ATG Book of the Week: Information Hunters: When Librarians, Soldiers, and Spies Banded Together in World War II Europe

by | Feb 14, 2020 | 0 comments

Title: Information Hunters: When Librarians, Soldiers, and Spies Banded Together in World War II Europe 
Author: Kathy Peiss
Hardcover: ISBN: 978-0190944612, $34.95
Imprint: Oxford: Oxford UP, 2020

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 this fascinating account, 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.

Illuminating the growing global power of the United States in the realms of intelligence and cultural heritage, Peiss tells the story of the men and women who went to Europe to collect and protect books and information and in doing so enriches the debates over the use of data in times of both war and peace.

Video: The Author of “Information Hunters: When Librarians, Soldiers, and Spies Banded Together in World War II Europe” Speaks at the National Archives – according to infoDOCKET The C-SPAN Video Library provides access (including a searchable text transcript) to a recent talk by Kathy Peiss, author of the new book.


“This well-written and astutely researched book makes the wartime work of librarians engaging and engrossing. Those fascinated by intelligence missions or keen on the history of library science will appreciate this excellent read.” — Library Journal (starred review)

Information Hunters is Kathy Peiss’s wonderfully surprising history of a little-known, World War II intelligence effort to gather newspapers, magazines, books, and every other kind of printed information about business, science, and ordinary life in Germany and occupied Europe. Working mainly through cities in neutral countries � Lisbon, Stockholm, Bern, and the like � agents quietly arranged to gather bundles, then truckloads, finally ship- and train-loads of books and paper for analysts to study. It’s a beautiful piece of scholarship that reveals the war in a new light — as a struggle for knowledge and truth.” — Thomas Powers, author of Heisenberg�s War: The Secret History of the German Bomb

“This fascinating book tells the story of the American librarians who set out on vast collecting missions amidst the destruction of World War II Europe. Cultural historian Kathy Peiss deftly reconstructs their work here, showing how librarians shaped the war and, in turn, how the war re-shaped libraries and librarianship. Beautifully told, this surprising story provides a valuable new perspective on the historical connection between war and the production of knowledge.” — Lisa Moses Leff, American University

“Kathy Peiss uncovers fascinating episodes in the history of information: the World War II entanglement of bibliography and spycraft as well as the postwar dilemmas of denazifying German culture while also dealing with cultural heritage collections that the Nazis left orphaned in their double project of confiscation and genocide. With its lucid attention to ‘open source’ intelligence gathering, incipient ‘archive-consciousness,’ and the anxieties of American influence on the world, this is history that is at once powerful and timely.” — Lisa Gitelman, New York University

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