The Portable Libraries of the Light-House Establishment


A portable library of the United States Light-House Establishment. Each was numbered and had handles for easy transport. Courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society.

The Light-House Establishment was the US government agency that oversaw lighthouses before the Coast Guard took over the task in the early 1900s.  The Establishment provided supplies to lighthouse keepers, and by the end of the 19th century portable libraries were on the list of items. As reported in the February 1885 edition of Library Journal, “’Books for light-house keepers’ reading’ find their place among the ‘Oil wicks, chimneys’ and other lighthouse supplies.” These cases held about fifty books and were switched out every four months, brought by tender ships. Since there were fewer libraries than lighthouses, it was possible for one crate to hit every lighthouse over a cycle of 12 years. The wooden boxes had a set of double-doors that swung outward, making the titles easy to display. A list of the reading materials was always glued onto the inside of the left-hand door. The right-hand door held a register of the lighthouses that particular case had already been sent to and the corresponding dates. The Light-House Establishment kept a careful inventory of these cases at their headquarters in Washington D.C.

The job of providing books for far-flung lighthouse keepers was eventually taken over by the Merchant Marine Association in the 20th century.

Graham,  Loren R. A Face in the Rock: The Tale of a Grand Island Chippewa. . University of California Press., 1998. Print.

Johnson,  Arnold. “Lighthouse Libraries.” Library Journal. 10. (Feb 1885 ): 31-33.

DeWire , Elinor. Lighthouses of the Mid-Atlantic Coast: Your Guide to the Lighthouses of New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia . Voyageur Press, 2011. Pgs 103-104.

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