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Libraries For Lighthouses

February 22, 2016

James and I have often talked about escaping for a period of time to a lighthouse and taking care of the business that needs to be completed in such a place.  There are fewer such opportunities these days but the eagerness to have such a break from the day to day norm intrigues me.  It would be a perfect respite.  There are no people to contend with and just lots of peace so to read, reflect, and breathe.

We do actually talk about such a journey and I always remark that if I had plenty of coffee and a wide assortment of books my bags could be packed in the hour.  James would want his tea selection along with a number of bottles of reds and whites–and his books.

But what about those lovers of books who stayed for extended periods in lighthouses in the 19th century.  How did they cope?

Portable lighthouse libraries, distributed across the United States in the 19th century, were a common but important part of life for families living under the constant work and near-isolation of the lighthouse watch.

As with everything at the lighthouse, keeping these books in good condition was serious business. Arnold B, Johnson writes in his 1885 article Lighthouse Libraries that each book case had a list of the case’s contents on the inside door; retrieving a book from the mini library entailed recording your name and the date you removed a book from the case, which was “examined by the Lighthouse Inspector on his quarterly round, and its condition is reported.”

Any lost or “injured” book had to be replaced, not least of all because of how many people lived in these lighthouses; children were often born in the lighthouse, growing up beneath its far-flung glow. “There are now about 350 such libraries in use, and as each lighthouse has an average of five readers,” writes Johnson somberly, “…it can be readily seen how many people are affected.”

Johnson writes 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.“

In his 1885 article, Johnson goes on to explain that inspectors probably began the lighthouse library practice, seeing that lighthouse keepers “seized on any reading matter that came in their way”; books and magazines were informally passed around until the United States Lighthouse Board bought bookcases, to be filled with books purchased or donated by private groups.

These libraries may have had a bit of an agenda to promote Christian values, writes William Waterway, in GayHead Light House, the First Light on Martha’s Vineyard. Many of the books were distributed by the American Seamen’s Friend Society, a religious group based in New York which placed great importance on combatting the coarse reputations of sailors.

Existing portable library programs had existed for merchant and navy ships for decades (and still do, through the Navy General Library Program). In 1865 The New York Times reported that the American Seamen’s Friend Society had dispersed 1,369 library cases since 1859 to naval vessels, occupying the minds of 20,000 officers.

Bringing God to the sailors was seen as the ultimate good for a man out at sea, who might fall prey to wayward tendencies.The article adds that “they will push this work till the 25,000 American vessels are supplied with them and our sailors have the privileges on the ocean of the Sabbath School children at home.”

By 1876, the American Seamen’s Friend Society, in concert with the United States Lighthouse Board, began working to bring books to the Navy’s land-bound allies–the lighthouse keepers.

There were at least 420 libraries circulating for lighthouses in the United States by 1885, which might have rivaled the readership for most other citizens. Waterway writes that, “In the late 1800s, there were more lighthouses than libraries in America, thus giving an assist to educating lighthouse books.” 

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