Books Across the Sea

Image: The closing day of a Books Across the Sea exhibition of American wartime children's books, coinciding with National Book Week in America November 13-18 1945. Beatrice Warde stands behind the table, third from the left. (Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham)

With support from a Centre for Print History and Culture small grant, I contributed to ‘Information and its Communication in Wartime’ a London University conference part of the AHRC-funded project ‘A Publishing and Communications History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-46’. My presentation, ‘Books as Weapons: Beatrice Warde, May Lamberton Becker and Books Across the Sea’ introduced the transatlantic book exchange founded by the respected Monotype Corporation publicity manager, Beatrice Warde and her mother, journalist and writer, May Lamberton Becker.

Scrap book covers by U.S. and British schools. Part of the Books Across the Sea scrapbook exchange scheme, from a display in 1944. (Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham

Scrap book covers by U.S. and British schools. Part of the Books Across the Sea scrapbook exchange scheme, from a display in 1944. (Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham

The conference brought together a range of international researchers with shared interests in communication in wartime. Many contributors discussed and presented images of British printed ephemera from the Ministry of Information during World War Two and pieces frequently featured typefaces promoted by Beatrice Warde for the Monotype Corporation. Although typography as an aid to communication was not specifically dealt with by the conference, links with the Monotype Corporation and Beatrice Warde, were indicators of Warde’s promotional success as well as the influence and significance of Monotype at this time.

At the outbreak of World War Two Books Across the Sea was established as a vehicle for two-way transatlantic communication and information exchange, revealing Warde and Lamberton Becker’s interest in increasing mutual understanding and goodwill through printed books as well as their desire to repair the moral, intellectual and physical damage inflicted on books during wartime. Functioning with the approval of the Ministry of Information in Britain, Books Across the Sea also had the approval of the Office of War Information, in Washington, an agency that brought together U.S. government information services to deliver propaganda in America and overseas. Initially established with a gift of seventy new American books, unpublished in Britain, chosen and sent as a gesture of encouragement to American and British friends, American book enthusiasts took part in a nationwide correspondence on which the choice of titles was based. By the end of 1941, guided under the chairmanship of T.S. Eliot, the first Books Across the Sea group, known as a ‘circle’ was established in London and attracted widespread interest in the collection which had quickly grown to 700 titles. A corresponding ‘circle’ was established in New York allowing books to pass between both countries in the luggage of friends of Books Across the Sea with transatlantic passage. Speaking metaphorically Beatrice Warde described the organisation as ‘A game of goodwill tennis with the Atlantic as the net’; she believed it allowed books to ‘serve as GOODWILL EMISSARIES, as WARRIERS against the common enemy’, and as ‘EXPONENTS of the genius and traditions of each country’ restoring ‘the prestige of the Printed Book and respect for the Visible Word’.

As a personal way of exchanging cultural understanding, in 1941, Books Across the Sea also established a scrapbook exchange. Initially made by adults and children, books ‘vividly portrayed the day–by-day scenes of life at home and at school and national holidays’. By 1945, the scrap books were popular and in conjunction with Messers Roy Publisher in New York, Books Across the Sea held a competition for the best school scrapbook written and complied by ‘juvenile ambassadors’ with the winner published; there were also plans to exhibit scrap books in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

At the end of World War Two, Books Across the Sea established a London reading room as part of South Audley Street Library and also became part of the English Speaking Union where it remains today, continuing to promote cultural understanding through books.

Jessica Glaser, PhD candidate, Centre for Printing History & Culture

Image: The closing day of a Books Across the Sea exhibition of American wartime children's books, coinciding with National Book Week in America November 13-18 1945. Beatrice Warde stands behind the table, third from the left. (Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham)