LHS XI Day One

Thursday, 27 Oct 2005

Library History Seminar XI: Libraries in Times of War, Revolution & Social Change

This seminar honors Professor Emeritus Donald G. Davis, Jr., School of Information, University of Texas and former editor of Libraries & Culture

Libraries & Culture becoming Libraries & the Cultural Record, to be edited by David B. Gracy II.

Disclaimer:  All notes are my own and any misrepresentation of the presenter’s views is certainly unintentional.  All links are supplied by me and did not arise directly from the presentations unless explicitly noted.

Keynote address by Kathy Peiss, University of Pennsylvania, "Cultural Policy in a Time of War: The American Response to Endangered Libraries, 1939-1946."

She came to this story by discovering that her uncle, Ruben Peiss, a librarian at Harvard, had worked for the OSS and the Library of Congress European Division on a documents gathering team during and after WWII.  This work was known as the Cooperative Acquisitions Project [scroll down to "Post-War Acquisitions."].

Why was cultural protection a war aim in 1942 vs today?  Cultural protection was a major aim of Gen. Eisenhower when US forces entered Italy.

Planning began before America even entered the war.  Thoughts along this line arose with America’s intellectual elite, particularly the American Defense-Harvard Group in 1940.

This group consisted of elites from the National Gallery, Metropolitan Museum of Art,….  They approached President Roosevelt regarding protecting cultural heritage.  Roosevelt set up what became known as the "Roberts Commission," consisting of mostly art folks.  Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish was the sole librarian or archivist.


  • Had time to plan.  Main emphasis came with the liberation of Italy.
  • Threat to European civilization
  • Threat of cultural vulnerability arose from aerial bombing in WWI and the Spanish Civil War, and the Nazi book burnings of 1933.
  • The New Deal had created important precedents for state involvement in cultural affairs.
  • Vatican pressure

Connections between American democracy and European cultural heritage was explicitly made by journalists and the military.

Idea of librarians as heroic defenders of freedom from an article by Archibald MacLeish, "Of the Librarian’s Profession" in  Atlantic Monthly, January 1940, pp. 786-790.

The place of librarians and archivists in this was a vexed one.  Books and archives were definitely secondary to art.

Unintended consequences of other wartime intelligence gathering activities by the OSS
and Intel units of the armed services

Academic folks in Ivy League schools and top research universities did much of the analysis.

"IDC" Interdepartmental Committee for Acquisition of Foreign Publications

  • Mostly men, one woman, Adele Kyber (sp?), linguist/microphotography expert.
  • Materials microfilmed on the spot and sent to Washington and London for analysis.
  • From Nov 1942 – Jun 1943 over 82,000 publications filmed.
  • Preserved many rare/obscure publications.
  • Bounty of microfilm became a curse.  Real happenstance collection—French phone book followed by a German chemical manual followed by an Italian….

"Omnivorous collecting" with several purposes:

  • Determine Russian intentions
  • De-Nazification

A good deal of policy was made on the ground by soldiers, leaders, archivists, librarians, art scholars,….

Dewey Sturman (sp?), librarian at Santa Barbara, enlisted as a regular GI.  He collected over 100,000 items on the rise and fall of the Nazis; pamphlets, documents, etc.

Over 2.5 M items of Judaica were collected and sent to the Offenbach Storage Depot.

It was individuals who provided the ethical dimension of preserving cultural heritage despite government recognition of the need.  Government recognition based on geopolitical, cultural, intellectual, and favorable PR considerations.

OSS and IDC ends rapidly in 1945 with many of the staff going into the Library of Congress European Division.

The British were also involved in cultural heritage protection.

I met quite a few people today (Thursday).  Don Davis even introduced himself to me at the end of the evening.  I made 2 trips to the airport to pick people up. 

There are so many stars out here compared to in town, but still too many lights!  I want and need to feel small in the vastness of it all.