The Merchant Marine Libraries

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A sailor looks over books provided by the American Merchant Marine Library Association.

1921 saw the founding of the American Merchant Marine Library Association. It was a private corporation founded “for the purpose of maintaining a library for the free use of the officers and crews of American merchant vessels”. The merchant marine was not an organization but a noun that referred to the group of commercial shipping vessels registered in the U.S. Its Library Association was completely non-profit and supported by voluntary contributions. The A.M.M.L.A. asked for a donation of $35 per steamship, the sailors themselves also contributed, and donations were solicited via the quarterly newsletter, Sea Letter. The books were donated mostly by seamen and their families, and the Association also organized book drives in coastal cities. The headquarters in New York held 45,000 volumes, and the branches in major seaports across the country each held about 15,000.

In each port, a Port Representative organized traveling libraries of 40 books and brought them to ships, swapping each one for the old collection. Each ship had an appointed crewman to look after the library (often the radio operator). The Port Representative also collected donated books and magazines from his locality, was responsible for local publicity for the Association, and submitted reports to headquarters. About 65,000 books were at sea at any given time.

“Sea Legs for a Library” Wilson Library Bulletin, April 1942 Vol. 16 no. 8 pgs 616-618

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