September 19, 2013
By Donna Miles
WASHINGTON (Sept. 18, 2013) -- During World War I, troops deployed to Europe found they wanted more than just the beans and bullets the military logistics effort provided. The American Library Association stepped in, delivering books and magazines paid for through the war bond program to entertain and give them a slice of home.
The association's war service committee raised a whopping $5 million in public donations, distributing more than 7 million books and magazines, erecting 36 camp libraries and providing library collections to over 500 sites, including military hospitals.
In the process, it laid the foundation for the Defense Department's first and longest-running morale, welfare and recreation program.
The Navy established the first official military library program in 1919, Nellie Moffitt, the Navy's general library program manager, told American Forces Press Service. The Army followed with its own program in 1920, and the Air Force quickly stood up its own library program when it was established as a separate service in 1947.
By World War II, the service library programs had developed "an incredible operation," Moffitt said. The Navy alone had 275 permanent libraries ashore and 961 afloat, as well as 281 extension services in remote sites.
"Historically, reading has been an integral part of the morale effort across DOD," she said. "That remains as true today as at any time in history."
Most major military installations house a library, and the Navy outfits every new ship with a library while providing library services aboard every ship in the fleet.
And just as troops have enjoyed library services while deployed to every conflict since World War I, MWR officials take pains to provide those same services in Afghanistan, even at the most remote forward operating bases. The Army set up formalized library programs at the largest bases in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Air Force maintains seven learning resource centers across the U.S. Central Command region, Moffitt said.
While books and magazines remain popular, military libraries have stayed current with evolving technology.
Through the years, military libraries have offered cassette tapes, phonograph records, compact disks and DVDs. Downloadable audio books were introduced in 2005, and e-books in 2007.
"We are no different than any other industry. If we don't keep up with the times and what our customers want, we won't be around very long," Moffitt said.
Stop by any installation library, and it's clear that hasn't happened. Statistics show usage at the brick-and-mortar libraries has remained strong, and even experienced a slight increase, Moffitt said. Meanwhile, use of downloadable audio books, e-books and online databases has skyrocketed.
Last year alone, the services spent $12 million for digital library materials, Moffitt reported. Based on usage statics, those funds provided $725 million in materials and services.
"That's a huge return on investment, $60 in value for every dollar spent," Moffitt said.
That savings, and the fact that many military members who live on base aren't entitled to use most local public libraries, makes installation libraries magnets for many service members and their families.
"A lot of different people use libraries for a lot of different reasons," Moffitt said. "Some people may be coming into the libraries to enjoy the actual books and programs offered," including storytelling sessions for military children and popular summer reading programs.
Others seek out references on everything from weight loss or auto repairs to recorded music and audio books, all provided to users at no cost.
"But an awful lot of military members are using our materials for professional reading and their professional military education," Moffitt said.
Military members and their families tap their libraries to get transitional assistance, bone up on details about spouse employment and tuition assistance, and prepare for standardized tests, she said.
Online test preparation services are among the most popular offerings at many military libraries. Some use these programs to increase their Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery scores so they can change their military career fields, Moffitt said. Others use them to prepare for the GRE, SAT and other standardized college boards.
Based on the appetite, DOD invested more than a half-million dollars in digital test preparation services in 2012, Moffitt reported. This educational portal collectively saved library users more than $10 million in out-of-pocket costs, including $19 or $20 they would have paid for every practice test, she noted. But the true value of the library programs, officials agree, is their link to troops' mental and emotional fitness and resilience.
"People get their energy and bounce back from problems in many different ways," Moffitt said. "Some kayak or run triathlons. But others prefer to read a mystery novel and absolutely fade away, or listen to music they can get through the library by borrowing a CD. I believe the library program is an integral part of wellness and overall wellbeing, and that contributes to readiness."
Air Force Col. Thomas Joyce, services director at the Air Force Personnel Center, agrees. When Air Force officials evaluated their MWR programs to identify the core activities that most directly impact readiness, libraries ranked among the top six.
"This is one of the hidden gems that don't get talked about much, but that are a huge contributor to life-long learning and overall resilience," he said.
"Libraries have long been one of our most forward thinking, professionally oriented programs," noted Ed Miles, DOD's morale, welfare and recreation policy director. "From installation level to headquarters staff, taking care of library customers has always been at the forefront of everything they do.
"That is evidenced in the high usage and outstanding customer satisfaction ratings we see in MWR customer service surveys year in and year out," Miles said. "They always get high marks."
Yet with budget cuts striking across the board and taking a big chunk out of many MWR programs, officials recognize that libraries aren't immune.
"Like everybody else, we are going to have to take cuts, whether that is in hours, staffing or our materials budgets," Moffitt said. "We know we are going to be taking cuts, but we will try to minimize the impact on the customer and if at all possible, try to maintain the services we provide."
The service libraries have pooled their resources for decades to maximize what they can provide.
"We are a very cooperative program," Moffitt said. A joint MWR library forum established in 1996 sets standards for all military libraries and policies to improve efficiencies. Five years ago, the services stood up a joint purchasing program so they could purchase digital databases together and share them among all their users.
"We try to do things jointly so we can be more efficient and more effective," Moffitt said. "If somebody has a great idea, we will borrow it."
Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., for example, runs DOD's only bookmobile, purchased with profits from the base recycling center to better serve Marines and their families. Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., plans to roll out an experimental library that does away with the Dewey decimal classification system and is organized like a retail bookstore.
Meanwhile, the military library programs continue to operate as they always have -- quietly rolling out incremental improvements to better serve their customers, Moffitt said.
Those are services she said she's confident will continue, regardless of what new budget challenges libraries face. "Just because you don't have a lot of money doesn't mean you can't do a stellar job," she said. "Military libraries stand as a testament to that."