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Books History Libraries Review

Ideology and ‘Information Hunters’

When I first heard of the new book Information Hunters: When Librarians, Soldiers, and Spies Banded Together in World War II Europe by Kathy Peiss, I thought it was so far up my alley it should have just moved in.

The book tells two primary, interweaving stories:

  • how the information-collecting missions of the Library of Congress, OSS, and the Allied forces conflicted and aligned before, during, and after the war
  • how individuals engaged with those missions on the ground

One person’s story that stood out was Maria Josepha Meyer, employed by the Library of Congress and the publisher Hachette to collect books, documents, propaganda, and any other useful material in pre-occupation Paris. When the Nazis invaded in June 1940, she found herself trapped in Paris with no money and an expired passport. She eventually got an export permit from the Germans for her professional library, personal effects, and furniture, and at the last minute swapped her furniture for the war collection she would have been forbidden to ship.

Another was Adele Kibre, an academic who found herself spearheading a clandestine microfilming operation in Stockholm as a way to send foreign publications to OSS for intelligence gathering. Microfilm technology was in its infancy, so quality varied generally. But Kibre’s results were clear and consistent despite her limitations and the secrecy required.

A central figure in the book was Archibald MacLeish, the poet and writer who served as Librarian of Congress from 1939-1944. His work with William Donovan to develop the Research & Analysis branch of OSS helped modernize the Library of Congress and push it beyond the traditional understanding of libraries as neutral providers of books and information.

Peiss:

With the growing international crisis, [MacLeish] raised the stakes for books and democracy, calling upon librarians to be not merely custodians of culture but defenders of freedom. Like Donovan, he had perceived the dangers of fascism early and believed in American intervention. As an artist, intellectual, and the nation’s leading librarian, he was convinced, as he later put it, that ‘the country of the mind must also attack.’

As MacLeigh wrote in 1940, the keeping of war-related records “is itself a kind of warfare. The keepers, whether they wish so or not, cannot be neutral.”

As much as I’d like to view libraries as places that don’t discriminate or take ideological stands, the right to read is itself an ideology, as are the rights to privacy and access. Despite being taken for granted in democratic and literate societies, they must be believed in, fought for, and defended like any other ideology. (Notice too the war-like language.)

Peiss’s book examines how people and institutions reckoned with that dilemma in extraordinary situations. Overall, I found the parts about the people much more engaging than the broader institutional machinations, which often get bogged down in the acronyms and esoterica endemic to academia, government, and the military.

But if that sort of thing is your jam, Information Hunters is right on target.

(See also: The Book Thieves by Anders Rydell and When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning.)