The Famous Peace Corps Book Lockers

[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
Director

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.

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  • My husband and I were volunteers in Thailand from 1965-67 and I loved having that footlocker of books. (I don’t know when they were discontinued, but members of Thailand Group 12 certainly got them.) We were in the middle of the jungle, on the Malaysian border, and those books were a godsend. I still remember when the footlocker came and our excitement in delving in.

  • And with the “Book Lockers” came the free subscription to Tme or Newsweek…never knew why these were discontinued. Some Washington “bean counter” may have felt the need to cut the cost without considering the value from Sarg’s point of view! Bring back the Book Lockers…and this is a request from a Peace Corps Response Volunteer in Paraguay! Bob

  • In 1966-67 in Nigeria I had to teach a class in World History but there was no textbook and no library, so the book locker became a great source for ideas. Along with all of those wonderful books I got a subscription to Newsweek and to the Compost Journal. The first issue had A MILLION POUNDS OF WHAT? as its lead article.

  • John:

    It’s clear you touched a topic of interest to many PVCs.

    I too remember the book locker fondly as it filled so many hours. Mine was selfishly maintained, as I was sure to read each title before being willing to share a book locally.

    OK, some ended up in the long drop … read a few pages and then re-purpose those pages.

    To think about it another way, it was the equivalent of the unique perks offered by many California start-ups; they do business in new ways making the care of their employees of top importance. The Peace Corps was far ahead of the perk-providing priorities of those new businesses.

    Don Bob
    Somalia, ’64-’66

  • HI John,
    Can’t remember if I ever told you my weird booklocker story. When the booklocker arrived at our site, we put it in the only room in our “apartment” over a warehouse that had a door that could be closed. There was absolutely nothing else in that room. The wooden walls stopped about a yard short of the overhanging roof. One night, just as we were leaving for a meeting, a couple of kids came to the door with a kinkajou (lemur) that someone had caught in the forest. We had no time to acquire any kind of cage for the animal so we put it in the booklocker room with some water and food, probably a banana. Later that night, we returned to find the booklocker overturned, several books scattered on the floor, one (and only one) of them ripped apart, and the kinkajou gone. He’d evidently failed a time or two, but eventually succeeded in using the booklocker to boost him up the wall and clawed the rest of the way to freedom. We deduced that he’d failed at least once, and became frustrated, by the destruction of one book. It was Jack London’s Call of the Wild.

  • The book locker was a wonderful surprise gift. So many of the people we worked with were not literate, so starting a library was not an option. I do remember mysteries and Zane Grey. There was one novel entitled “The Funhouse” about an ad agency. I mentally added “On the Potomac” and still think that way. I read and reread “Moby Dick.” I thought I understood it perfectly. Years later, I tried to reread it and couldn’t.

    Mead’s book and Spock’s “Infant and Childcare” were the only references we had. I remember my partner pointing out in Mead’s book that swaddling was important to keep infants warm. That was startling information, as up to then, I had been encouraging mothers not to swaddle, due to an inane belief that it stifled emotional development and encouraged passivity.

    Today, it is as if all Volunteers have access to the Internet, but between the book locker and the I-Phone, there must have been books that Volunteers were given. I keep coming across “When there is No Doctor.” Does anyone else know what books Volunteers routinely have or had?

  • Now here’s a story I wish I had told Sarge. Years after Peace Corps, I was invited to produce some radio programs for Wingspread, which had 150 stations airing their conferences. It was set up by the Johnson Foundation in Racine Wisconsin. They then asked me to meet with two women teachers from South Africa, one white and one black. Johnson Wax sponsored them to come to Wisconsin. I realized that they wanted resources for the schools in Johanesburg in the townships. This was after the uprising and the schools had no resources. I thought of booklockers. I arranged for them to get free books from school publishers and to visit large urban school districts. I remember going with them and getting snowed in in Detroit. They were wonderful women. They both celebrated Passover with my family that year. I never forgot them and was glad to have had the opportunity to make a small contribution – thanks to having been a Peace Corps Volunteer I remembered booklockers.

  • Somebody should propose filling a special edition locker with books by RPCV writers. John??? Though many of them are cautionary tales, so the Peace Corps may not think it’s such a good idea. Marnie

  • My booklocker arrived at my village on top of the bus from the provincial capital, Tokat, Turkey. It took myself and three village neighbors to get it down. First stop was the tea house where I was “encouraged” to open it up. So, they said, we finally figured it out, you came here to study for two years… Most of the books ended up in the village school library – a project. We were challenged to come up with as many books in Turkish. I think there were also some maps in the book locker and they made a bit hit in the school and the tea house. I remember watching my fellow villagers stare at the world map through three or four glasses of tea, asking the occasional question, pointing at Korea – where some of them fought alongside American troops – and asking about America. The books saved me during the long, snowy winters in Ortakoy!

  • It was a life saver for me during my second year in country. It also taught me to read better, which helped me get two graduate degrees upon my return from country. I am still searching for a book that I read and wanted to reread. I got the list that John and sent it to the LA Library, which turned out to be the second footlocker. There seems to be no first footlocker listing, so a book that I read then I am unable to chase down. I only know the subject matter and the LA Library couldn’t figure it out either. Incidentally, they copied the list and were very excited to see what the footlocker contained. It is now archived there.

  • I served in Cameroun from 74-76. We didn’t have an official footlocker,
    but were given a choice of books to bring with us from the stock at
    Peace Corps headquarters in Yaounde. Apparently the tradition of sending off books continues. I live in Connecticut and there are annual book drives to send off book to volunteers. We have a variety of works including poetry, novels, biographies and history. Without any
    internet or television they were greatly appreciated.

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