US Military Libraries, 1780-1943

There have been US military libraries since at least 1780.  Each of the services:  U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Army, the U.S. Air Forces and the U.S. Coast Guard all offer library services  to their service members and their families, as well as retirees.  These libraries can be post or base libraries (think of a public library on a military base), academic

Armed Forces emblemsl

libraries, technical or special libraries, medical libraries, or law libraries.  Many of these libraries are a mixed type of library such as post and academic.  They can be on bases in the United States (CONUS) or abroad (OCONUS) in countries like Germany, Italy, Belgium, England, Japan, Okinawa, and Korea.  There can be libraries on ships as well as bases.

Here is a brief outline of the early years of military Library Service.



Library at West Point

1780 –  Military garrison at West Point establishes library by assessing officers at the rate of one day’s pay per month to purchase books—arguably the first federal library since it existed when the country was founded (predecessor to U.S. Military Academy Library

1795 – War Department Library established in Philadelphia as a general historical military library by Henry Knox, the first Secretary of War

 1800  – The Navy Department Library established on March 31 by direction of President John Adams to Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert

 1800 –  War Department Library collections destroyed in fire at War Office Building on November 8, soon after relocation to Washington

 1901 – Congress appropriates $10,000 to establish the Army War College library “for the collection and dissemination of military information”

 1914 – War Department Library transferred and consolidated with collection of the Army War College Library at the Washington Barracks (now Fort Lesley J. McNair)

 1917 –  The Librarian of Congress named Director of the American Library Association (ALA) Library War Service, forerunner of the Army Library Service

 1918 – Carnegie Corporation of New York funds 36 library buildings at major Army installations

 1918 – Air Service, War Department (forerunner of Air Force) establishes three technical libraries: McCook Field Library (now Wright Patterson AFB), San Antonio Intermediate Air Depot Library (Kelly AFB) and the Air Service Library in Washington, D.C.

 1918 – First female ALA Library War Service librarian hired

 1918 – ALA Library War Service extended to hospitals caring for soldiers and veterans,providing patients with materials for recreation, education and therapy

1918 –  ALA Library War Service establishes Paris office to support soldiers in

 Army Library1940 – Permanent Army Library Service staff position established in Morale Branch of the Adjutant General’s Office to select and purchase books for Army posts and Air Corps stations and advise the War Department on library matters

1942 –  Office of War Information Library established from small newspaper morgue in New York

Library 31 Infantry Division 1943 Joint project of U.S. Government and private publishers begins production of 123 million copies of Armed Services Edition paperback books (4 ½ oz. pocket size reprints of 1300 best sellers and classics) for distribution to troops overseas 1944 Pentagon Library established in Pentagon Building (War Department Memorandum No. W. 210-44, 16 February 1944), based on recommendations of Keyes Metcalf (Director, Harvard University Libraries) to consolidate 28 military libraries

Happy Memorial Day to all members of the Armed Services, their family members, retirees, and the staff and volunteers who provide them with library service.


6 thoughts on “US Military Libraries, 1780-1943”

  1. This is a fascinating overview. It opens up dozens of questions in my mind. How much of a library was West Point able to build with the salary contributions from officers? (One day’s salary a month is a huge personal contribution, but for how many officers, and for how long? What did that money buy? ) What is the War Department Library (or the Army War College Library) today? What has become of the wartime services like the ALA Library War Service or the Office of War Information Library? Were there no women in library positions in the various military libraries before 1918?


  2. So many questions–so few answers. The Army War College Library is still intact in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. (I got to visit it about 6 years ago). The West Point Library is now much larger than that original library, but how it got from Pt A to Pt B, I don’t know. To the best of my knowledge, most librarian positions were occupied by men until WWI, when the men went to war and women took their place as the services realized that providing troops with library service had value. (Women took over roles as nurses and school teachers following the Civil War. It seems it has often taken a war to open up previously male occupations to women.) The Navy General Library Program started in 1917 as an outgrowth of WWI. The Army General Library Program seems to have started in the early 1940s (This is a guess at best). I’m also guessing that as the Armed Services stepped up to provide their own library services, there was less need to ALA to continue to do that. There are still several national and local groups that have book drives to provide reading materials to deployed troops.


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