The Lord’s Librarians: The American Seamen’s Friend Society and their Loan Libraries 1837-1967

p. 1 Abstract: "The Lord’s Librarians" describes in new detail the activities of the American Seamen’s Friend Society in distributing loan libraries to merchant and naval ships for over 130 years. Based on the archives of the Society in the G.W. Blunt White Library at the Mystic Seaport Museum, the study examines the history of the Society in its efforts towards moral improvement of seamen, fostering temperance, reducing licentiousness, encouraging Sabbath worship and observation, countering swearing, and promoting thrift and financial responsibility among sailors. It examines the largely evangelical collection development policies for these compact 40-45 volume library boxes, and attempts to locate the surviving boxes and surviving books from these libraries. It ends with some unanswered questions which deserve further study.

p. 46: Throughout its long history, the constant purpose of the ASFS was the “moral improvement” of sailors, a goal embedded in its Constitution of 1828. Such an objective required a stereotype of the seaman as dissolute, alcoholic, intemperate, sacrilegious, and licentious. The means of combating these sinful tendencies were fairly obvious to the Society: Temperance pledges; church attendance at Bethel churches ashore and Bethel ships afloat; Sailor’s Homes in frequented ports providing a healthy and nurturing environment away from the ever-present crimps and landsharks preying on seamen; Reading Rooms and libraries filled with uplifting literature in the Sailor’s Homes; Savings Banks to protect seamen’s savings from their vulnerability to theft and their spendthrift excesses ashore; wide distribution of Bibles, Testaments, and religious tracts aboard merchant and naval ships; and not least, the Loan Libraries of the ASFS.

p. 47: The Society archives also record the notable provision of two loan libraries to the 1933 expedition of Richard Byrd. An entry for Sept. 29, 1933, records a fifty dollar donation by: "Rev. George S. Webster D.D. Brooklyn, NY for two libraries for the Byrd Antarctic Expedition." 1933 was the beginning of Byrd’s second expedition to Antarctica, the year of his solo adventure when he spent five solitary months at Advance Base, away from the comforts and company of Little America; when rescued by his men he was close to death by asphyxiation. The experience was the basis of his autobiographical Alone (New York: Putnam’s, 1938), where he speaks about the difficulties of concentrating on reading under the conditions he had set for himself. In the extensive literature about that expedition I have seen no references to the ASFS libraries.

The assessment of the reading ability of sailors varies widely. Herman Melville praised their discernment of both good literature and musty tomes, and made special ridicule of Adam Smith. Nathaniel Ames, as early as 1830, saw sailors everywhere as very fond of reading and better critics of books than widely believed and that their appreciation extended to the books provided by the Bible societies. A century later, Sir Wilfred Grenfell told of his encounter at sea with an old seaman who interrupted his medical ship’s voyage, looking not for surgical help but for reading matter. The old man complained that he could get no books in Labrador outports and that he had read the two he had through and through, Plutarch and Josephus, hardly the low-brow fare of an uneducated sailor. Grenfell lent him one of his “moving libraries.” [Wilfred Grenfell. Forty Years for Labrador. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1934, p. 168-69.] A German Moravian minister aboard one of the Franklin Search vessels was gently ridiculed by the Captain for distributing simple-minded tracts: “15 June [1851]: A sailor asked me for a tract, and I distributed among the crew all that I had. On learning of this the captain [Robert McClure of the Investigator] laughed heartily and gave it as his opinion that his people were not such simple folk as my Eskimos, etc.” These are but a few of many testimonials to the intelligence of the men before the mast.