The Fabulous Peace Corps Book Locker, Part I

For a short period of time in the very first years of the Peace Corps all Volunteers were given book lockers by the agency. The lockers were to be left behind in schools, villages, and towns where PCVs served as seeds for future libraries.

There is some mystery of who first thought to give PCVs these lockers and one rumor has it that the idea came from Sarge Shriver’s wife, Eunice. The first locker was put together by a young foreign service officer who left the agency in the very early days of the agency to teach at Claremont College in California.

In a letter that Shriver wrote to the early PCVs about the locker, he said, “We know you need books. This Booklocker of paperbacks and 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 materials may be useful aids for children and adults learning English.”

The books were divided into five categoris: Literature, (which in turn had four sections: American Fiction, International Fiction, Poetry, Biography); No-Fiction (Americana, International Studies & Other); Reference (Books & Maps); Learning English (Classics Illustrated & Ladder Editions); Regional Lists (Africa, Latin America, NearEast/South Asia, North Africa, Far East).

Among the Literature books were Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser and Naked and the Dead by Norman Miller; the International Fiction had Graham Greene’s Third Man and Animal Farm by George Orwell; there were also poems by T.S. Eliot and Robert Penn Warren’s Six Centuries of Great Poetry, as well as both biographies of Abe Lincoln by Carl Sandburg.

Among the reference books were James Beard Cookbook and Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care.  There were maps of the world in English, Spanish and French and also tossed into the locker, the Wonderful World of Peanuts by Charles Schultz and Burl Ives Songbook. Go figure!

Needless to say, when the APCD arrived upcountry, and at the end of the road, several months after you were in your village, and he was carrying a month worth of mail from back home and this new, shiny black booklocker full of brand new paperbacks–written in English!–you thought you had died and gone to heaven.

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  • The first book locker thoughts that come to mind:

    I remember Justine, not the erotic Justine, but the first book of the Alexandria Quartet. I read that first because Durrell’s brother had written a book about animals in W. Africa that we’d read during training. I remember a scene from Justine that transported me: Justine and her mother-in-law sat in the mother-in-law’s garden in Alexandria preciously eating candied violets, an Egyptian delicacy Justine detested.

    Mein Kampf was in the book locker. Read that. Asked a German volunteer if he wanted to borrow it and he looked at it and nearly passed out. One drunken evening he confessed that he had been a member of Hitler’s Youth Corps. “No choice,” he said.

    All of us, none with children, read Dr. Spock because he was such a good writer.

    I read V and then and there committed myself to becoming a published writer. I immediately wrote a short story and sent it to the New Yorker. I received a lovely rejection letter. The story became the center of my first novel, The Book of Phoebe.

  • Man, do I remember that book locker. It formed the basis of our school library, though all my efforts couldn’t really stop an awful lot of pilfering. The best things in my box were the American science, chem, physics, biology texts with their colorful pictures and simple explanations. They just hammered the boring British versions with their dull line drawings, and the science-inclined kids loved them. The worst things in the box were all the remaindered non-fiction that was way over their heads. I particularly remember a two-volume biography of Harry Truman that I wouldn’t have touched myself with a ten-foot pole. And an awful lot of the fiction was too difficult. But the reduced vocabulary fiction was great.

  • John,

    So glad you wrote this article re: creation of the Peace Corps book lockers.

    My inclination that Eunice Shriver was instrumental in creating the book lockers for Peace Corps volunteers came from a conversation I had at her house over dinner with Sarge and a few other guests a few years ago. The topic turned to Teilhard de Chardin and how Sarge had used a Teilhard quote in his Vice Presidential acceptance speech when he was running with Presidential candidate George McGovern in 1972.

    I told Eunice that I was introduced to Teilhard de Chardin through my book locker in the Peace Corps. She was happy to hear that since she said she knew how important books would be for Peace Corps volunteers and wanted to make sure that they were all provided with books. She went on to say how in her family growing up there was such an emphasis on reading, and they always had many conversations on books.

    Someone like Eunice would have the propensity and background to select books by Catholic philosophers (Teilhard) for Peace Corps volunteers. Certainly, Sarge and others were also very influential in creating the book locker.

    I spoke with Tim Shriver at Teilhard de Chardin’s annual Mass on the World officiated by one of the Teilhard world experts,
    Father Thomas King, SJ at Georgetown U in April. I told Tim I was introduced to Teilhard de Chardin in my village in
    Senegal in the Peace Corps, and from what I understand, it was his mother, Eunice, who chose many of the books and was one of the individuals responsible for thinking up the Peace Corps book locker. I had mentioned this to him before, and he was certainly not surprised, but he couldn’t say for sure.

    I spoke with Maureen Orth also at the Teilhard Mass, and we realized we both had read a lot of Carl Jung in the Peace Corps since his books were also in the book locker. To this day, Teilhard de Chardin and Carl Jung have been primary influences in my life.

    The circle was unbroken, by and by Lord….. More than 35 years after Eunice and Sarge introduced me to Teilhard de Chardin in
    my village in Senegal, I introduced them to one of the world experts on Teilhard who officiated Teilhard’s Mass on the World
    at their home on Mother’s Day. Whether we know who created (the idea of) the book locker or not, that book locker certainly was a powerful force in my life.

    Geri Critchley

  • Jack,
    I really enjoyed your article about the old book lockers! I also really enjoyed the books and do remember the ones you mentioned. We do not have them any more and they would be a good idea in many places, I think. Surely they could be useful in China where there are few books in English and where all PCVs teach English.
    Thanks for bringing back great memories of Gondar, Ethiopia in the early sixties.
    Gayle

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