The Peace Corps Library – Part I
The first official mention of a Peace Corps Library is in a July 1965 memo to Charles J. Patterson, a former Acting Associate Director, supporting such a library “for the primary purpose of improved overseas staff orientation.”
It was proposed that the agency “gather together in one convenient place a copy of fundamental materials which reflect our experience and which will help overseas staff. Of course these materials would prove of considerable value to the entire Peace Corps. If properly set up it will save the government time, space, and money and will help the agency learn what it has learned already: thus each new employee need not be condemned to relearn for himself what the agency already knows.” (Peace Corps ICE/Library Study December 22, 1982, page 2)
Nineteen sixty-five was an important year for Peace Corps. The agency was four years old, had weathered the assassination of the President and proved that it could recruit, train and maintain Volunteers in over 40 foreign countries. Volunteers were working in settings as diverse as college classrooms and subsistence farming communities. Its charismatic Director Shriver had already been recruited by President Johnson to run a domestic poverty program and was working only part-time at the Peace Corps. The agency was poised to raise its Volunteer contingent to over 16,000. In August of that year, Congress, at Shriver’s request, would pass legislation amending the Civil Service Act to limit staff tenure at the agency to five years. The agency was growing at the same time as the “old hands” were leaving. The need to train new Volunteers, new staff and to begin to build institutional memory were factors in the creation of the Peace Corps Library at PC/DC.
The Peace Corps ICE/Library Study completed in the December of 1982 identified two constituencies with information needs: The Volunteers and staff overseas who needed job-related technical materials; and, the Washington staff who needed a full range of library services primary in support of headquarters operations. Through the years, these constituencies have been served by a variety of different information units. There have been charges of competition and duplication among these services. This may well have contributed to the final demise of the Library sometime in the mid-nineties. However, the record is not clear. The most definitive history covers the period 1965 to 1982 and comes from the Peace Corps ICE/Library Study. During the 1960s, the Peace Corps’ Publication and Information Center (PIC) “answered requests for job-related technical materials from Volunteers and Staff overseas. “The PIC also compiled, distributed and supplemented the Technical Book Kit consisting of approximately 150 titles, designed as the nucleus of a technical reference library for immediate in-country job support. The PIC assumed the responsibility for producing and distributing all materials Peace Corps used in training and overseas.” PIC also produced TECH NOTES, a publication predicated upon the “belief that Volunteers worldwide were developing new processes and techniques, the communication of which was essential for Peace Corps and the developing world.”(ICE/Peace Corps Study, 1982, page 2-3)
The PIC was merged with the Peace Corps Library, sometime in the late 1960s, despite concerns that this could compromise the ability of PIC to meet the needs of overseas staff and Volunteers. The Peace Corps Library assumed some of the PIC responsibilities until the establishment of ACTION in 1971. The Nixon administration combined all “poverty programs” into one agency, ACTION. Peace Corps became the International Operations unit or IO of ACTION. The Peace Corps library became the ACTION Library and expanded to provide support to domestic operations. The report notes that some of the information functions and activities were dropped by the library, among them “publishing a journal intended to provide a worldwide exchange of program ides and to inform Volunteers and staff of source materials relevant to Peace Corps programs.” (ICE/Library Study , page 3)
It is fair to speculate why overseas support was reduced by the new ACTION agency. Was it because the Nixon administration planned to “phase out” the Peace Corps? Was it because of Nixon’s first appointed Peace Corps Director Blanchard’s New Directions program? This program emphasized the First Goal of the Peace Corps and called for placing trained Volunteers in structured jobs that would directly aid the developing nation. Such emphasis would not require building on existing programs as much as the previous programs utilizing “BA Generalists” had. (For a comprehensive analysis of “New Directions, see: Searles, David P. The Peace Corps Experience. Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 1997) Or was it because Director Blanchard was the first to fully implement the “In, Up and Out” tenure policy and interpreted that to mean that the old programs and ideas should be discarded to make way for the new?
