When looking into the American propaganda that was so common during the World Wars, it seems as if every business and institution was getting in on the act. Everyone wanted to support the war efforts and American public libraries were no exception. The Library War Services Committee, as administered by the American Library Association (ALA), put a considerable amount of effort into collecting books for soldiers overseas (Thur 438). This was yet another way that the patriotic American public could get in on the act. Images like the one above rallied library patrons and implored them to do their duty by providing entertainment for the troops. It was a relatively simple action to undertake and left everyone who participated feeling good about what they had done. Having said that, this was not the only wartime effort in which American public libraries were engaged, though it was certainly the only one that can be viewed in a positive light in today’s cultural and political climate.
The current image of the American public library is that of a place where everyone is free to read what they want to read without fear of politics or repercussions. This idea became ingrained into public library doctrine in 1953 when the ALA issued their Freedom to Read statement. The reasoning behind this statement from the ALA was that “private groups and public authorities” were engaging in acts of censorship because they felt that “our national tradition of free expression is no longer valid; that censorship and suppression are needed to counter threats to safety or national security, as well as to avoid the subversion of politics and the corruption of morals” (“The Freedom to Read Statement”). Taken at face value, the Freedom to Read statement is an effective piece of text that lays out a very clear position. It is a statement that has been referred to time and again over the last seventy years. This strict belief in freedom and the protection of library patrons even led to a well-publicized scuffle between librarians and certain government agencies when libraries refused to hand over patron records in the wake of 9/11. Unfortunately, however, this statement can also be read as an attempt by the ALA to sweep their own past politicking and censorship under the rug, and the ALA did engage in these activities prior to 1953.
At the same time that they were imploring their patrons with these images, they were also engaging in several forms of censorship, as well as actively spying on their patrons at the behest of governmental institutions. During this period, libraries served as community centers, much as they do today. They attempted to help alleviate the fears of their patrons by providing air raid shelters, they held community talks, and they created patriotic displays to bolster community spirit, including very effective propaganda posters (Thur 438). Even as they were doing all of this to outwardly support their communities, they had also been ordered, by the Secretary of War, to remove any and all books related to explosives, ammunition, and cryptology and they were handing over the names of any “suspicious” patrons that requested information about “war and “war-related materials” (Thur 439). This information is vital when examining the visual rhetoric that was used by the American Library Association during this period. The use of visual rhetoric in the form of patriotic imagery gave purpose to the unquestioning American library patron while allowing American librarians to freely engage in routine censorship and espionage against their own patrons.
The Specifics of Visual Rhetoric
Visual rhetoric surrounds us constantly. We are always being inundated with rhetoric in different forms, even when we don’t realize that it’s happening. The use of images as propaganda is a quick and simple way to get the point across to the viewer, however, “most communications that are candidates for visual arguments are combinations of the verbal and the visual” (Hill 49). Visual rhetoric presents an argument to the viewer and asks them to accept the point of view being put forth.
To be considered visual rhetoric, there are three main elements that should be present: they should be symbolic, they should allow for some level of audience intervention, and they should be attempting to communicate to the audience (Hill 305). Wartime propaganda will always contain these elements. They will display symbols in the form of American flags and colors; they will advise the audience on how they can best join in the war effort; and they will communicate why this is important and how this helps the soldiers overseas. Wartime propaganda may not appear to be subtle, but it works on the audience in conscious and subconscious ways.
And too, it’s important to keep in mind, when considering visual rhetoric and propaganda, that not all propaganda is necessarily bad. Wartime propaganda tells the viewer how they can be patriotic and help to serve the war effort, whether that be through enlisting, growing victory gardens, buying bonds, or collecting books for soldiers. Ostensibly, the idea is that our soldiers are overseas, fighting for our freedom, and even if we can’t directly join them, we can do our parts here at home. These kinds of images tap into our values and beliefs and “To the extent that some of our values and perceptions are already correct, persuasion can reinforce them” (Wood 382). If we already believe that sending soldiers overseas to fight in the World Wars is the right and correct thing to do, then seeing reinforcing propaganda will only further cement this belief.
What Do They Say To Us?
