Taking Books to the People, Part 2: Lighthouse Traveling Libraries

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”  When Keats penned those word about 1818, he did not know he might have been talking about the Lighthouse Traveling Libraries.

Books glasses on a desk. Both the wooden cases and the books and magazines contained in them brought joy to the isolated lighthouse keepers and their families.  Even today an empty case sitting in a lighthouse can conjure up images of long ago.

The February 1885 issue of Library Journal quotes from the Arnold B. Johnson article on “Lighthouse Libraries” that he originally wrote for the Christian Union. “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.

The Light House Establishment  introduced the Traveling Libraries  in 1876.  They were issued to the lighthouses as part of the quarterly allotment of food, supplies, fuel, and other commodities. Each book was marked in the front with the Establishment’s  bookplate.

Property of Lighthouse Establishment  Each case was numbered and circulated among the 755 lighthouses and 22 lightships.  There were 15 light house districts and it was the responsibility of the inspector to also examine the library cases when he did the inspection of the light keeper and his station.

According to Johnson, “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…”

If a light keeper or his family wanted to check out a book from the box, he or she had to sign and date which book was checked out and when it was returned.

closed travelling lighthouse library box

Have you ever visited a lighthouse and seen the bookcases?  Join the conversation and share which lighthouse you visited.  What was your favorite part of the light house?

This is the lighthouse library at the Big Sur Light Station.  It is probably circa 1950, when the Coast Guard ran the Light Station.  Light Stations were larger than Light Houses.

Monterey 057

2 thoughts on “Taking Books to the People, Part 2: Lighthouse Traveling Libraries”

  1. This reminds me of the book kits MWR libraries send to Marines in embassies, deployed soldier and sailors, prisons, and other military who don’t have access to libraries on a regular basis.


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