On a Mission
American Libraries, Intelligence, and Endangered Books in a Time of War
Oxford University Press
During, and immediately after World War II, a group of dedicated librarians were mobilized to collect books, magazines, and other published material related to the activities of the Nazis in Europe. Their charge was to document what was happening and to provide intelligence to the military and, eventually, to attempt to minimize the chance that anyone would try to replicate what had happened.
Although the work of the “Monuments Men” is well known, the book collecting missions have largely been forgotten, in spite of their impact on the outcome of the war, and on the way we think about information. The concept of information, as we understand it today, was shaped by these efforts.
The flood of periodicals and microfilm reels that resulted from the missions would promote new solutions to information management and retrieval, and the collecting missions boosted the postwar ambitions of American research libraries to be great national repositories for research and the dissemination of knowledge. Because they also involved seizing technical and scientific research, including patents, these operations also contributed directly to the dominance of postwar American industrial and business development, in an unusual form of intellectual reparations.
By introducing the men and women whose work quietly contributed to the war effort, On a Mission reminds us that it was during the war that, for the first time, a conflict was waged not only militarily and politically, but also on the terrain of information, ideology, and culture.