Day Fifty Eight of the CMLE Summer Fun Library Tour!


Library staff are often doing great things! Sometimes it’s hard to see in our daily routines, because the things we do in libraries seem so ordinary to us – but still we touch lives and make our communities better places. Never doubt this is entirely true! Your community is a better place because you and your library are contributing to it. (Tell your funders and stakeholders, so they will know too!)

And sometimes it’s easy to see the contributions to a community that a library makes – even when it’s a secret in the moment!

The Librarian Who Guarded the Manhattan Project’s Secrets

While dodging accusations of communism, Charlotte Serber made the nuclear bomb possible.

“Nestled alongside the massive Los Alamos lab—which Lisa Bier in Atomic Wives and the Secret Library at Los Alamos described as emanating an “aura of utilitarian haste” with its unpaved streets and barbed wire gates manned by guards—the library appeared quite bleak. The photos that exist today show a small space crammed with books, shelves, file cabinets, and a Ditto machine (an early copier). Because the library was expected to be demolished after the war, everything was built from cheap wood.

The library had two sections: the main area, pictured at the top, and the document room—a locked vault containing reports and designs from Los Alamos and the other Manhattan Project sites. The library’s all-female staff—a mix of wives and Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps officers—needed to catalog, secure, and distribute thousands of books and manuscripts in a matter of months.

“But if library work was among the most tedious on the Hill, the award for the most unenviable job likely belonged to its head librarian: Charlotte Serber, a University of Pennsylvania graduate, statistician, and freelance journalist who at one point interviewed Frank Lloyd Wright for The Boston Globe.

“Here is a puzzle. You have no library experience, and you are tasked with a) heading a top secret facility, b) devising security protocols to ensure the U.S. military’s greatest secrets stay hidden, and c) importing thousands of documents to a site in the middle of nowhere—all in a vanishingly small window of time as World War II unfolds. How do you do it?

The answer, according to Serber: work over 75 hours per week.

Upon accepting the position, Serber taught herself the Library of Congress and Dewey Decimal classification systems,* and teamed up with Oppenheimer’s secretary to develop a pass system for accessing the library’s secure vault, requiring that each scientist present a “typewritten letter” bearing Oppenheimer’s signature rather than a badge.

Tasked with apprising all of the scientists of any new breakthroughs in the labs, Serber and her staff had to familiarize themselves with obscure science in order to accurately record and distribute news across the Hill.”

(Read the rest of this article here!)