The Spy Who Came in from the Carrel

Historians in the News
tags: books, espionage, World War 2

Elyse Graham is an associate professor of digital humanities at Stony Brook University.


In 1942, Dr. Adele Kibre—dark-haired, wicked-eyed, a medievalist by training—began work as an overseas agent for the Interdepartmental Committee for the Acquisition of Foreign Publications. This Committee was a branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS): the wartime predecessor to the CIA, which sought to acquire documents in Europe that the Allies could use to develop intelligence and plan covert operations. Kibre, a scholar, was now also a spy.

Kibre was an ideal fit for the job. After receiving a PhD in medieval linguistics (University of Chicago, 1930), she had spent almost a decade hopping from archive to archive across Europe, earning cash by taking photographs of rare texts for scholars back home in the United States. In addition to her camera skills, Kibre had a gift for gaining access to closed archives. When Kibre once asked—as Kathy Peiss describes, in a marvelous new book about spy craft and the book world during the Second World War—to view “an unusually rare manuscript in the Vatican,” a staffer explained that Kibre would have to seek permission from a specific cardinal. Unfazed, Kibre, the daughter of movie-set designers, sent a tempting card of introduction up to His Eminence: “Miss Adele Kibre—Hollywood, California.” The cardinal quickly sent for her, saying, “So you are from Hollywood! Come, let’s talk.” Kibre got to see her manuscript, at the price of merely talking for a while with a starstruck European about Hollywood, the “glamour city of the western world.”

Kibre knew, as any dedicated book hound knows, that archives have walls but people have whims. And she also knew that, if you really want to see a manuscript, there are ways and there are ways.

Kibre is one of many memorable characters who appear in two new books about stealing and destroying knowledge in wartime: Peiss’s Information Hunters: When Librarians, Soldiers, and Spies Banded Together in World War II Europe and Richard Ovenden’s Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge. As both works show in rich and sometimes horrifying detail (and to paraphrase Robert Darnton), books do not just reflect upon history; books create history.1

On this point, Peiss quotes the poet Archibald MacLeish. As Librarian of Congress during the Second World War, MacLeish recruited scholars to a branch of the OSS—Research and Analysis, nicknamed the “Chairborne Division”—where they read and worked up strategic analyses from the very documents that Kibre found and photographed: “The keeping of these records is itself a kind of warfare,” MacLeish explained. “The keepers, whether they wish so or not, cannot be neutral.”2

As Ovenden describes, the Nazi government’s destruction of Jewish books relied, in part, on the guidance of the so-called Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question. This “quasi-academic body” premised its authority to adjudicate the fate of Jewish writings on its own “massive collection of books and Hebrew or other Semitic languages and books about Judaism.”3

Read entire article at Public Books