An important aspect of the provision of reading materials to seamen throughout the world was the work of religious organizations such as the American Seamen’s Friend Society and many others to present small libraries to both naval and merchant ships. The movement began in Scotland but quickly was established in the United States. I’ve aggregated the material on mission libraries and books here under Great Britain.
p. 106-7, on the influence of Lieutenant Richard Marks as an evangelical in the Napoleonic Wars who as minister expanded seaboard services on Nelson’s Conquerer including reading of Sunday prayers, a ship’s choir, and on arrival at home ports: Marks obtained Bibles for every mess, and several hundred tracks for distribution. (Henceforth, he seldom went between decks ‘without seeing some of the crew reading them.’) He also organized a ship’s library of evangelical books, with over 150 subscribing members.
p. 223, Scotland took the lead in 1822 with the Edinburgh and Leith Seamen’s Friend Society and its portable marine libraries as well as port reading rooms.
p. 315-16: A “Marine Library,” or (as it also came to be called) a “Seamen’s Library,” was established as early as 1820, on the newly acquired Greenock Floating Chapel. Similar provisions were successively made on board the floating chapels of Leith, Hull, Dublin, London and Clifton. Following the example of Lady Mary Grey in mission by media, a number of ladies of rank took a corresponding initiative with regard to libraries. Most prominent in this field were the Duchess of Beaufort and her daughter (who, in 1821, established a “Seamen’s Library” at West Cowes, and Lady Thompson of Fareham (who, in 1812, founded a “British Seamen’s Library” in Genoa). G. C. Smith warmly commended their efforts, advocating a “Metropolitan Seamen’s Library” in the Tower Hill area as a further goal for “British Ladies.” At length, after establishing himself in Wellclose Square in the mid-twenties, he succeeded in organizing his own “Sea-Book Depository,” incorporating a seamen’s library.
In addition to such stationary libraries, a need was soon recognized for portable libraries. A so-called “Ship’s Library” was seen as a means of both literally and figuratively defeating the “Doldrums. In order to relieve the tedium and attendant temptations of especially long voyages, seamen now had means that might “not only rationally amuse, but also tend to Christianize their minds.”
….In the merchant navy, W. H. Angas became an early persistent advocate of not only seamen’s libraries ashore, but also ship’s libraries afloat. Here, as in so many areas of social and cultural concern for the seafarer, Leith [Scotland] led the way (in 1822-23); by 1827, that Society had some 30 library-boxes in circulation.
Meanwhile, other seamen’s mission societies followed suit. The procedure was simple. A box of books was entrusted to the master for the ensuing voyage. The response was remarkable. One captain reported that his ship was now unrecognizable, having become “like a little Heaven.” From a ship which was foundering in the Atlantic, the library-box was the first object to be saved. When boxes were returned, they were frequently accompanied by voluntary contributions from grateful crews. Concurrently with the distribution of the first ship’s libraries, portable libraries were also allocated to the more reputable boarding-houses for seamen. [How much of these testimonials is to be believed is always a question with such accounts.]