The Joseph Conrad Memorial Library

Nov 30, 2012

by Tasnim Ahmed, High School Student History Intern

The seafarer bares no family or town news until the events have become history, sees no movies, has little amusement of any kind, and all is stale from repetition; what wonder that these men are mentally hungry most of the time?  —“The Story of the American Merchant Marine Library Association,” 1923.

In days gone by, life at sea could be monotonous. With limited opportunities for distraction from work, a seafarer who yearned for entertainment had to wait until the ship reached stable land in port. Among the services SCI has offered over the years, one of the most beloved was the Joseph Conrad Memorial Library.

Created in memory of the great novelist Joseph Conrad (originally Józef Teodor Konrad Nałęcz Korzeniowsk), the Memorial Library became the only library of its kind devoted entirely to mariners. Conrad, a seafarer himself, authentically captured the story of sailors in his novels. Having left his native Poland at a time of strife to move to England, Conrad became a renowned writer who made a major impact on both the literary and seafaring communities.

Chairman Ashley Spark and Honorary Chairman Edmund L. Baylies headed the committee that organized the creation of the library. The library not only honored the memory of Conrad but also provided seafarers the opportunity to read and write—activities for which they had few resources while out at sea for long periods of time. John E. Berwind, chairman of the Building Fund Campaign Committee, wrote in The Lookout from November 1926, “And it is in the reading and writing rooms that they relax and satisfy that desire to exchange words and thoughts with their loved ones in far off ports.” Within days of that publication, construction began on the reading room of the Seamen’s Church Institute building at 25 South Street encompassing the entire third floor.

Much of the funding for the project came from donations by readers of The Lookout and other affiliates. The project required $50,000 for establishing the library and procuring the necessary materials and another $50,000 for the library’s upkeep after completion. Fundraisers included events such as bridge parties, with people encouraged to bring friends, charging $1.25 per player and $5 for a table.

SCI formally opened the library on May 24, 1934, ten years after Conrad died. During the ceremony, the notable American journalist Christopher Morley recalled his memories of Conrad. Others delivered remarks, including the late author's wife Mrs. Jessie Conrad, Harry G. Armstrong, Muirhead Bone, Richard Curl and Alan Villiers.

The library displayed items from George T. Keating’s collection of Conrad’s original work. Much planning went into the appearance of the library itself, with paintings and portraits lining the walls, among them a painting by Charles Robert Patterson of the Torrens, Conrad’s last ship. A ship’s figurehead, carved in the shape of Conrad’s profile by English sculptor Dora Clarke, became the central piece of the library.

Following its opening, the library became a regular stop for seafarers. In 1962, it welcomed over 64,000 visitors to peruse its 7,000 volumes. Most seafarers requested books on geometry, trigonometry and engineering in order to improve their ratings. Few read novels concerning the sea, deriding the fictitious accounts as inaccurate and sensational.

While the library proved to be very helpful for seafarers between jobs, those at sea longed for books to read. This inspired Mrs. Henry Howard to found the American Merchant Marine Library Association (AMMLA, also known as “The Public Library of the High Seas”) with the mission to place “floating libraries” aboard ships. The American Library Association (ALA) had previously maintained a seamen’s library organization; however, following the armistice after World War II, all ALA activity related to sailors halted. Following protests from seafarers, Mrs. Howard created the AMMLA, which received donations of books from the ALA. AMMLA also received much assistance from the Joseph Conrad Library, which generously donated many books to its service. While the Conrad Library closed in 1985, AMMLA continues to operate to this day.