Next: Peace Corps Library Part II – The conclusions of the Peace Corps ICE/Library Study – 1982
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During the research for my new book (Peace Corps Chronology; 1961-2010), I found a few electronic examples of the “Technical Kit.” These were professionally created how-to pamphlets. In other words, the Peace Corps very briefly became a publisher. I imagine that this was very expensive- much more expensive than maintaining a library.
To be fair, the demise of the library occurred sometime after 1997 (according to P. David Searles who actually used it for research). During this same time period, most local, state and federal agencies were experimenting with paperless means. My last local employer made such a decision in 2003 and literally dumped all of its documents in a garage to be damaged by rain and eaten by rats. Management was very proud of the uncluttered office space and had no appreciation for the importance of saving documents. Even scanned maps will no longer have a scale which means that they become useless. My sons and I recently discussed this trend and I prophesized that during their lifetime people would wonder about the big hole where history should have been.
Searles book was published in 1997. The research done using the Peace Corps Library was accomplished earlier in that decade, as I understand it. I do not have a date for the actual dismantling of the library. By 1998, the Library was gone. I believe that David had made mention that the then Librarian was concerned about talk of eliminating the Library when he was doing research there.
I could find nothing in my research to suggest that during the 70s, Peace Corps was interested in reducing hard copy documents specifically to go “paperless” or develop electronic archives. During the 70s, the time of ACTION, the Library actually thrived. It was providing information support services to all the domestic “War on Poverty” programs. It was overseas information support services which were reduced.
However, you may be on to something about “reducing paperwork.”
Dave Gurr posted a comment on this blog on October 19, 2010.
Dave said the library “had also expunged all of the old evaluation reports following the FOIA in 1975 and its implementation as the ‘paperwork reduction act.’ It was easier to just toss it all rather than review each report and make sure that it now complied with the legislation. A lost trove of history of the Peace Corps!”
It would be great to hear more from Dave Gurr and David Searles about their experiences with the Library.
As I have said in the past the Peace Corps library was a gold mine of information when I was doing research for my book. There was talk at the time (1995-96) that the libray was about to be shut down. I remember asking the then Peace Corps Director (Mark Gearan?) to do what he could to keep it going, but as I remember it, his answer was non-commital.
The one person who may know the whole story of what happened might be Terry Cappuccilli, librarian at the time I was doing research, but gone (I think) by the time the book was put to bed in early 1997.
Using the magic of the internet I found her at the John Adams Elementary School in Alexandria VA. Perhaps Joey, who knows most about the current situation and its past, would be interested in contacting Terry. You could find out how to contact her directly by asking the school system for her address, email, or whatever they would be willing to share. The system can be reached at
Alexandria City Public Schools
2000 North Beauregard Street
Alexandria, Virginia 22311
Since writing the above comment I have found Terry’s email address and have contacted her to see if she would be willing to shed some light on what happened. I’ll keep you posted when (if?) she replies.
I can not thank you enough. This is just so important. Terry Cappuccilli would be such a valuable source. Anything she might offer would be really helpful. My FOIA to Peace Corps request yielded the 1982 study from which I am currently quoting. Next thing I received was a report from a consulting firm hired to establish a common catalog system for ICE and some materials from the Library.
This was 1998 and the Library was gone. Nothing in the FOIA addressed why the Library was closed other than to suggest there was a space consideration because of the proposed move to 11th Street NW. I also have not been successful in understanding or finding out what happened to all the materials from the Library.
Again, thank you.
Joey- I must not have explained myself well. Although people began talking about a paperless society in 1970 (with Earthday), it wasn’t until the middle to late 90’s that government agencies actually began to do it on a large scale. They scanned many documents and then dumped them.
No, iI is my mistake. I got my timelines mixed up. I realized that after I posted in response to your comment. What Dave Gurr was referring to was “paper reduction” not paperless. Thanks for the clarification.