Tuesday, April 15, 2014

National Library Week: Lighthouse Keepers Were Avid Readers!

Happy National Library Week! Thanks to Benjamin Franklin's idea of a lending library and his establishment of The Library Company of Philadelphia in 1731, free-circulating libraries began in the United States more than 200 years ago. Franklin is one of my favorite historical personalities--a man with so many great ideas and a lust for life. It's no surprise he though up the idea of a free library system paid for by taxes. After all, he was a printer!

In honor of National Library Week, I thought I'd talk a little bit about reading, books, and lighthouses....

You've probably guessed that reading was a popular past time with lighthouse keepers. While there wasn't as much free time at lighthouses as we might expect, there were watches to stand and leisure hours, usually in the evening after all the day's work was completed. Many lighthouses were in remote locations, so entertainment had to be something you created for yourself. It's a well-known fact that lighthouse keepers liked to read.
Tillamook Lighthouse, Oregon, from "The Freelance Adventurer." Getting to the library from this place wasn't easy! That's why the library came to the lighthouse keeper. Read on!
Many lightkeepers were book collectors and had vast libraries collected over a lifetime of service. Some even wrote their own books. Robert Thayer Sterling was a lighthouse keeper at Portland Head Lighthouse and an author too. His Lighthouses of the Maine Coast and the Men Who Keep Them was published in 1935. Donald Graham, who wrote two fine books about the lighthouses of British Columbia, was a more recent lighthouse author. So was the late James Gibbs, who served on Tillamook Lighthouse (pictured above) as a young Coast Guardsman and wrote a number of books about West Coast lighthouses. He claimed his time on "Terrible Tilly" was what encouraged him to read and become an author.

Many lightkeepers and their family members wrote books about their lighthouse experiences after they retired. One of my favorites is The Light on the Island, by Helen Glidden, in which she captured the fun of a large family living on isolated Patos Island Lighthouse in Washington. Her father, Edward Durgan, was the lightkeeper.

There are LOTS of books about lighthouses written by non-lighthouse keepers. I'm one of those non-lighthouse-keeper-lighthouse-book-authors. Many people think I live or once lived on a lighthouse, because I've written so many books about them. I don't, and I haven't. All my information comes from interviews, documents, visits to lighthouses and libraries...and...reading! I have a passion for the subject.

There are many lighthouse books on the market today. When I started writing about lighthouses in 1980, there were few books on the topic. Edward Rowe Snow, mentioned later in this blog, was one of the authors known for his lighthouse books. The first lighthouse book I read was by Snow--

I borrowed it from the library at the Brunswick Naval Air Station in Maine. Years later, I bought my own copy, and later still I interviewed Snow on the phone. He died in the 1980s,and his books slowly went out of print. His wife, Anna-Myrle, kept a correspondence with me for many years after her husband died. Thankfully, Snow's books have experienced a comeback. Author and friend, Jeremy D'Entremont, has brought back new editions of many  of Snow's wonderful books, including this one--

There are hundreds of other lighthouses books you can add to your wish list at the library or on Amazon. com. Just type "lighthouse" into the search bar and see what you find. Read the reviews though, and make good choices.

If it's kids' books you want, there are a gazillion! A few years ago, as a project for the American Lighthouse Coordinating Committee (now called the American Lighthouse Council), I put together an annotated bibliography of kids' books about lighthouses. You can find it here: http://www.amlhcc.org/research.htm 
(Scroll down to "Current Publications" and find the PDF under "Annotated Bibliography...".)

This is one of my favorite kids books about a lighthouse because it inspired "Lighthouse Kitty," the mascot of my kids' column about lighthouses that ran in Lighthouse Digest for a number of years.

A fascinating chapter of lighthouse history that fits today's topic--

The U.S. Lighthouse Board, which assumed control of the nation's lighthouses in the early 1850s, was concerned about the edification of its employees who lived and worked on lighthouses and lightships. Of course, lightkeepers were required to know how to read and write, and they were encouraged to read books and magazines that dealt with topics germane to their occupation. The need for reading materials was satisfied in several ways--

The Seaman's Church Institute in New England provided books and magazines to lighthouses. Local businesses, fishermen, and people involved in the maritime trades were known to give books to lighthouse keepers. In the 1980s I visited New London Ledge Lighthouse in Connecticut, a caisson sentinel sitting on a rock ledge at the mouth of the Thames River. The Coast Guard keepers showed me their library of books (some of them for adults only!) and said that local boaters often stopped by and brought "beer and books."

Photo by NewEnglandBoating.com shows New London Ledge Light in the foreground and the elder New London Harbor Light in the background.

For many years, author Edward Rowe Snow (mentioned above) sent books to lighthouse keepers; he was keenly interested in navigational aids and wrote a number of books about them. I feel a kinship with him there--I've given some of my books to lighthouse keepers. Sometimes, they discovered them in bookstores, bought them, and then wrote to me and shared stories. I struck up a great friendship this way with lighthouse keeper Chris Mills on Ivory Island Lighthouse, British Columbia. He bought my Guardians of the Lights and sent me several letters. We remain fast friends some twenty years later. Chris went on to write several fine lighthouse books himself and is now living in Nova Scotia, working on behalf of the Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society, and also working for the Canadian Coast Guard. Here's a shot from his lightkeeping days.

Back to the topic of the U.S. Lighthouse Board's desire to edify lightkeepers--
In 1876, the Board introduced circulating libraries for lighthouses and lightships. These were housed in suitcase-style, oak bookcases that could be transported easily and exchanged between the lights. They were filled with about 80 books on topics of all kinds, including history, how-to books, novels, poetry, birds and sea animals, and even "The Good Book" itself. Each time the supply ship visited a lighthouse (usually three to four times a year), it swapped out one library for another. Lightkeepers could request titles or topics. Each library had a checkout system to track who on station had which book. Each book had a lighthouse service bookplate affixed on the inside cover. Lightkeepers had to be careful with and responsible for the books. If they lost or damaged any of the books, they paid for them. When a book became too worn, it was replaced and the worn copy was given to a deserving lightkeeper as a gift.
The next four images show the design of the U.S.L.H.E. (United States Lighthouse Establishment) portable libraries and the bookplate that was affixed inside in each book. These images are from the Michigan Lighthouse Conservancy.


The bookplate featured two lighthouses, thought to be American Shoal on the left, in the Florida Strait, and Minots Ledge on the right, off Boston.

Other countries, such as England, also offered similar portable libraries to their lighthouse keepers. The Carnegie Library also had a portable library system used by lighthouse keepers in remote parts of the world.

As common as reading was at lighthouses, it's tough to find pictures of lighthouse keepers doing just that! Here's one given to me by Art Losvar of Mukilteo, showing his grandfather and grandmother reading in the quarters at Mukilteo Lighthouse, Washington in the 1920s.

Language is a truly a gift, one given to humans only, it seems. This is what I tell my college students when they grouse about reading assignments. I remind them how precious language is, and that books are, to quote my late mother, Ruth: "windows open on the world." Having a free library system is a gift too!

Happy National Library Day! Go forth and read!

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