While armies have seized enemy records and rare texts as booty throughout history, it was only during World War II that an unlikely band of librarians, archivists, and scholars traveled abroad to collect books and documents to aid the military cause. Galvanized by the events of war into acquiring and preserving the written word, as well as providing critical information for intelligence purposes, these American civilians set off on missions to gather foreign publications and information across Europe. They journeyed to neutral cities in search of enemy texts, followed a step behind advancing armies to capture records, and seized Nazi works from bookstores and schools. When the war ended, they found looted collections hidden in cellars and caves. Their mission was to document, exploit, preserve, and restitute these works, and even, in the case of Nazi literature, to destroy them.
In Information Hunters: When Librarians, Soldiers, and Spies Banded Together in World War II Europe
(Oxford University Press, 2019), cultural historian Kathy Peiss
reveals how book and document collecting became part of the new apparatus of intelligence and national security, military planning, and postwar reconstruction. Focusing on the ordinary Americans who carried out these missions, she shows how they made decisions on the ground to acquire sources that would be useful in the war zone as well as on the home front.
These collecting missions also boosted the postwar ambitions of American research libraries, offering a chance for them to become great international repositories of scientific reports, literature, and historical sources. Not only did their wartime work have lasting implications for academic institutions, foreign-policy making, and national security, it also led to the development of today's essential information science tools.