Sometime between 1957 and 1958, the exact date isn’t clear, a group of people living in a remote part of Alaska looked to the sky in eager anticipation, searching the horizon for an airplane which carried a box of precious goods: library books. Eventually, they heard the distant rumble of a motor and watched the plane—a flying bookmobile—grow closer to town. But the weather was uncooperative, and the plane jogged slightly off course. Rather than risk a tricky landing, the pilot simply shoved the box of books out of the plane. When the package missed its target and splashed into the nearby river, the locals retrieved it from the cold water and dried the contents as quickly as possible.
Dorothy J. Phelps, Alaska’s state librarian, shared this story at a national assembly of state librarians in November 1958. She and 37 other librarians had traveled to Washington, DC, to discuss the expanded library services in rural parts of their states made possible by the landmark Library Services Act of 1956.
The Library Services Act created a five-year program that provided federal grants to the states and territories to improve library services in areas with fewer than 10,000 residents. The act set aside tens of millions of dollars to enable library systems to expand their collections, hire professional staff, and create informational newsletters and radio programs. Many jurisdictions used their funding to purchase and operate bookmobiles, helping reach rural communities that had limited or no library access. The Library Service Act was Congress’s first major library funding bill, and it fundamentally transformed the relationship between the federal government and one of America’s oldest institutions: the public library.
Congress first considered sending federal funding to the nation’s libraries in the years immediately following World War II. On March 12, 1946, during the second session of the 79th Congress (1945–1947), Illinois Representative Emily Taft Douglas introduced what became known as the Library Demonstration Act. The American Library Association (ALA), the oldest library organization in the world and the author of the bill, had worked for years to gain federal support for public libraries. While Congress occasionally approved grants for individual libraries as line items in larger educational spending bills, lawmakers generally left library matters to state and local governments. Although it’s not entirely clear why ALA decided to work with Douglas, one observer supposed the relationship came about because Douglas represented Chicago, where ALA was headquartered.
At the end of World War II, ALA surveyed library service in the United States and estimated that 35 million residents—or 27 percent of Americans—lacked access to local libraries. Furthermore, over half of the people that did have access to a local library experienced inadequate service. As a result, ALA and Representative Douglas crafted the Library Demonstration Act to specifically improve rural library services.
Although the House did not act on Douglas’s bill in the 79th Congress, Ohio Representative Thomas Albert Jenkins introduced it again in the 80th Congress (1947–1949). Jenkins represented a rural southern Ohio district and his law partner, who served on the board of the Ohio public library, asked him to sponsor the bill in the new Congress. The legislation was referred to the House Education and Labor Committee which opened a subcommittee hearing on the bill in December 1947.
The proposed federal legislation was similar to programs that already existed in certain states. And during its hearing, the panel heard testimony from Sallie Farrell, a field worker for the Louisiana state library, who explained how Louisiana provided money to local libraries which enabled them to purchase books and supplies, cover staff salaries, and operate bookmobiles in rural areas. The program proved so beneficial that one low-income southeastern parish approved a property tax increase to continue the service after participating in it for only eight months. Farrell emphasized the importance of the bookmobile to these communities. The vehicle stopped at “the country school, the filling stations, the country store, and the country post office.” Farrell reported seeing patrons take books away in shopping bags, flour sacks, and wheelbarrows, and said the success in Louisiana was “convincing evidence” that other rural communities would support similar efforts. But despite two days of hearings, the House took no additional action on the bill.
In early 1949, at the start of the 81st Congress (1949–1951), the Library Demonstration Act was reintroduced, this time by Representative Ray John Madden of Indiana. It was reported out of the Education and Labor Committee after only a cursory markup. During debate in the full House on the bill on March 9, 1950, supporters touted the program’s benefits for children and adults alike. Amid the Cold War, legislators also argued that library programs should be seen as a national defense priority. “In this age of the atom bomb, the H-bomb, and aid for European recovery,” Madden told his colleagues, “our people need to know the facts about questions of national and international importance.” John Lesinski of Michigan, the chair of the Education and Labor Committee, agreed. This bill, he said, would be a “direct attempt to meet the challenges to democracy not with bombs and bullets but with words and books.”
Opponents of the bill took issue with the cost. At a total of $36,400,000, the bill would send a maximum of $140,000 a year for five years to each state and territory. Future President John F. Kennedy, then in his second term as a Representative from Massachusetts, opposed the bill, saying library investment was a state responsibility. Illinois Representative Harold Velde saw improved library services as “a vehicle for socialistic propaganda,” and urged his fellow Members to vote against the bill. “Educating American people through the means of this library service could bring a change of their political attitudes quicker than any other method,” he warned.
The House ultimately defeated the bill, 163 to 161. One Member voted present, and 106 did not vote.
