Time Machine Tuesday: The Colorado Traveling Library Commission

In 1903 the Colorado Legislature passed an act creating the Colorado Traveling Library Commission. Appointed by the governor, the commission consisted of five volunteers from Colorado women’s clubs who oversaw the shipment of boxes of books to Colorado schools and towns. The program’s goals were to create a “love and habit of reading good books” and “to have more good books read per capita than any other state.”

The distribution of boxes of books was made to rural communities across the state. Each box contained fifty books of mixed collections of fiction and nonfiction. Anyone from a community could request the box, but they had to be responsible for its contents, to be returned to the commission after a period of six months. The program also sponsored a free magazine mailing to hospitals, train stations, and other public gathering places, as well as to prisons and reformatories.

During its first year, the program sponsored 122 boxes. Each box was purchased and assembled by a local club or charity; a few boxes were sponsored by individuals. Just five years later, they were up to 242 boxes! In 1912 the program’s biennial report carried comments from readers who had benefited from the program. This one is my favorite:

“I must thank you for the books. We are thirty miles from a railroad, four miles from neighbors. We have a dry claim. The hail came and left us nothing, and my husband and one son had to go away to work. Not more than once in four or five weeks do we see anyone. I cannot think what we would have done without the books. We are not able to buy books or anything. Certainly, of all charities this is the greatest.”

To learn more about the Traveling Library commission, see their biennial reports, which have been digitized by our library. Here you can find lists of the book boxes and who sponsored them; locations where the boxes were sent; and information on the commission members and other supporters. The 1910/12 report also contains a memorial tribute to Julia V. Welles, the founding leader of the program, who passed away in December 1912.

The years 1904 to 1912 were the apex of the program. After that time, the biennial reports were no longer required when the legislature changed how it appropriated funds to the program and these changes, alongside Welles’ death, caused the program to fade somewhat. But the commission did continue along until 1929, when it was was combined with the Board of Library Commissioners to create the new Colorado Library Commission. This combined program continued until 1933 with the establishment of the State Library as we know it today.

One of the commission’s traveling book boxes. Photo from the 1910/12 biennial report.

Amy Zimmer

Technical Services Librarian at State Publications Library
Amy Zimmer

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