50 years of silent service: inside the CIA library

50 years of silent service: inside the CIA library – Central Intelligence Agency

Susan L. Wright

In a spirit of new openness, information professionals at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) are finally able to reveal, for the first time since its creation 50 years ago, unique aspects of the agency’s library, as well as some of what it is like to work in a secret organization. The library, located at the Central Intelligence Agency’s headquarters in Virginia, builds and maintains the agency’s primary collection of open source materials and serves as the main repository for unclassified as well as classified documents.

Disseminating Privileged Information

The most fascinating and unique part of the CIA library is its classified section. The classified section houses confidential documents that only agency personnel with special clearance may view.

“Working in the classified side of the library is interesting and exciting,” explained Joyce,(*) the librarian in the classified section. “If there is a crisis in the world, that’s when I get bombarded with requests, because there are many people who cannot make accurate decisions without certain information. It is very high priority. You may have to stay late, work weekends, and basically do whatever is necessary to ensure the proper dissemination of certain information. It is imperative that these people get the documents they need in a timely fashion. There are certain instances when lives could be lost if information was not received when it was needed,” stressed Joyce.

Only certain agency personnel are permitted to enter the classified section of the library. Most of the documents are shared with other classified libraries, but the librarian must get permission from the originating office before the information is distributed. “This business of clearances and whether or not someone has permission to see a document is difficult on top of normal library practice. You could get a security violation if you give someone a document who did not have the proper clearance,” Joyce said.

The classified library also has subject matter requirements so that other agencies will know what type of information the CIA’s classified library is interested in receiving. The process is similar to a procurement officer selecting materials for an unclassified library.

There are several million documents in this collection. Due to the overwhelming amount of documents received each day, the incoming materials are mostly scanned and digitized. “This also ensures that documents will not get lost,” explained Joyce. “Sensitive documents come through here and we disseminate the information to various branches of the agency. We also make sure the information is kept in the library so they have the information on file for 5-10 years.”

Historical Intelligence

Another special collection housed at the CIA headquarters is the Historical Intelligence Collection (HIC) which is a special library dedicated to materials dealing with the intelligence profession. The HIC responds to queries on intelligence topics, alerts offices throughout the agency to newly published intelligence literature, and maintains an extensive unclassified clippings file on primary intelligence topics. Currently, there are about 25,000 volumes in the collection.

“We have all current material as well as older books. Most of the books are obtained by publishers and bookstores. I also attend the American Booksellers Association each year where I gather catalogs and do a lot of reading and research in order to select books that would be germane to the collection,” explains Emma, chief librarian in the HIC. “For example, if a book comes out on biological chemical weaponry, I’m going to buy it. Usually the books are ordered and are available in this collection before they are reviewed in the Washington Post or New York Times.”

Emma is single-handedly in charge of the HIC collection. She does the procuring, the selections, and takes care of the daily functions of running the library. This includes charging out books, recalling books, responding to requests, and answering reference questions that might pertain to the intelligence field. “It’s hard for us to share some reference questions. Although this particular collection is unclassified, the questions we are asked deal with some sensitive issues. Usually, people will come to me if they are putting together a course – something that goes into a little more depth. For example, I did a bibliography of the books that are available which deal with French intelligence. The questions come on a strictly ad hoc basis. If it has to do with the intelligence field, it almost always comes to me.”

The HIC is 99 percent open source – meaning that anybody in the agency can look at or borrow a book. However the library, simply because of the nature of the CIA, still reserves a special confidentiality for its clientele. “We don’t know the names of the people checking out the books. It’s all batch numbers. If a book is overdue, however, we do have a classified database that we could refer to in order to locate the borrower.”

The HIC gets a lot of traffic – approximately 200 books are borrowed per month. “The library is mostly used by people for research, but there is always a lot of browsing. People love to come in here to just relax and read – sometimes for pure pleasure.”

The HIC librarian, who has been with the library for 20 years, has witnessed some changes during her tenure with the organization. “The most significant change I’ve seen has been the implementation of computers. When I first started, computers did not even exist in the library. I think they have made our job easier – information is at your fingertips. However, there are still those people who do not like computers. I think a major part of serving your customers is being able to cater to all of them.” The HIC still contains a card catalog and has customers who love to browse through it. “It’s important to remember that sometimes the computers do go down. The cards serve as a backup system. I think you need both worlds.”

Global Reference

In addition to the Historical Intelligence Collection, the CIA library also has a research library, available to agency personnel only, which contains some 125,000 volumes and 1,700 serials. Over half of the library’s periodical subscriptions are for foreign materials. Its emphasis is on basic and current information about foreign countries, including foreign newspapers, telephone directories, diplomatic lists, dictionaries, and encyclopedias. The library selects those materials that best meet the current and projected needs of United States intelligence. The selection policy changes as the agency’s priorities and requirements change.

“Since there is an international focus on what we do here, the first thing I must do in the morning is pick up a newspaper and get a feel for what’s going on in the world,” explains Ginny, the reference librarian. Keeping abreast of international issues is a requirement for these librarians because it is difficult to gauge the nature of the questions they will receive on a particular day. Customers of the reference library can go directly to Ginny for quick answers, or they can go to the help desk where questions are collected and answered on a timely basis. “Analysts who use the classified section come here as well. The open source materials help to put those classified issues into context.”

The reference librarians receive a wide array of questions everyday, but the one thing they have in common is that they all have an international focus. Questions on current events, political speeches, and new technologies are fielded continually. More specific questions pertain to world leaders, their political behavior, and their health. The reference librarians also gather information for influential leaders who will attend world summits. “For example, in the 1980s there were many bombings in Paris. We received questions about the times of the bombings and their locations. Agency personnel would use this information to determine patterns in order to keep U.S. embassies out of danger.”

The library also has specialized referents for regional offices. These referents deal with a particular geographical region. They are able to disseminate more detailed information. “There are some referents with a European emphasis, while others have an Asian emphasis. It’s difficult for one person to cover the entire world,” explains Ben, a referent in the Office of European Analysis.

The library is using the Internet in order to get this open source information to the desktop. The library also has its own staff of computer professionals to help support their users.

More Than Just trench Coats

Working at the Central Intelligence Agency is a unique experience. According to the HIC librarian, she does not think about where she works until she comes into the front entrance. “To me this is a job. Sometimes you realize that you have to have your badge on to come through the front entrance and you can’t throw your trash away (everything goes into a burn bag). You have to be aware of those things.” The Historical Intelligence Collection is bolted every night and the librarian’s materials are kept in a safe. “I guess I don’t think about it because I am so used to it. We do take it for granted that we work in a closed environment.”

The first thing the librarians are taught at the CIA is never to talk to the media. “We are more open than we used to be, however. If I saw you on the street we obviously would not be having the conversation we are having now. This is all cleared through public affairs – that is why I am sitting here talking to you. What we have here is very unique.”

“Knowledge is something we are constantly searching for. I think a lot of people have a deep misconception of what we do. We are librarians. We do research for people. We look for information for people. We don’t all wear trench coats with large hats pulled over our heads,” she commented. “That is a very small part of what we are.”

* By request of the Public Affairs Department at the CIA, only first names will be used in this article.

Wright is Assistant Editor. Special Libraries Association, Washington, DC. She may be reached via the Internet at: susan@sla.org.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Special Libraries Association

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group