Over the next two Congresses, the bill was introduced and reintroduced. But the House did not act on it again until 1955 when it moved forward with a version submitted by first-term Representative Edith Starrett Green of Oregon. Green, the daughter of two schoolteachers and the only woman on the Education and Labor Committee at the time, would later earn the nickname “Mrs. Education” for passing several major education laws during her two decades in Congress. In May 1955, the Education and Labor Committee’s new Subcommittee on Federal Aid for Library Service in Rural Areas held three days of hearings on Green’s bill.
After the committee approved the bill—now called the Library Services Act—it went to the floor for debate on May 8, 1956. Green touted its value, comparing it’s cost to that of the multi-billion-dollar defense budget. “What better weapon can we have in a struggle based on science, technology—and above all on ideas—than educated minds? Books for the education of our young people are as much our strength in time of war as is armament for tanks and planes.” At the end of debate, after 11 years and six Congresses, the House passed the measure by voice-vote. It became law on June 19, 1956.
The act had a profound effect on the nation’s rural public library service. Within two years, 45 states and the territories of Alaska, Guam, Hawaii, and the Virgin Islands took part in the program. Congress voted to increase the bill’s funding each year, continually surpassing the official budgetary recommendation from President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Newspapers reported that library services had been made available to 30 million residents who had previously lacked adequate access.
Bookmobile service boomed. In total, libraries across the nation purchased 288 new bookmobiles during the first five years of the program. The law supported book-by-plane services in Alaska, and enabled libraries in Puerto Rico to operate a fleet of 130 jeeps that climbed the island’s steep and uneven terrain to bring materials to rural patrons. The state of Georgia purchased nine bookmobiles, allowing librarians to serve 20 counties which had previously lacked access. With their expanded mobile services, libraries in Massachusetts brought 25,000 books to rural parts of the state that previously had no borrowing access. Residents were so grateful whenever the bookmobile came around, they gave the librarians lemonade, cookies, and doughnuts. In the Midwest, an entire school in Nebraska moved to a new location in order to be closer to the local bookmobile’s route. Residents in the Virgin Islands referred to their bookmobiles as “treasure chests.”
The success of the program led Congress to extend the bill for another five years in 1960. In 1961, however, the Commission on Civil Rights published survey results that found libraries receiving public money from this program did not serve the public equally in segregated libraries across the South. Only with the passage of the Civil Rights Act three years later did equitable services begin to open to African-American library patrons.
Today, public libraries continue to operate bookmobiles. Just like their predecessors, these bookmobiles visit schools, parks, retirement homes, and other community spaces, providing reading materials for children and adults alike. Modern bookmobiles are often equipped with the latest technology, including televisions for interactive science demonstrations and video game consoles. Recently, these technological capabilities have proven essential. During the COVID-19 pandemic, bookmobiles have provided printing services and Wi-Fi access to the public and offered outdoor movie programs for children.
Even though bookmobiles look different now than they did when Louisiana librarian Sallie Farrell testified before Congress in 1947, what she told the Education and Labor Committee remains true 75 years later: “The librarian does not wait to be called on for help; he goes out to offer the services of the library.”
Sources: Congressional Record, House, 81st Cong., 2nd sess. (9 March 1950): 3119-3141; Congressional Record, House, 84th Cong., 2nd sess. (8 May 1956): 7691; H.R. 5742, 79th Cong. (1946); H.R. 2465, 80th Cong. (1947); Public Law 84-597, 70 Stat. 293 (1956); Public Law 86-679, 74 Stat. 57; Hearings before the House Committee on Education and Labor, Subcommittee No. 1 Measures Relating to Education Generally, Demonstration of Public Library Service, 80th Cong., 1st sess. (1947); Hearings before the House Committee on Education and Labor, Subcommittee on Federal Aid for Library Service in Rural Areas, Federal Aid for Library Service in Rural Areas, 84th Cong., 1st sess. (1955); Atlanta Journal, 16 November 1958; Christian Science Monitor, 8 January 1958; New York Times, 16 November 1958, 12 February 1960; Quad-City Times, 4 February 2022; School Library Journal, 6 April 2021; Harold Lancour, “Summary” in The Impact of the Library Services Act: Progress and Potential, ed. Donald E. Strout (papers presented at an Institute conducted jointly by the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library Sciences and the Library Services Branch, U.S. Office of Education, November 5–8, 1961); Germaine Krettek, “LSA, The Federal Government, and the Profession,” in The Impact of the Library Services Act: Progress and Potential; A National Plan for Public Library Service, Committee on Postwar Planning, American Library Association, 1948; “Education,” United States Commission Civil Rights Report, book 2 (1961); Hawthorne Daniel, Public Libraries for Everyone (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company Inc., 1961).Follow @USHouseHistory