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Librarians-turned-spies helped fight the Nazis by deploying their information gathering and organizing skills as weapons during World War II.
These secret agents collected everything from local newspapers and trade journals to underground resistance pamphlets, technological manuals, economic reports and land surveys.
“They weren't the James Bond type of spy but more of the low key, under-the-radar spy,” says Kathy Peiss, author of “Information Hunters: When Librarians, Soldiers, and Spies Banded Together in World War II Europe.”
"They were there to collect what today we would call open-source materials. So magazines, newspapers, materials like industrial directories, and anything that might give some insight into the planning and strength of the enemy.”
The librarians possessed skills that made them well-suited for the job.
“Librarians, and specifically research librarians, are taught to be managers of information,” says Katie McBride Moench, a library media specialist who has researched these librarian field agents.
“It is not so much like these librarians were trying to steer the course of the war… they were trying to take the information that was coming out of these occupied territories and organize it in a way that would be useful to military commanders and other people involved in making those decisions.”
Peiss, a retired professor of American history at the University of Pennsylvania, became interested in the topic after learning that her father’s eldest brother was one of these spies.
Reuben Peiss, a Harvard University librarian, was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services — the first U.S. intelligence agency — at the start of World War II, which lasted from 1939 to 1945. Like many of the librarians and academics recruited for the war effort, Peiss spoke several languages.
“My uncle Ruben Peiss knew German, French, Italian. He picked up Portuguese instantly. … So, being able to look at a newspaper or a magazine or a book and know what it is saying was extremely important, and to be able to make a quick judgment about that,” Peiss says. “Nobody suspects librarians of doing anything threatening, so they make really good intelligence agents. They're kind of hidden in plain sight.”
Although there were many female librarians in the United States at the time, the librarians who helped the war effort were mostly men, according to Peiss. The federal government mostly recruited librarians at colleges and universities, jobs that were difficult for women to obtain.
But at least one female recruit who was denied a job in the highest echelons of academia excelled in her role as a spy.
Adele Kibre, who had a Ph.D. in medieval linguistics, was among the first of these academic spies to use microphotography — taking pictures of documents and sending the film back to her bosses for analysis.
“Sometimes being a woman gave them a little more plausible deniability, and they were able to get access to places that men might not have been able to,” McBride Moench says. “And so, in her case, for example, she developed really strong memberships with the Danish resistance and their underground press, and she used those channels to smuggle books and articles out of territories occupied by the Nazis.”
The spies were mostly stationed in neutral cities, where they collected publications produced by the enemy. They subscribed to German periodicals containing articles about military rockets and atomic weapons. Some contend the information gathered by these academics contributed to the U.S. Manhattan Project, helping speed development of the world’s first atomic bomb.
But Peiss and McBride Moench are skeptical.
“I don't think the librarians found much that would have been useful to the Manhattan Project,” Peiss says.
“If you look at postwar scholarship, there is debate about how much of what they took was valuable,” McBride Moench adds.
But their efforts had some long-term impacts. When the war ended, some of these same agents documented and preserved collections of looted papers and books acquired by the Nazis. The collecting missions set up U.S. research libraries to become renowned repositories of international materials.
“One of the things that's really interesting that comes out of this whole effort is it gives a rise in the status of American research universities in terms of their holdings of European manuscripts or other primary source documents,” McBride Moench says.