Libraries During the Great Depression

During this time of quarantine, many people miss doing their favorite extracurricular activities like going to the park, playing sports, or visiting a museum. Libraries have always been places where people can congregate and learn about different places, people, and ideas. In times of distress, like the Great Depression, people had to create new ways of dispersing information. The Great Depression affected people’s mobility and forced people to stay in their local area. Museums flourished during the Great Depression with the help of several New Deal projects, but libraries helped give information to those who could not afford to travel and pay for a museum ticket. Although many people think public institutions momentarily stopped because the country was struggling financially, places like libraries continued to bring a sense of normalcy to everyone.

The Great Depression affected all aspects of industry and slowed down the productivity of stores and factories. Starting in 1929 and ending near the advent of World War II, the Great Depression crippled the world economy and led to the loss of millions of jobs. With 13 million Americans out of work, comfort items and activities became important to people coping with their new reality. One of those things was the service provided by the public libraries.

Picture by: American Library Association Archives. Tennessee Valley Authority bookmobile in Philadelphia, Tennessee.

During the Great Depression, libraries were creative in continuing to reach their patrons in troubling times. One way this was done was through traveling libraries. In rural areas, libraries were not accessible so the Works Progress Administration and Library Extension Board decided to create a system where employees went out on horseback and in bookmobiles to distribute books. In the big cities, children and adults still had access to books, but those who lived out in areas hardest hit by the Depression did not. An example of this was the Tennessee Valley Authority who, in the 1930s, dispersed bookmobiles and book deposit banks across the country to replenish books for local communities. As the photo above shows, it was only a makeshift library on wheels, but its impact was felt. Reading books can take a person to another world and help them forget about their circumstances temporarily, especially for children. 

Photo by: American Library Association Archives.

This picture is of books being delivered by a dog team in Fresno, California by the Fresno County Free Library. This is another example of the lengths that libraries took to ensure that books were delivered to their destination. After the Great Depression, libraries did not need to use these extreme measures anymore as people began to settle down and the highway system connected the country. 

In today’s time, the library no longer uses horses and sled dogs to share books, however they use new and old ways to connect with the public. Before all public spaces closed, the New York Public Library (NYPL) started their Bookmobile service in 2019 that goes into neighborhoods whose local libraries have closed. These vehicles offer library card signups, books for check out or return, and other services. Now that libraries are closed to the public, electronic books (e-books) are more popular than ever; I prefer physical books but even I have started using e-books. The NYPL now offers free online book readings for children and virtual tutoring for students. They also have an e-card that allows people to sign up for a library card without going to a library. Uncertainty surrounds us today as it did 80 years ago during the Depression, but the library has been a standard for the public then and now. 

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