When considering the visual rhetoric at play here, it is important to first analyze the text that was being used on the images. The posters put out by the ALA were, again, very similar to much of the wartime propaganda that was being used. The first of the three ALA images are illustrations and contain the rousing slogans of “Yanks in Germany Want More Books!” “Load him up again!” and “Hey Fellows!” in bold, declarative text. The idea here is that our boys in the field need books and you as the patriotic American can help. The use of “Hey Fellows” makes it clear that anyone can get in on this, even the men who couldn’t actively serve. There is a level of parallelism to these images which “connects visual elements. Connections are built among images by position, orientation, synchronization, and similarities in content” (Tufte 82). The similarity of the images, the parallelism, and the way that the ALA images and text connect with the propaganda from the U.S. government would have caused the viewers to see the ALA’s war efforts as being on the same level as the other campaigns that were taking place.
The fourth image is somewhat different and appears to be photo-quality illustration of soldiers overseas, possibly in a field hospital. They are being handed the books that the ALA has been seeking and the individuals whose faces can be seen are smiling, as if they are gaining immense joy and comfort from this newest shipment of books. There is considerably more text on the fourth image as well, giving the viewer very clear stats about how many books are needed, who needs them, where they are going, and the group that is sending them. The viewer is given a clear causal link between the books that you, as the patriot, are donating at public libraries and the soldiers on the front lines whose comfort has been increased by these gifts from home (Tufte 29). There are obvious implications of just how important civilian actions can be during wartime and what civilians can do to improve morale.
What all four of these images reveal is that American patriotic fervor was at an all-time high and the ALA was determined to be involved. While there are very clear and direct messages on the images, there are also clear and direct messages that aren’t being said out loud. By involving themselves in the wartime effort, the ALA could both support the cause overseas and support their own cause, which was to grow and expand the patronage of American public libraries. While this attitude was not accepted by all librarians, many believed that this involvement in the war effort was the “deep responsibility and the high honor of the library” in order to uphold “Americanism, the democratic way of life” (Peacock 116). By using posters with emotionally-charged messaging, the ALA was able to both support soldiers, and increase their own standing in their communities.
What Do We See?
When it comes to the visual design of these images, we will need to separate them again. As previously discussed, the first three images follow the standard formula for propaganda. They are relatively simple illustrations with bold, bright colors that immediately catch the eye of the viewer. Unsurprisingly, there is a gendered aspect to the images that makes it clear that the women who were also serving overseas as nurses, clerks, and radio operators were not important in this effort. It was the soldiers on the front lines who mattered. The visual composition places the soldiers as the central aspect of the image, with the books and military paraphernalia floating at the margins (Kress 196). In the words of Kress and Van Leeuwen, there is a “a hierarchy of importance among the elements, selecting some as more important, more worthy of attention than others” (201). We see each of the soldiers first and foremost. They are all in uniform and several of them are shown with their packs and weapons. The little that we can see of their faces show features that appear tired, worn, and hardened by what they’ve seen. At the same time, they seem happy to have these books. There is a feeling that, though they are burdened both by their equipment and by the battles, they don’t mind adding a few good books to their load.
In the fourth ALA image, the soldiers are shown in a much smaller scale than the words within the image. Going back to Kress and Van Leeuwen, they state that “the stronger the framing of an element, the more it is presented as a separate unit of information” and this fourth image does appear to be framed in such a way that the picture itself is less important than what the words are trying to convey (203). It feels as if the image is there to give some pathos and a bit of a shove, just in case the words haven’t convinced you of the actions that you should be taking.
As previously discussed, the image is a photo-quality illustration with very soft edges, almost blurry to the eye. It’s as if the viewer is peering into a scene from a field-hospital; they’re given a moment to see how their donations have impacted the soldiers. The face of one soldier, in uniform, is obscured, his back to the viewer. He is reading to another soldier who is facing the viewer. This soldier is clearly a patient, covered in blankets and suffering from what appears to be a wound to his head or his eye. Despite what seem to be grievous injuries, he is smiling with joy. Behind him is likely an aid-worker, smoking a cigarette, arms full of books and also smiling very pleasantly. The viewer is comforted by the idea that their donations can bring about such a pleasant scene that has to be taking place in the worst of conditions.
