixture of theology, science, mathematics, novels, and odd magazines, and each case was sent to a lighthouse as soon as it was filled.

After awhile the aid of Congress was invoked, as it was found that light-keepers were made more contented and better satisfied with their lot by having reading matter supplied them ; and so it has come to pass that now, each year, the words, "books for light-keepers' reading " find their place among the "oil, wicks, chimneys," and other lighthouse supplies in the Sundry Civil Appropriation Act, which provides for the purpose some $300,000 en bloc, and though no amount is specifically named for books, it is understood that not more than $1000 per year is to be spent for them from this appropriation, and not that much unless it can be spared after every other requisite has been supplied.

Of course no such sum as this would have bought the 19,000 volumes and more now distributed among the lighthouses of the country, if retail prices had been paid for them. The fact is, the officer having charge of the matter made the money go so far that it almost seems as if he had plundered the trade, as he previously had the dear public. Joking aside, he not only was permitted to buy at the lowest rates given the trade itself, but he received large donations of rubbed and unsalable copies of good books in strong, though defaced, binding. These blemishes were hidden by the stout brown paper covers with which all the books were invested.

The earlier filled cases, which contained a mixture of matter, much of which was naturally unattractive to the average light-keeper, have since been somewhat winnowed. Fresh books have been sent the inspectors, with orders to put them into certain cases, in place of books specified by name and number, and to present the books taken out to certain light-keepers. Then, too, when a book is disabled for active use by frequent reading, the inspector may condemn it, and put in its place a volume from the reserve stock sent him for that purpose.

The Lighthouse Board, which has its headquarters at Washington, keeps a watchful eye on these libraries. It has a list of the books in every case, and it keeps up with the changes in their catalogues. It knows at what lighthouse each library is placed, how long it stays, when it got there, when it left, and the condition of its contents when it was taken away. The Board also knows how many times each book is taken out, where, when, and by whom, and how long it was kept out.

The average light keeper is on a plane, as to taste, education, and culture, with the average mechanic. The books provided for him are not always the best for the purpose, but they are the best that could be had under the circumstances, and the Lighthouse Board is to be congratulated on the success it has attained, not only in obtaining books, but in getting light-keepers who will read them.
For more information, including lists of some of the titles in the traveling libraries, see Michigan Lighthouse Conservancy, Milwaukee County Historical Society (photo above right) and Wisconsin Library Heritage Center.

Lighthouse Establishment bookplate (left: Carysfort Reef FL; right: Minot's Ledge MA).

1 comment:

  1. Great article! Note that the bookplate at the bottom of the article shows Fowey Rocks or American Shoal Lighthouse in Florida. Carysfort is similar but is not pictured. Neil Hurley FL Lighthouse Assoc.