Undercover at the Library

Undercover at the library: spies, reference desks, and the invention of privacy

by Monica Westin

1. Hotbeds of anarchy: The library book used as evidence to arrest Henry Melnek on his way home from the Astor Library in 1906

In the summer of 1906, nineteen-year-old Henry Melnek was arrested for stealing two German language books from the Astor Library in the East Village. Russian agents of the czar stationed in New York had followed Melnek home after being tipped off by a librarian that he had a book about anarchy in his possession.

The New York Times identified the book that was responsible for Melnek’s arrest as Schriften by an “M. Perez” [sic]. The Astor Library had classified Schriften as a book about anarchy, and its librarians were actively collaborating with Russian agents to investigate all patrons who requested this and similar titles, in order to identify anarchist organizations and enemies of the Russian state.

The front page of the New York Times from June 23, 1906. The following text is highlighted:

Russian spies on watch in New York libraries
They follow all who call for books on anarchy.
Fact comes out in court.
Secret service agents never relax their vigilance in reading hours, says Astor Library's chief. 
The far-reaching vigilance of the Russian Secret Service and the precautions taken by the Russian Government to watch those openly professing Anarchistic tendencies or cherishing them in private was brought out yesterday as the result of the arrest of a young man charged with stealing books from the Astor Library.

The actual author of this Schriften (Writings) is not an M. Perez, but almost surely the Polish-born author Isaac Leib Peretz (b. 1852), a lawyer, short-story writer, and poet who had his law license revoked by czarist authorities for radicalism in 1888. Sympathetic to socialist causes, Peretz largely wrote short Yiddish language fiction about the lives of everyday Russian Jews.

Peretz Square in New York was dedicated to the author in 1952. At the corner of Houston and First Avenue, it’s half a mile from where the Astor Library had been located on Lafayette Street.

A photo of a small NYC park with a green plaque that reads "Peretz Square."

The national response to the 1906 arrest of alleged anarchist Melnek did not include any outrage that his privacy had been violated by the librarians in charge; journalists’ critiques of the Astor Library focused instead on the fact that the library had made anarchist books available in the first place. 

The Monday after Melnek’s arrest, a widely syndicated New York Tribune article declared, in a quote reused in newspapers from Salt Lake City to Paducah, Kentucky, that the event showed how American free libraries had made themselves “hotbeds of anarchy” and “armories of nihilism.”

A clipping from the NY Tribune:

Libraries Schools of Anarchy.
From the New York Tribune.
It has remained for Russian officialdom to discover in our American free libraries nurseries of crime, hotbeds of anarchy and armories of nihilism, furnishing forth, without money and without price, weapons ready forged for aiming at the heart of organized government and for striking at the divine right of kings. How real this library danger has come to be regarded in Russia was brought to public attention by an arrest made last week in this city, when Henry Melnek was araigned in Jefferson market police court charged with abstracting two books from the Astor library. One of the volumes was an apparently innocent novel by Jules Verne, but the other was a work by Perez, entitled, "Schriften," telling of the horrors of the Russian penal system in Siberia, and viewed in Russia as a highly seditious and pernicious publication.

2. Surveillance in the Stacks: The FBI’s attempt to develop counterintelligence in academic and technical libraries

Eighty years later, the New York Times broke a parallel story in 1987 about FBI agents attempting to leverage librarians for agency intelligence about potential spies accessing scientific and agricultural information available in American academic and technical libraries. 

About twenty libraries had been asked to cooperate with FBI agents as part of a national counterintelligence effort focused at least in part on the KGB; librarians were asked in particular to report on the activities of foreigners in their facilities, with the rationale that citizens from countries hostile to the United States could utilize academic library resources to “piece together data which would yield information dangerous to our national security.” (Kaufman’s testimony to Congress, 1988)

Paula Kaufman, the director of Academic Information Services at Columbia University, was the first whistleblower for the program, alerting librarians across the United States via a letter to the American Library Association (ALA) about being approached by FBI agents. In Kaufman’s letter she described to other librarians how she “explained that we were not prepared to cooperate with them in any way, described our philosophies and policies respecting privacy, confidentiality and academic freedom, and told them they were not welcome here.” 

