In war, as in everything, information is power. And for the United States and its allies in World War II, an epic battle from an analog age, that meant obtaining and transmitting by hand useful intel—like the development of destructive new weapons—before the Nazis could prevent their enemies from getting it.
Enter the librarians, tapped by US government officials to help in this effort. These librarians, as historian Kathy Peiss ably demonstrates in her 2020 book Information Hunters, adopted technology from other fields to photograph an array of documents, including those that were rare and/or archival, and found means of sending them across continents. They used both microfilm and microphotography—technologies that came to play a key role in the wars of the twentieth century.
To the librarians of the World War II-era, microforms were a revelation; microfilm, for instance, was revolutionizing universities. Before its adoption, scholars generally traveled to sites housing materials they wanted or hired locals to do research on their behalf. Microfilm, the product of scaling text or graphics down into miniature forms, made it possible to streamline this process and ship scans anywhere. All that was needed was a microfilm reader on the receiving end to enlarge a scan to the point of readability. This innovation vastly broadened the scope of information researchers around the world could now access.
It became clear to President Franklin Roosevelt in the months before the US entered the war in 1941 that there was a lag in intelligence gathering. To rectify this, Roosevelt tapped William “Wild Bill” Donovan, a veteran and lawyer, to develop the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)—the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency. Donovan worked with Archibald MacLeish, a Librarian of Congress who saw the potential for librarians to serve as valuable assets in war. Librarians could gather intelligence from technological manuals, land surveys, and economic reports available to the general public in both Axis and neutral countries. He understood that the struggle for informational control depended on the ability to transport and classify information in such matters, and under the auspice of the Interdepartmental Committee for the Acquisition of Foreign Publications (IDC), co-created by Donovan and Roosevelt, he enlisted the help of librarians and researchers from across the US.
Adele Kibre, the daughter of a connected Hollywood family, was one such recruit, working out of the IDC’s Stockholm office. Kibre attended the University of California, Berkeley; thereafter she went to the University of Chicago for graduate school, getting a PhD in medieval linguistics in 1930. Like many women of her day, she was denied a career in academia and instead conducted research for other scholars. On one such assignment, she visited the heavily restricted Vatican archives to photograph rare manuscripts; there she saw fellow researchers using microphotography.
“I acquired the habit of visiting the photographic studio in order to observe philologists, paleographers, and art historians rapidly filming their research materials with miniature cameras,” Kibre is reported to have said, according to Peiss. Kibre followed suit with a microfilm-producing micro-camera and sent the films back to her employers. With fellow librarians, Kibre introduced this technology to the IDC, forever changing American intelligence gathering.
Of course, microfilm was only part of the puzzle of increasing the information the US government gathered about the Nazis and the countries they occupied. IDC staff first had to be able to access potentially useful documents. For this, they had to be stationed in neutral countries, as Kibre was in Sweden, where they were allowed to subscribe to German publications, provided those publications continued operating. In this way, American intelligence officers were able to read articles on military rockets and atomic weapons in periodicals like Zeitschrift für Physik and Die Naturwissenschaften.
Articles by Otto Hahn and fellow researchers at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute published in Die Naturwissenschaften in 1943 were particularly valuable. These discussed Hahn’s success with atomic fission and his work with uranium, information vital to scientists in the US working on the rival Manhattan Project. Some historians speculate that had Hitler controlled publication of such reporting sooner, the Nazis might have beat the Americans in the race to develop a nuclear bomb, and the war’s outcome might have been completely different.
Kibre and IDC staff cultivated relationships with members of resistance movements and Allied sympathizers, creating a pipeline of scientific information leading to the US. Kibre was celebrated for the volume of sources she assembled. She relied on her experience talking her way into archives, museums, and rare books storerooms and on her knack for building relationships with the guardians of these institutions. She cultivated ties with government agencies, librarians, and booksellers sympathetic, or at least agnostic, to the Allied cause. She also developed relationships with members of both the Danish resistance and underground press and used these channels to smuggle books and articles out of territories occupied by the Nazis. In total, the Stockholm station delivered more than 3,000 books and documents to the US during the war, though Kibre remained mum about her methods. Regardless, rumors abounded that she had stolen into occupied France on a fishing boat and ingratiated herself with a minister of Nazi propaganda in order to obtain some of the more valuable papers.
