An unlikely band of librarians, archivists, and scholars came together during World War II, their war effort centered on collecting books and documents. These American civilians were galvanized by the events of war into acquiring and preserving the written word, as well as providing critical information for intelligence purposes. Setting off on missions across Europe, they gathered enemy publications in the spy-ridden cities of Stockholm and Lisbon, searched for records in liberated Paris and the rubble of Berlin, seized Nazi works from bookstores and schools, and unearthed millions of books hidden in German caves and mineshafts. Improvising library techniques in wartime conditions, they contributed to Allied intelligence, safeguarded endangered collections, restituted looted books, and built up the international holdings of leading American libraries for the postwar period. In this talk, Kathy Peiss discusses how book and document collecting became part of the new apparatus of intelligence and national security, military planning, and postwar reconstruction. She focuses on ordinary Americans who found themselves in extraordinary situations, making decisions on the ground to acquire sources that would be useful in war zones and on the home front. Librarians’ and scholars’ skills, expertise, and aspirations aligned closely with American military and political objectives. Their activities helped transform American research libraries into great international repositories, shaped policies toward cultural heritage, and spurred the development of information science. Illuminating an unusual period when libraries and the military, intelligence and cultural heritage were closely intertwined, Peiss offers a historical perspective on contemporary debates over the uses of books and information in times of war and peace.
A live online presentation by Kathy Peiss, author and Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor of American History, University of Pennsylvania