Library leaders swifty condemned this initiative as an unacceptable intrusion on the privacy of their patrons. The following summer of 1988, Kaufman and other librarians testified in a series of congressional hearings about the legality of the FBI’s activity that eventually led to (Freedom of Information Act) FOIA requests about the program. 

The FBI initially called this initiative the “Library Awareness Program” in their communications with librarians, but information included in reports released under FOIA requests suggests that the program was actually called “Development of Counterintelligence Among Librarians,” or DECAL.

A clipping from a 1987 New York Times article:

FBI in New York Asks Librarians' Aid in Reporting on Spies
by Robert D. McFadden
FBI agents have asked librarians in New York City to watch for and report on library users who might be diplomats of hostile powers recruiting intelligence agents or gathering information potentially harmful to United States security.
The initiative has upset library officials, who fear intrusions into the privacy and academic freedom of library users and object to what they called an effort to turn librarians into Government informers.
The contacts have been under way since last spring as a result of a sensational espionage case in which a Soviet employee of the United Nations, Gennadi F. Zakharov, recruited a Queens College student as an agent through contacts made at a library. Mr. Zakharov was caught and traded for Nicholas Daniloff, an American reporter seized in Moscow on what were widely regarded as retaliatory spy charges. Officials of the Federal Bureau of Investigation acknowledged in response to inquiries yesterday that staff members at fewer than 20 libraries, most of them academic rather than public...

In October of that year, the ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee released a statement that described Project DECAL as a threat and appealed to librarians not to share information with the FBI that would undermine their patrons’ right to privacy. The normative library policy to respect the confidentiality of users had by this point been firmly established across public, academic, and scientific libraries across the country. 

3. Reference desks and the production of library privacy 

What happened to privacy in American libraries between 1906 and 1987 to cause such a divergence in these two responses to requests from intelligence agencies? 

For one thing, privacy as a legal right in the United States wasn’t widely established among legal scholars and the courts until the late 1930s, which is when the American Library Association adopted its first Library Bill of Rights. The 1939 Library Bill of Rights included a section on patrons’ right to privacy, which is expanded in the current Library Bill of Rights. This right to patron privacy was expanded in 1940, when the ALA established a Committee on Intellectual Freedom, which later became an Office for Intellectual Freedom in 1969. 

By the time the FBI’s Project DECAL came along, librarians as a profession were very clear on how sharing their patrons’ information-seeking behavior with the agency would put the trust of their patrons, and thus libraries themselves as institutions, in danger. As Kaufman described to Congress in the 1988 hearings about Project DECAL, “The mere thought that a librarian or anyone else may be watching over one’s shoulder and reporting to the government on one’s reading habits conjures up images of Big Brother and creates an enormously chilling effect on all those who use libraries.”

But privacy in libraries in fact developed independently from and earlier than legal codifications in the United States. Long before the 1930s, librarians began to see their communication with patrons as privileged and confidential. 

Reference desks had everything to do with it. Specifically, privacy as an American library value developed rapidly once librarians started offering personalized reference services to their patrons at designated reference desks at the turn of the twentieth century.

American libraries historically had reference rooms, which housed reference materials that patrons could browse on their own, but hiring reference librarians to answer questions directly was just becoming a widespread practice when Melnek was arrested. Instead of unstaffed reference rooms, the reference desk as an interface for reference questions came into being.

