Portable lighthouse keeper libraries of yesteryear

Here's a beautiful display of the portable libraries that were once supplied to Michigan's lighthouse keepers; click through for a partial bibliography of titles, including "MY APINGI KINGDOM: WITH LIFE IN THE GREAT SAHARA, AND SKETCHES OF THE CHASE OF THE OSTRICH, HYENA."
In 1876 portable libraries were first introduced in the Light-House Establishment and furnished to all light vessels and inaccessible offshore light stations with a selection of reading materials. These libraries were contained in a portable wooden case, each with a printed listing of the contents posted inside the door. Proper arrangements were made for the exchange of these libraries at intervals, and for revision of the contents as books became obsolete in accordance with suggestions obtained from public library authorities.

The books were carefully selected from books of a good standard appropriate to the families who would use them. While largely fiction, other classes of literature were included in reasonable proportions including technical books when requested. The books and periodicals contained in the libraries remained the property of the Light-House Establishment and each was marked in the front with the official Light-House Establishment bookplate. The beautiful 3" x 4 ½" bookplate label bears a wonderful image of an iron pile lighthouse and Minot's Ledge Light, and a lightship and bears the words "The Property of the Light House Establishment".

USLHE Traveling Library (via Neatorama)


  1. Heh, let’s see an iPad or Kindle evoke that kind of admiration and respect after 100+ years.

    “Great-grandpa, wasn’t a kindle used to start fires?”

    Props, Cory, for not calling this “steampunk art” due to the brass plate and iron decoration.

  2. This would be an excellent item for recreation by a skilled woodworker. I’d want one, althoguh affording it would be iffy!

  3. I want plans for that case!!!!!!!! (I’m nowhere near good enough at woodworking to re-create from the pics.)

  4. There’s a scene in the educational film that they show at Split Rock Lighthouse where the inspector from the lighthouse service delivers a portable library, and he and the keeper’s daughter speed-recite Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha. I guess the scene is meant to show that lighthouse keepers were well read.

  5. I took a tour of a lighthouse a year or two ago, and the portable library and its story really stuck with me. I can imagine what a joy it would be to receive such a wandering library after being completely disconnected for so long a stretch.

  6. This is the sort of thing that all-by-itself can romanticize the nineteenth century. I am thoroughly charmed. And you know the guy whose job it was to keep circulating these libraries between the various lighthouses? If he made his rounds by bicycle, he’d be the quintessential Edward Gorey character.

    Gonna make me one. The woodworking will be the easy part.

    Now stocking the damned thing. *That’s* gonna take some skull sweat!

  7. I took a tour of the Piedras Blancas lighthouse (near Hearst Castle) and the guide mentioned that the families living there loved these libraries and really looked forward to a new shipment of books when their supplies were delivered about twice a year. Piedras Blancas was in such a remote area and the only recreation was provided by the books.

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