The IDC likewise established a station in Lisbon, where its work represented a collaboration between Ralph Carruthers and Reuben Peiss of the OSS and Manuel Sanchez of the Library of Congress. Arriving in Portugal in early 1943, Sanchez spent his first few days shaking the undercover agents trailing him. Once he evaded them, he began buying printed matter he believed would be of value to the Library of Congress. He also cultivated a partnership with the Andrade brothers; they owned a bookstore and were Allied sympathizers. The three men habitually crossed into Franco-controlled Spain to elude suspicion during book-buying expeditions. Meanwhile, Carruthers, an expert on microfilm, photographed thousands of pages of text, and Peiss, a librarian, developed systems of information classification and retrieval for the mass of intel collected. So extensive was their work that staff members worked ’round-the-clock shifts to photograph obtained documents, using micro-cameras to create microfilms that would be shipped on a Pan Am Clipper.
As the war continued, the mission of the IDC and librarians in its employ shifted. After D-Day, many periodicals published in Nazi Germany ceased operations. By 1944, supplies of paper and ink were increasingly scarce in Germany. Air raids destroyed printing presses. There was far less information coming out of Germany and occupied countries. The IDC and its partners pivoted their focus toward gathering information from human intelligence sources—prisoners of war and Allied sympathizers—to help preserve the cultural legacies the Nazis were trying to eradicate.
Called a T-Force (the T for Target), this refashioned effort began as a joint operation between the US and British armies to obtain scientific information from documents left behind in liberated countries. If they weren’t sent home, IDC librarians and staff were reassigned to military companies, where they were put in uniform and followed Allied forces as they advanced across Western Europe. Max Loeb, a German-born private and refugee from Nazi Germany who had fled prior to the war, was a major asset in this work. In New York, before the war, he owned a bookstore. In the army, he began interrogating German POWs in Great Britain who had connections to the book trade. He sought to glean specific titles that might be of value to American intelligence and hoped to learn exactly where the Nazis hid important texts. This type of investigation led to a critical quandary: What were the ethics of and processes for confiscating books found by Allied forces as Europe underwent liberation?
The T-Forces were ordered to leave research and academic libraries alone; academic institutions and their collections were not to be disturbed. That said, the Allied armies considered anything related to Hitler’s Final Solution to be ripe for confiscation; they likely believed these materials were important for understanding the extent of the horrors of Nazi Germany and for preventing the circulation of texts that spread genocidal messages. T-Force members ventured into the rubble of bombed-out bookstores to grab whatever they could. In Paris, Ross Lee Finney, an American music professor, found a facility full of patents for military weaponry that had been abandoned as Nazi forces fled.
The T-Forces also continued interrogating POWs for information about where the Nazis hid books and other materials they wanted to protect from battle. At a salt mine in Ransbach in central Germany, for instance, the T-Forces found more than two million books and other items, including some of the contents of the Former Prussian State Library.
In the post-WWII period, American universities and cultural organizations took possession of books, artworks, and other valuables that the Nazis had taken from Jewish families in Europe. What role librarians played in that relocation is not entirely clear, but what is certain is that this transfer of property to the US rather than repatriation of it to its rightful owners is a shameful legacy of the war.
Librarianship and spy craft are well-suited partners; both revolve around the collection and dissemination of information. Librarians understand that information possession is not enough. It requires organization and analysis to make such information meaningful. World War II catalyzed vital shifts in the world of library sciences, from a greater recognition of the role of women like Adele Kibre in its ranks, to the embrace of new technologies, to increased government reliance on research institutions. Cooperation is key when it comes to winning a war. Information has a crucial role in that equation.