[In the early days of the agency, PCVs were 'equipped' with a book locker when they went off to their sites. From what I have been able to find out, it was Eunice Shriver who came up with the idea of sending PCVs overseas with a box of books. Books for their own enjoyment and to use as 'starter' libraries in villages and towns in the developing world. By the mid-60s, however, these book lockers for Volunteers were discontinued, too expensive for the agency.

However, in an early memo to PCVs, Sarge Shriver explained to the Volunteers what the book lockers were all about:]

“We know you need books,” he wrote. “This Booklocker of paperbacks and other inexpensive publications is designed to meet that need. It includes classics and contemporary writing by both American and foreign authors, as well as titles on American history, politics, and social thought. There are also books on the area where you are working. The Ladder Editions with their reduced vocabularies of 1000 to 4000 words, and the other simple, illustrated material may be useful aids for children and adults learning English.

“All the books are expendable; no one expects you to bring them home with you. On the other hand, if used thoughtfully, some can be conserved for Volunteers who come after you, enabling them to add to the collection when they receive their Booklockers. (With this in mind, we minimize repetition of tittles from year to year.) When lending books to your friends, please ask that they be returned. Your handling of this collection will be a sign in your hosts’ eyes of its value to you.

“We rely on your judgment and discretion in the use of these books. Despite our best efforts, there may be a few titles which your host country colleagues might not welcome. You are the best judge of that. We certainly have no wish to press unwanted books on local schools or citizens. Our purpose is served if these books are interesting to you and helpful in your day-to-day life.”

R. Sargent Shriver

The books were wide ranging in scope: fiction, poetry, biography, reference, learning English, and regional studies. A few titles were Democracy by Henry Adams; Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis; The Red And The Black by Stendhal; To Hill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee; The Odyssey by Homer; Margaret Mead’s Cultural Patterns and Technical Change; Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The list goes on and on.

PCVs didn’t bring the books home. They were passed on, as Sarge had suggested, to the next generation of Volunteers. What Shriver couldn’t have anticipated was that the books would be loved and appreciated by a reading audience beyond the Peace Corps.

I remember being in a small town two days by LandRover south of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1967 and meeting up with an Ethiopian elementary school teacher who had been banished by Haile Selassie to this remote village as a political prisoner. This man had been a college student at the time of his exile in ‘61 and had befriended the Volunteers who had come into his town.

Starting in 1962 he had read through all the Peace Corps Booklookers and while we sat having a beer in a teg bet, when, as an APCD, I was visiting the Volunteers, he gave me a quick evaluation of the Booklockers, saying how one version was better than another, and what books he had gone back to read again. You could hear in his voice and see in his eyes how he treasured those books that had arrived unexpectedly into his village and into his life.

If nothing else, I thought, Shriver’s Booklockers has given a great deal of pleasure to one educated man isolated in the mountains of Ethiopia.

Sarge would have liked that.