The Fabulous Peace Corps Booklocker

For a short period of time in the very first years of the Peace Corps all Volunteers were given booklockers by the agency. The lockers were meant to provide leisure reading for the PCVs and then to be left behind in schools, villages, and towns where they served. There is some mystery as to who first thought of the lockers and one rumor has it that the idea came from Sarge Shriver’s wife, Eunice.

It is believed that the books were selected for the first locker by a young Foreign Service officer. A second selection was done in 1964, and that same year Jack Prebis (Ethiopia 1962-64) was made responsible for the 3rd edition of the locker that was assembled in the fall and winter of 1965. Here is the late Jack Prebis’ account of creating the locker for all PCVs at that time.

 

DEVELOPING THE Peace Corps booklocker was the best job I ever had. As sometimes happens with fun jobs, this one fell in my lap. Returning in 1964 from my secondary school teaching stint in Ethiopia, I headed to Our Nation’s Capital, hoping to land stateside Peace Corps work. Back in those days, the Peace Corps was fresh, free-wheeling and unbureaucratic, shot through with idealists. (Thanks in part to the five-year rule, it remains staffed with idealists.)

To my good fortune, as I was being interviewed — was it by fifteen people? — the person who had been working on “the booklocker” was heading to Chile on staff. My biology major and chemistry minor seemed perfect for the unexpected vacancy.

After dispatching a mile-high stack of unanswered mail from publishers wanting to donate their remaindered titles (we already had a warehouse full of books totally unsuited to host country needs, aspiration and mores), I got down to my major function — feet on desk, reviewing paperbacks for inclusion in the next booklocker.

What power! Aside from deciding what Volunteers and their friends would be reading over the next few years, with 4,000 footlockers to fill with 250 books each, I soon learned I wielded some influence. It was tough resisting the offers of free trips to New York City and attendant free lunches. But I learned quickly that publishers often were happy to do press runs of hardback or out of print titles if they had a guaranteed 4,000-book sale. With that bit of knowledge, I obtained such titles as The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola and Blossoms in the Dust: The Human Factor in Indian Development by Kusum Nair [available used from Amazon].

I also learned that my English-Literature- major friends had something concrete to offer (as opposed to being skilled Botticelli players). They were more than happy to help review contemporary titles and offer suggestions on the classics — with never a consensus on either, I might add.

But eventually, I developed a good mix of fiction (over half the books) and other sections like “American Studies” and “African—or LA or NANESA [North Africa, Near East, South Asia], Studies” depending on the destination. Debated along the way: Was Henry Ford a suitable example of American industrialization and the free enterprise system? (More or less). Or, would Ayn Rand stimulate depression and early terminations? (One couldn’t be too careful.)

There were clearance hurdles I had not anticipated with the State Department and USIA. After some concessions on their part over a few titles, there remained two objections: No Exit [an existential play by Jean Paul Sartre] and Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. Finally, I agreed that we didn’t need to export the Communist line, but contended that Catch 22, in spite of depicting the U.S. military in a less-than-complimentary light, likely would not get wide distribution among host country nationals, but would be good escape reading on quiet nights. And so it was.

19 Comments

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    • The central figure looks like our beloved Sargent Shriver, a person whom all of us should know. Ken, India 6

  • What a brilliant idea this was. I have fond memories of reading books from our book lockers under the mosquito net during the daily siesta in Chad 1967-69.

  • John,

    You didn’t mention the role of the book locker leading to a murder trial, as recounted in my book “Every Hill A Burial Place: The Peace Corps Murder Trial in East Africa.”

    • You are right, Peter, I didn’t mention (chapter 24) in your book. That was because this short essay was written by Jack Prebis a dozen years ago, long before you began to research your terrific book. Jack also passed away a number of years ago. I didn’t want to ‘rewrite’ what he wrote for our site about his Book Locker job with the agency.

  • As I recall, we had two book lockers across Turkey (1965-67), an A and a B–so we traded books. We also had subscriptions, Life Magazine was the most popular when it came to the village, especially when there were photos of Muhammed Ali, maybe the most popular American in Turkey at the time. Actually, JFK, whose photo I saw alongside of Ataturk’s in remote Turkish and Kurdish villages, gave Muhammed Ali a run–but JFK was gone; Muhammed Ali was still fighting, winning fights and then, as the war in Vietnam grew more unpopular across Turkey, speaking out against that war and refusing the draft. I just checked, that was in spring of 1967, as my tour was wrapping up.

  • As I recall, a book locker was given to each two Volunteers in Chile 64-66. I think it was a great idea. Not only did it contain a lot of books that most of us had never heard of, it provided a sort of refuge where we could retreat to if we were feeling down and alone. Many of the books were also thought-provoking and educational.

  • By gory Jack Prebis—for a few months you had the best job in the world—being paid to read (with feet up on the desk) and review
    hundreds of books. I do that now in retirement but no one pays me to do it!!! In fact, judging by the almost daily emails and texts from Amazon, the big A would love to have me read more books–at my expense of course–Anyway, Jack—thanks for telling us this “Tale of the Great Booklocker” mystery.