A graph conjured via Google that shows the appearance of the search term "reference desk" in sources organized by date. Nothing appears between 1800 and 1900 when the line goes up, and stays around .000002% until it jumps way up around 1980 to .000014% and then back down to .000005% in 2020.
Pasadena Public Library's reference room from 1890. Bookshelves, desks with chairs, flowers and plants, prints on the wall.
1890 photo of reference room at the Pasadena Public Library
South Pasadena Public Library's reference desk from 1910. A woman and a young girl stand at the desk while another woman behind the desk helps them. Big sunny room with plants and bookshelves.
1910 photo of reference desk at the South Pasadena Public Library

The first reference librarian was hired in 1883 at the Boston Public Library. In 1915, William Warner Bishop presented a paper at the ALA conference (later published as “The Theory of Reference Work”) arguing that specific staff at libraries should be designated as reference librarians across American Libraries. 

Right around the time Melnek was slipping his anarchy book through the Astor Library’s front door while Soviet spies followed him, early champions of reference librarianship were arguing that a patron’s relationship with her reference librarian should be held in confidence, just as with her doctor or lawyer. 

As this new service of reference librarianship became standardized, Bishop and others focused especially on the need for privacy, so that patrons could ask questions without fear of embarrassment or celf-censorship.

An excerpt from William Warner Bishop's paper "The Theory of Reference Work.":

...at least mentioned. The reference room must be near the public catalog; it must not be remote from the book stacks. There should be (even in small libraries) some provision for privacy of consultation when necessary. It is extremely difficult to have no place to take an embarrassed inquirer, no place to consult on what may be very important matters other than the open reference room. Some study rooms where...

Reference desks became heavily used almost immediately, and libraries increasingly hired full-time reference librarians for every day of the week. Annual reports from free and public libraries between 1900 and 1920 are full of accounts about needing more staff at the reference desk for every hour their libraries were open.

In their reports, public and academic libraries also began to publish anonymized, typical reference questions asked at the desk, such as this list from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s 1905 Annual Report listing some of the questions the reference librarians were asked over a period of three consecutive days:

Excerpt from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh report:

January 20, Friday: The United States a world of power.—What were Shakespeare's views on immortality?—History of Japan from 1600 to 1800.—Queen Anne and her court.—History of English poetry.—Robert Louis Stevenson.—Panama canal.—Analytic geometry.—Oil analysis.—August Strindberg.—Mechanical movements.—Old letters, an essay.—English sports and pastimes.—house drainage.—River Brethren.—Electroplating.—Pythian games.—Cumberland Presbyterian Church.—"Workshop recipes."
January 21, Saturday: Civic federation in New York.—Chilled rolls.—Luxembourg and the Louvre.—French names corresponding to our given names.—Fish culture.—Gobelin tapestries.—Parasites.—Shellac.—William Morris.—Criticism of "Kidnapped."—Cement manufacture.—List of churches and ministers of Pittsburgh.—Constitution of Pennsylvania.—This season's music and drama.—Recent Philippine affairs.—"New thought."—Luca della Robbia.—Our national exchequer.—Teaching of technical grammar.—Thomas a Becket.—Metre of Shakespeare.—Pennsylvania boundary dispute.—History of Persia.—Shakespeare's mad folk.
January 23, Monday: Something to illustrate a book on the "Yoke of Mohammedanism."—Review of Ibsen's "Brand."—Derivation of names.—"Robin Redbreast," by Allingham.—Fourth dimension.—Architecture of the 17th century.—Pennsylvania soldiers in the Revolution.—Quotations on the dog. —The war congresses.—Buddhism.—Louisiana purchase.—Pronunciation of Medici.—Relation of home missions to foreign.—Where is the quotation, "Oh, bird of the wilderness"?

And from the Howard Memorial Library in New Orleans:

A book excerpt: 

A cross section of questions asked at the reference desk would present a bewildering variety. The library is in the habit of recording some of the more important of these for future reference. Among other questions submitted for solution this year have been noted fifteen on family history, twenty-five which involved the preparation of bibliographies, seven on values of books, five on imprints and others on such diverse subjects as Walt Whitman in New Orleans, Spanish moss, Father Ryan, old pitchers, Polish settlers in New Orleans, Ada Menken, the music of Gottschalk, the epitaph on the tomb of Jane Placide, and the voltage and kind of electric current used in the Panama Canal Zone.

