In honor of VA’s librarians and libraries!

Libraries have been vital components of VHA’s history and veterans’ health care for nearly 150 years. The first libraries in VA’s history were established at the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers (VHA origins), nearly two decades before the first professional library school was founded by Melvil Dewey, father of the “Dewey Decimal Classification System,” at Columbia University in 1887.

The first library in VA’s history began as a small informal effort at the Eastern Branch of the National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers after it opened in November 1866 at Togus, Maine (now Togus VAMC, part of VA Maine HCS). It provided newspapers and books for leisure reading by veterans living at the home.

The first sizable library opened several years later at the branch in Ohio. On October 8, 1868, Reverend William Earnshaw, chaplain at the Central Branch National Asylum (Home) in Dayton (now Dayton VAMC), notified the Board of Managers of a proposed donation by Mrs. Mary Lowell Putnam, sister of famed writer James Russell Lowell, of Boston, to establish a library in honor of her son, William Lowell Putnam, who was killed in the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. It was named the “Putnam Library” in her honor (see photo, left, 1875 c.). She made regular donations of artwork, paintings, and books to the National Home in Dayton for the remainder of her life and was a most beloved benefactor. A small library known as the “Thomas Library” was also established at this same branch by men who served under General George Thomas during the Civil War.

On July 25, 1870, a new library building with fireproof vaults “at a cost not to exceed $25,000” was approved at the Central (Dayton) branch. The first library building at the National Asylum formally opened in Dayton, Ohio, on April 1, 1871. During the 19th century, chaplains served as librarians at the National Homes. In 1873, the National Asylum was renamed as the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers.

The earliest medical reference library in VA’s history evolved from the first conference of National Home surgeons in 1883. They created a list of books that they recommended each In 1890, according to a National Home annual report, “Congress has in express terms annually appropriated money “for necessary expenditures, for articles of amusement, boats, library books, magazines, papers, pictures, and musical instruments, librarians, and musicians” . . .reading rooms are furnished at each Branch, in which magazines and newspapers from all part of the country are furnished, and libraries in which books interesting to the members are placed. . .The reading-rooms are crowded day and night and the papers read with eager delight. . .until they are actually worn out from mere handling.”

What did the veterans read? At Leavenworth in 1902, “fiction was in greatest demand, and the ten books most read were said to be Richard Carvel, The Crisis, An Army Wife, Day’s Daughter, Janice Meredith, SantaFe Trail, Story of the Revolution, In the Palace of the King, The Two Dianas, and Alice of Old Vincennes.”
That same year at Marion, “fiction is said to be the class of reading matter that was in greatest demand, and the 10 books most read during the year were reported as A Dash for a Throne, By Right of Sword, Richard Carvel, The Crisis, David Harum, Eben Holden, Uncle Terry, Greatest Gift, Dri and I, and Ralph Marlowe. In 1904 the eight National Homes in existence at the time had 70,477 books, 277 newspapers, and 233 periodical subscriptions.

In the early 20th century, wealthy industrialist-turned philanthropist Andrew Carnegie donated some of his fortune to establish libraries across the country. Two National Homes–at Johnson City, TN, (now James H. Quillen/Mountain Home VAMC) and Danville, IL (now VA Illiana HCS)–received Carnegie libraries that benefited generations of veterans. See photo, left, Carnegie Library at Danville, 1950c.

During World War I, the Bureau of War Risk Insurance and Public Health Service provided medical facilities and services for World War I veterans. The Red Cross and the American Library Association established libraries at the Public Health Service, supplying books and magazines for patients. In 1922, the American Library Association personnel were taken over on the Public Health Service payroll and, through an appropriation of Congress, the library service became an official activity: “Through this unit fine collections of books and journals have been supplied to all of the hospitals of the service caring for veterans. This has proven a morale agency of the very first order and has contributed much to the successful operation of the hospitals. . . .” Many of the Public Health Service libraries were transferred to the Veterans Bureau in 1922 and later became part of the Veterans Administration, along with the National Home libraries, in 1930. They became part of the Department of Veterans Affairs in 1988.

The most significant changes for VA libraries took place after World War II. In 1946, VA Administrator General Omar Bradley promised to transform the agency into the best medical service in the country. As a result, in 1947, a reorganization of VA’s Library Service, with the exception of the law library, took place and spurred growth of VA’s medical libraries. Medical library committees were formed to assist in making sure that basic medical books and journals were available for VA medical staff, residents, and medical students. The number of medical books and journals in VA libraries increased 92% that year. That same year, a microfilm project was undertaken by VA’s law library to preserve legal opinions dating back to 1917. VA entered into cooperative agreements with four leading library schools—the University of South California, University of Illinois, University of Chicago, and Columbia University—to provide medical librarianship training to its library staff and in 1948, 80 VA librarians attended three-week training courses in basic medical knowledge and reference tools. VA’s patient libraries and medical libraries were merged in 1948 and that year a Book Review Division was established to provide expert assistance in selecting books.

On June 30, 1960, VA Administrator Sumner Whittier presented the new 10th floor law library to General Counsel Fred Rhodes. It has since been relocated to the 11th floor. In 1984, the Mid-Continental Chapter of the Medical Library Association established an award in honor of Sioux Falls VAMC Chief Librarian, Barbara McDowell:

Today’s VA libraries and librarians provide invaluable services to veterans, VA medical and administrative staff, federal scholars and researchers, the public, and other librarians. VA librarians are trained professionals who serve as gatekeepers to specialized knowledge and resources that cannot be found by simply “Googling” on the Internet. VA librarians wear many hats, often including that of archivist, and actively preserve valuable VA historical materials, as well.

images of Carnegie libraries:


Info: VA Historian


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