Code-Breaking Librarians

Did you know that librarians helped crack enemy codes in support of the US war effort during World War II?

Until I read Liza Mundy’s book Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II, I was unaware, but when I found out, I was certainly not surprised.

Codes and ciphers are the tools of spies and subterfuge. Coded messages systematically replace a word, phrase, or sentence with specific alternates. In ciphers, each letter is replaced according to some formula or algorithm, making ciphers much harder to break.

The US military, caught by surprise at Pearl Harbor, realized they needed to quickly ramp up a code-breaking unit. They turned to thousands of women with classical liberal arts educations and built on those skills to assemble teams of expert code breakers. Like their counterparts working at England’s Bletchley Park, the American women’s collegiate experience reading and interpreting complex texts or wrestling with advanced mathematics prepared them well for untangling the shifting, arcane world of crypotanalysis.

Librarians brought their own skills to the teams. In addition to breaking codes, these professionals, mostly women, set the stage for their teams’ successes. They kept records. They organized vast amounts of disordered and unrelated information into logical categories. And by applying the principles of indexing and cataloging, they connected previously disjointed information and made it discoverable.

Librarians played important wartime roles outside the US as well.

Early in the war, Richard Hayes, director of the National Library of Ireland, was tapped by Irish army intelligence to help decode a cipher found on a German agent captured in Ireland. His success prompted Irish prime minister Éamon de Valera to set up a small office in Dublin for Hayes where Hayes and a small team could decode Axis messages being transmitted out of Ireland—all while Hayes continued to serve as library director. Hayes’ involvement had a significant impact on the war. His ingenuity and tenacity enabled him to unlock a notoriously difficult Nazi code, one that stumped Britain’s MI5 and the intelligence experts at Bletchley Park.

Most librarians today aren’t deciphering secret codes, but the skills behind that work—order, reason, connection, and interpretation—remain essential. We still need skilled professionals to create and maintain enduring systems to organize data, information, and knowledge and make them accessible. Unlocking the secrets of medicine and science depend upon it.

And yet, like the code-breaking librarians of World War II, today’s librarians often go unrecognized and their contributions unacknowledged. What can we do to change that?

Author: Patti Brennan

Director, US National Library of Medicine

2 thoughts on “Code-Breaking Librarians”

  1. Even more fascinating is the book “The Woman Who Smashed Codes” by Jason Fagone. The story is amazing. What a blessing that the author pursued this rich historical narrative by tracking down Elizabeth Friedman’s writings held in a Virginia library. It’s fascinating! Elizabeth and her husband literally wrote the book on code breaking in the United States.

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