Books on the Move: The Traveling Lighthouse Library
Updated: Mar 19
Dawn streaked the sky with gold and lavender as Assistant Lightkeeper Bel Sinclair opened the tower door. After finishing her watch at the lighthouse, Bel drew the folds of a cloak tighter around her shoulders. The first hint of autumn nipped along the edges of a new day.
A little weary after the demands of the watch, she still felt too restless for sleep. She headed to the lighthouse quarters and went up the narrow stairs. A traveling lighthouse library waited for her on the second floor. After making a selection, she lit the kindling in her sitting room fireplace. Bel settled down in a comfortable chair. It was a wonderful feeling to become immersed in a good book after the demands of the early morning watch.
Bel Sinclair (you can meet Bel in my book, Mystery Shores) was not alone in her appreciation of books. Many lighthouse keepers and their families looked forward to reading after finishing the demanding duties at a light station.
There were no instant downloads of digital books or quick shipping from a major online retailer. At a remote lighthouse in those days, the nearest library or bookshop might be at least a hundred miles away.
Recognizing the need, the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment came up with an ingenious idea. To provide inspiration and encouragement, they introduced the traveling lighthouse library in 1876. Made of dove-tailed wood with brass fittings, the library box was well-built, tough and beautiful to lightkeepers hungry for quality entertainment.
When the double doors were closed and the little library was ready for travel, about 50 books and magazines made the journey to a remote lighthouse. As the keeper opened the doors again, he or she would see a list of the contents attached to the left-hand door. A log on the right-hand side recorded all the lighthouses the library had visited. A little journal inside listed the names of the readers and the books they'd enjoyed.
In 1885, there were about 380 portable libraries. With this many boxes switched between lighthouses, all those living at isolated light stations were assured of new material coming their way. Everyone looked forward to opening the new traveling library when it arrived. It was like having Christmas every three months.
A bookplate, striking in its design, was attached to each volume in the library:
Lightkeepers' hours were filled with repetitive and difficult labor. Keepers knew the lives of friends and strangers alike depended on doing their duty flawlessly. The library gave a sense of comfort and something to look forward to after finishing their often intense duties.
Having worked in libraries for many years, I'm very intrigued by the idea of traveling libraries. I enjoyed learning more about them when I wrote my book, Mystery Shores.
In the story, a lighthouse library helps my main characters, Christie and Melina, uncover important secrets and solve a troubling mystery.
Today, we have much more access to a wide variety of books. May you find the same rest and encouragement that the lighthouse keepers experienced when they opened a small library and found the world.