  • The book locker was a big hit at Sultan Suleiman Secondary School (SSSS) in Kuala Trengganu Malaysia. When I arrived at SSSS it had a library – a room full of dusty tables behind a locked door, A key to the locked door was kept somewhere in the headmaster’s office but he wasn’t sure which of the dozen keys opened the door. An empty unused library room was something the HM and the faculty accepted. It always was that way and always would be and couldn’t understand my desire to start library with the Peace Corps book locker supplemented with some of my own books, a stack of weekend editions of the Chicago Tribune, the Manchester Guardian, Time Magazine, and National Geographic.

    I created a form based on an honor system to check out and return books magazines and newspapers. I gave the HM and faculty first choice with the intention of opening the library to students the following day. To my surprise all the books, magazines and newspapers were gone the first day but externally disappointed that not one signature was on the sign-out sheet and that faculty did not leave any materials for the students. My honor system and initial effort to start a libray was a failure.

    I had failed but tried to swallow it not admit it not give into it. Teh Eng, housemate, mentor and lifelong friend, said did you really expect your honor system to work. You have so many books and they have none. They view this as their only chance to own books. Days later I saw the Chicago Tribune used to wrap fish in the rest market and glass containers in the dry goods shop but on the positive side faculty did circulate some of the books amongst themselves. I continued to place bundles of the Chigo tribune and magazines in the library hoping that someone would read some portions of the Trip as they wrapped or unwrapped their fish. What is the Peace Corps if not an expression of faith.

  • Thanks for the trip into the past!
    I served in India 20B (Maharashtra and Mysore states) in 1966-67. I loved my book locker, especially during monsoon, which in our coastal area (Konkan) meant about 200″ of rain. Despite being an avid reader and liberal arts major in college, I devoured many many titles I hadn’t read before and was introduced to a wider ranger of literature than I’d explored before. Unfortunately, I don’t remember what became of it.

    Deborah (Richards) Stewart

  • There were four of us stationed together when we began our two years in India 20B in what was then called Mysore State (Hi Deborah) and my memory of the book lockers was that we each had one with different selections. Now that I’ve learned there were only two versions I’m questioning my recall. (Peter, help me out here, please!)
    Two or four, the selections were a godsend, particularly for me, as I was the only high school drop-out in 20B. I had joined the Navy at 17, received my high school and two year college GED via the mail, but was somewhat behind the curve regarding thought provoking reading. Those book lockers solved that problem and fed my imagination during our two years in the tiny village of Shivalli.
    The selections nicely rounded out my limited education and it’s wonderful knowing that Jack Prebis was the person responsible. I wish I could thank the man; the books he sent us were a blessing!
    I’m sorry they are no longer made available to PCV’s. Peace Corps should resurrect that great idea!
    Steve Donovan

  • I remember how happy my husband and I were to receive the locker filled with books. We both read all the books while being in Ajmer Rajasthani. The varied topics provided us with exceptional selections. Both of us were fresh out of college and eager to read for pleasure and not reading required texts for tests. The locker was the beginning of our lifetime love for reading!!Kay Wydra India 16

  • I served in Kerala and then Mysore in India 33, 1966 to 1968. I loved that PC book locker. I was finally able to read for pleasure and self growth. I was able to read authors I had heard of but never had the time for. Those books helped shape the person I was becoming. Some helped solidify thoughts that had been rolling around in my head and reinforce what became my philosophy of life. They were a far superior alternative to watching TV. I learned more from the book locker than I had learned in four years of college. Thank you Jack Prebus!

  • I’m adding my own “thank you” to John and Marian for the Book Locker Saga (and to Jack Prebis for starting it). I was assigned alone to a small town health post in Brazil (1964-66) and devoured my book locker. From being exposed to multiple English-language writers I broadened my own literary background and was inspired to start a Portuguese-language library in a tiny room in what then passed for City Hall. The key, I found, was a national library support program the federal government had begun years before I joined Peace Corps. My rural town was a perfect candidate.

    One of the mayor’s staff carried the ball with a successful federal application. Demand gradually grew and we were receiving a dribble of books from Brasilia before I left. The library not only accepted my book locker’s contents for the secondary school’s English students but it also created a local job for a Brazilian. When I returned 10 years later for a short visit the librarian told me he was lobbying for larger quarters to handle the flood he was still receiving from Brasilia.

    So some unintended consequences are greater than others.

  • The best friend during the monsoo. The locker was a diverse basket of print from classic comics to the Sears catalogue. It introduced me to Dostoyevski and Camus. We also received a year of TME for free and the weekly news round up from the NYT.
    I donated the locker to a school in Sholapur…still there.

    Tondalaya Crozat Gillespie/India XVl 65-67

  • We had 5 lockers, three from previous PCVs. This was augmented by almost a thousand text book samples that the mayor of Racine provided that were sent by the company my mother worked for. This formed a noteworthy contribution to Gwalior. When I returned 2 years later in 1969 to see if what I remembered was there [it was and I eventually settled back in India in 1993 after marrying a Kashmiri] I was sad to find the books for sale in used book stores. Oh well.

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