The Traveling Lighthouse Library

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It’s National Library Week in the United States, and I’m pleased to join the celebration by sharing a part of our library history I recently discovered on a visit to the Heceta Head Lighthouse near Florence, Oregon.

That’s the lighthouse pictured above, viewed from a highway lookout point. While easily accessible by car today, you can imagine its remoteness from the time it began operation in 1894 to the time modern transportation and technology made it no longer a solitary outpost inhabited by hardworking lighthouse keepers and their families.

Many U.S. lighthouses were similarly isolated, with difficult access to the outside world and few options for leisure and entertainment. For lighthouse keepers and their spouses life was constant work — a serious, often monotonous regime of maintenance, watching for something to happen, and meticulously recording events.

Heceta Head light and its surroundings are striking. Some say it’s the most photographed lighthouse in the U.S., and I was lucky to capture it on a bright sunny day in a week of rain. Here is a closeup among the trees:

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When I’d taken full advantage of the photo opportunities and needed a break from the brisk sea wind, I took shelter in a small building with various lighthouse history exhibits. A set of books in a hinged wooden case labeled “Replica Lighthouse Library Box” caught my attention, and I learned about a special library system I’d never come across before.

Circulating Libraries Created for Lighthouse Keepers

Small portable libraries like the one below in the Heceta exhibit were distributed to lighthouses across the U.S. in the 19th century. Used to improve morale at solitary stations, they became an important part of life for keepers and their families. 

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As Natalie Zarrelli speculates in an article for Atlas Obscura (cited with link below), one of these sturdy wooden boxes filled with books was “possibly the most awaited item” when a boat arrived with a shipment of supplies. Her article tells us the boxes were made of thick, heavy wood and, as you can see in the exhibit, did double duty as carrying cases and bookshelves.  

Each library box could hold 50–60 books. The contents varied with a box’s origin. At least some of the books were bought or donated by private groups.

The Heceta exhibit indicates the steady growth of these mini libraries: In 1876, 50 were created. By 1885, more than 400 were in circulation, with 40–60 volumes each. By 1893, over 700 boxes were in transit along U.S. coastlines, delivering much-appreciated reading material to lighthouse families.

Per the exhibit, the libraries moved from station to station via lighthouse inspectors who exchanged the boxes during quarterly inspections. According to Zarrelli, these district inspectors coordinated among themselves which library went to whom. As they swapped one library for another, the libraries traveled the entire circuit of U.S. lighthouses. 

How Did These Lighthouse Libraries Arise?

Clearly, lighthouses and their keepers were crucial to safe navigation, and keeping them both in good condition was important. Accordingly, in the mid 19th century, the United States Lighthouse Board (USLB), the federal agency  responsible for lighthouse construction and maintenance, began improvements to stations around the country.

Along with changes like new, more powerful Fresnel lenses and fresh paint, came amusements to help lighthouse keepers handle the monotony and isolation of the job. Most significant were the traveling libraries which appeared around 1876.  

By then, portable libraries for naval and merchant ships had existed for decades. A religious organization –– the American Seamen’s Friend Society –– provided many library cases for Navy vessels, and they worked with the USLB to bring books to lighthouse keepers as well.

The End of the Journey

The lighthouse libraries were widely used until the radio, telephone and improved transportation made them less important. Most were phased out by the 1920s as the stations became automated.

What special or unusual libraries have you discovered? Please share one of your favorites.

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References and Resources

Zarrelli, Natalie (2016, February 18). “The Most Precious Cargo for Lighthouses Across America Was a Traveling Library.” Retrieved on April 11, 2019 from: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-most-precious-cargo-for-lighthouses-across-america-was-a-traveling-library

Zarrelli’s article provided much useful background for this post.

Heceta Lighthouse and Bed & Breakfast:  https://www.hecetalighthouse.com/

Copyright M. Vincent 2019.  All photos copyright  M. Vincent 2019.