4. Heaven on earth: The other fundamental type of privacy, and two adventure novels, including the other library book Henry Melnek was carrying when he was arrested in 1906 

During and after the period when reference librarianship grew as a standardized service, libraries continued to develop naturally as institutional leaders for the values of privacy and intellectual freedom. 

Today, librarians fight for the intellectual freedom and privacy of their patrons’ behavior, though today the battle is most often against the publishers and vendors that supply their content.

The library books themselves, though, have never had such privacy. 

Physical borrowing cards in the backs of circulating library books have historically shown the names of those who had checked them out; later, the check out record just included a date stamp indicating when and how many times each book had been checked out—metrics used for deaccessioning books.

A yellow check-out record card from a library book it says:

TK 152 M19

Magison, Ernest C.
Electrical instruments in hazardous locations.

Below is a list of six names written and pen and somewhat scribbled over and a corresponding list of check-out dates from 1966 to 1986

From 2012 to 2017, the artist Meriç Algün Ringborg produced installations of books that had never been checked out from libraries across the world, as “The Library of Unborrowed Books.” 

The first iteration at the Stadsbibliotek (Stockholm Public Library) in 2012 included a hardcover copy of James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon.

A photo of a bookshelf with Lost Horizon sitting among the row of books. It has a blue cover with a tall snowy mountain and an old king.

Lost Horizon was an immediate hit when published in 1933. It was republished in 1939 as Pocket Book #1 by Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster that pioneered mass market paperbacks—the smaller, cheapest version of paperbacks that fueled the paperback revolution of the 1940s. 

Lost Horizon is a thriller centering around Shangri-La, a fictional mountainous place guided by a Tibetan lamasery that has become synonymous with the concept of an isolated utopia, heaven on earth. The inhabitants of Lost Horizon’s Shangri-La don’t age, and they also have access to an enormous library where they can read at their leisure, peacefully, forever: 

“But whatever the past might yield, he was discovering happiness in the present. When he sat reading in the library… he often felt the invasion of a deep spiritual emotion, as if Shangri-La were indeed a living essence, distilled from the magic of the ages and miraculously preserved against time and death.”

The library in Lost Horizon, dramatically isolated from the world, epitomizes another form of privacy: that of physical privacy and solitude, which is necessary for escaping into the world of one’s book. 

Pierce Butler’s 1933 An Introduction to Library Science, published while the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights was being developed, describes how libraries must be able to create the conditions for this other fundamental privacy:

Pages 36 and 37 from Introduction to Library Science with the following text highlighted;

Page 36: Moreover normal reading is a solitary deed. Two readers in the same room are lost to each other. In a sense they are anti-social.

Page 37: A setting and a routine of daily life which includes periods of leisure and privacy with an access to books favors the action.

Some leisure time with access to books so that we can escape into different worlds: This is something we can also imagine for Henry Melnek. In addition to the book that got him arrested, Melnek had lifted another book from the Astor Library in 1906: a German language edition of Jules Verne’s adventure novel Around the World in Eighty Days. 

The edition Melnek held was likely this German language edition published in 1903, which depicts a ship powering over an enormous wave and towards an active volcano:

A worn version of a German language edition of Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days published in 1903, which depicts a ship powering over an enormous wave and towards an active volcano.

We can imagine Melnek arriving home that night having evaded arrest and sitting with these two books in the most comfortable chair in his apartment, lost to his actual environment while reading about his comrades in Russia or circumnavigating the entire globe. 


This syllabus is deeply indebted to Steve Witt’s “The Evolution of Privacy within the American Library Association, 1906–2002” 

Many thanks to Darcy Dapra and Kurt Groetsch from Google Books.