The Navy established the first official military library program in 1919, Nellie Moffitt, the Navy's general library program manager, told American Forces Press Service.
The Army followed with its own program in 1920, and the Air Force quickly stood up its own library program when it was established as a separate service in 1947.
By World War II, the service library programs had developed "an incredible operation," Moffitt
The Navy alone had 275 permanent libraries ashore and 961 afloat, as well as 281 extension services in remote sites.
"Historically, reading has been an integral part of the morale effort across DOD
"That remains as true today as at any time in history."
Most major military installation house a library, and the Navy outfits every new ship with a library while providing library services aboard every ship in the fleet.
And just as troops have enjoyed library services while deployed to every conflict since World War I, MWR officials take pains to provide those same services in Afghanistan, even at the most remote forward operating bases.
The Army set up formalized library programs at the largest bases in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Air Force maintains seven learning resource centers across the U.S. Central Command region, Moffitt
If we don't keep up with the times and what our customers want, we won't be around very long," Moffitt
Stop by any installation library, and it's clear that hasn't happened.
Statistics show usage at the brick-and-mortar libraries has remained strong, and even experienced a slight increase, Moffitt
Meanwhile, use of downloadable audio books, e-books and online databases has skyrocketed.
Last year alone, the services spent $12 million for digital library materials, Moffitt
Based on usage statics, those funds provided $725 million in materials and services.
"That's a huge return on investment, $60 in value for every dollar spent," Moffitt
That savings, and the fact that many military members who live on base aren't entitled to use most local public libraries, makes installation libraries magnets for many service members and their families.
"A lot of different people use libraries for a lot of different reasons," Moffitt
"Some people may be coming into the libraries to enjoy the actual books and programs offered," including storytelling sessions for military children and popular summer reading programs.
Others seek out references on everything from weight loss or auto repairs to recorded music and audio books, all provided to users at no cost.
"But an awful lot of military members are using our materials for professional reading and their professional military education," Moffitt
Military members and their families tap their libraries to get transitional assistance, bone up on details about spouse employment and tuition assistance, and prepare for standardized tests, she
Online test preparation services are among the most popular offerings at many military libraries.
Some use these programs to increase their Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery scores so they can change their military career fields, Moffitt
Others use them to prepare for the GRE, SAT and other standardized college boards.
Based on the appetite, DOD
invested more than a half-million dollars in digital test preparation services in 2012, Moffitt
This educational portal collectively saved library users more than $10 million in out-of-pocket costs, including $19 or $20 they would have paid for every practice test, she
But the true value of the library programs, officials agree, is their link to troops' mental and emotional fitness and resilience.
"People get their energy and bounce back from problems in many different ways," Moffitt
"Like everybody else, we are going to have to take cuts, whether that is in hours, staffing or our materials budgets," Moffitt
"We know we are going to be taking cuts, but we will try to minimize the impact on the customer and if at all possible, try to maintain the services we provide."
The service libraries have pooled their resources for decades to maximize what they can provide.
"We are a very cooperative program," Moffitt
A joint MWR library forum established in 1996 sets standards for all military libraries and policies to improve efficiencies.
Five years ago, the services stood up a joint purchasing program so they could purchase digital databases together and share them among all their users.
"We try to do things jointly so we can be more efficient and more effective," Moffitt
"If somebody has a great idea, we will borrow it."
Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., for example, runs DOD's only bookmobile, purchased with profits from the base recycling center to better serve Marines and their families.
Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., plans to roll out an experimental library that does away with the Dewey decimal classification system and is organized like a retail bookstore.
Meanwhile, the military library programs continue to operate as they always have - quietly rolling out incremental improvements to better serve their customers, Moffitt
Those are services she
confident will continue, regardless of what new budget challenges libraries face.
"Just because you don't have a lot of money doesn't mean you can't do a stellar job," she