Taken together, all four of these images use their visual aspects in incredibly effective ways. They provide the viewer with the easily-understood messages about their patriotic duty by showing soldiers in various locations that exemplify the seriousness of the situation while also showing how important simple comforts can be. The first three images have capitalized on the idea of “just noticeable differences” by using the almost template-like format of the propaganda poster in order to “make a clear difference but no more-contrasts that are definite, effective, and minimal” (Tufte 73). They look exactly like every other propaganda poster of the period. Only the message is different, and even then, the only difference is that one should be donating books in order to do their patriotic duty, as opposed to buying war bonds or enlisting. And while the fourth image strays from this template by going in a bolder and more purposeful direction, it also provides important data about the ALA’s book drive and how they are helping in the war effort. By seeing these images, the viewer is made aware of how they can help, even if they can’t be on the front lines. They are powerful pieces of visual and rhetorical propaganda and it isn’t surprising that they would be able to incite patriotic Americans to take part in what would have been a relatively simple act of collecting books for those that needed them most.
It is undeniable that the ALA’s efforts to send books to soldiers overseas during World War I and World War II were a good thing and their propaganda was very effective. They worked incredibly hard to provide soldiers with much needed entertainment during the few moments of spare time that they had, and the comfort for the men lying in field hospitals would have been immeasurable. There is a simpleness and a feeling of stoic acceptance to the images that ensures the viewer that they are doing the right thing by sending books to the soldiers.
Having said that, while the ALA was certainly attempting to do their own patriotic duty, it must be remembered that the Great Depression happened between the first and second World Wars. Funding and budgets were being slashed all over the country and the public library was no exception. Promoting the public library as a bastion of democracy as well as a place of community would have had great power with a downtrodden America and could only help to bring more bodies into the library. At the same time, “Librarians recognized that many Americans , including a growing number of young librarians, demanded effective ways to publicize and solve social and economic problems” (Lincove 511). The public library could be that place of change, however, they were also wrestling with their own identity and their stances on censorship and neutrality.
While not a governmental body, the ALA is and has always been the overriding shot-caller when it comes to public and school libraries in the United States. For them to promote ideals of freedom and democracy while still engaging in acts of espionage against their own patrons on behalf of the FBI and other agencies is unforgivable, even in wartime. It reached the point, before the end of World War II, where librarians were being “pressed into service of the FBI and OFF and became the new weapons of domestic spying” (Thur 439). Librarians were betraying their patrons at the same time that they were playing on their patriotic emotions with rhetoric in the form of propaganda posters. It was unconscionable and led to a great deal of internal strife for American librarians.
This internal argument with the self would go on for some time, leading to the Library Bill of Rights in 1939. Even with the Library Bill of Rights, though, the struggle to find a place in American democracy would continue to be difficult. It wouldn’t be until the 1950s, when McCarthyism was running rampant and entering libraries in force that the ALA would finally take a more formal stand against politicking and censorship in public libraries. The Freedom to Read statement was intended to give librarians a firm footing in what they could and could not, and should and should not do when it came to their patrons. Unfortunately, even now, in 2021, the American public library finds itself struggling to find that firmer footing and take an actual stand when it comes to library neutrality and patron privacy. As a librarian who has spent a great deal of time studying this situation and reading the arguments, I don’t know if it will ever improve, but I do know that the ALA makes one heckuva propaganda poster.
“The Freedom to Read Statement.” Advocacy, Legislation & Issues, 1 June 2020, http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/freedomreadstatement.
Douglas, Mary Peacock. “Libraries and Our Democracy.” Library Journal, vol. 67, 1942, pp. 116.
Hill, Charles A., and Marguerite Helmers, editors. Defining Visual Rhetorics. Taylor and Francis, 2012.
Kress, Gunther, and Theo van Leeuwen. Reading Images. Routledge, 1996.
“Library Bill of Rights.” Advocacy, Legislation & Issues, 25 Sept. 2020,
Lincove, David. “Propaganda and the American Public Library from the 1930s to the Eve of World War II.” RQ, vol. 33, no. 4, 1994, pp. 510–523.
Thur, Victoria L. “War, Law, and the Librarian: The Creation, Precedence, and Passage of the
Tufte, Edward R. Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative. Graphics Press, 2007.
Wood, Allen. “Propaganda and Democracy.” THEORIA. An International Journal for Theory,History and Foundations of Science, vol. 31, no. 3, 2016, pp. 381–394., doi:10.1387/theoria.16384.