Mind Meld: Books Libraries Peace War

By Steven W. Witt
Illustrations by Marcos Chin

The International Mind Alcoves (1917–1954) aimed to change global perceptions regarding armed conflict and international peace. Central to this goal: the idea that a sustained peace requires cultural understanding engendered by education and exchange.
Illustration by Marcos Chin

A boy and his father visited the Thomas Beaver Free Library in Danville, Pennsylvania. It was 1944, and dad was going to war. The boy told the librarian, “He is going soon. That is why we need all of these books so quick. Daddy and I have to learn about so many people and places before he goes away.”

The librarian brought them to the International Mind Alcove collection of books on cultures, histories, and politics around the world. Given the nation’s focus on World War II at that time, it’s easy to assume this collection was created because of the war. Its history, however, is quite different. The books had been gathered years earlier, in reaction to World War I, in an effort to change global perceptions regarding armed conflict, international peace, and organizations such as the League of Nations. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) began supporting these book collections in 1918 as part of its “international mind” campaign, which aimed to put an end to war by encouraging international understanding and developing cosmopolitan perspectives across the globe.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace was established on December 14, 1910, when Andrew Carnegie transferred 10 million dollars in bonds to a Peace Fund meant to “hasten the abolition of international war, the foulest blot upon our civilization.” The organization’s main focus was establishing international law and developing mechanisms for nations to arbitrate their differences peacefully. But many of its activities were aimed at information campaigns. As Elihu Root, founding president, explained, the organization strove to educate people about international relations and promote world friendship. Libraries had great potential for advancing new perspectives that could ultimately yield peaceful solutions to global problems.

From the beginning of the Carnegie Endowment in 1910, the international mind campaign was used as a vast social experiment designed to change global public opinion and develop an international mindset that would, in the words of Nicholas Murray Butler (Nobel Prize winner and second president of the Endowment) replace “law for war, peace with righteousness for triumph after slaughter, the victories of right and reasonableness for those of might and brute force.” One of the campaign’s first activities was to send thousands of copies of Butler’s book, The International Mind, to academics, government leaders, and scholarly societies across the U.S., Latin America, and Europe. People “must be taught to know the international mind, to accept it, and to guide national action and policy in accordance with it,” Butler insisted. While these advocacy efforts failed to stop the outbreak of WWI, the Endowment’s educational division maintained its focus on creating “international mindedness” among the world’s populations during the post-war years.

Books from Sea to Shining Sea This printed map indicates the distribution of International Mind Alcove Collections (completed and “incompleted”) across the United States as of January 3, 1946. The map was hand-annotated by Endowment staffer Florence Wilson, former librarian of the League of Nations, for Alger Hiss, then president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Records, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University)

Many librarians seized the chance to join the international mind campaign early on and began promoting the public library as a vehicle for peace. Within weeks of the Endowment’s formal establishment, George F. Bowerman, librarian at the Public Library of Washington, D.C., a Carnegie library founded in 1903, sent detailed plans for “enlisting the aid of public, college, school and other libraries in behalf of international peace.” Other librarians and educators encouraged the Carnegie Endowment to use libraries to distribute peace literature. Frustrated by the lack of such material in the San Francisco Public Library, W. J. Rockwell asked the Endowment: “Do you not think it a good plan to supply regularly every public library in our country with the Advocate of Peace? … surely the public library is an excellent medium thru which to give publicity [to furthering the cause for peace].” In 1914 Willard Small, principal of Eastern High School in Washington, D.C., encouraged the Carnegie Endowment to send every high school library the Endowment’s annual yearbook plus titles such as Charles William Eliot’s Some Roads Towards Peace: A Report to the Trustees of the Endowment on Observations Made in China and Japan in 1912 and Sir Norman Angell’s The Great Illusion: A Study of the Relation of Military Power to National Advantage.

The creation of the International Mind Alcoves, a direct outgrowth of Butler’s international mind campaign, coincided with U.S. involvement in World War I. In 1917 librarians J. W. Hamilton of St. Paul, Minnesota, and Mary Chase of Andover, New Hampshire, partnered with the Carnegie Endowment to develop the first collections on foreign countries intended for small public libraries. Chase reported in the Advocate of Peace that “the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace furthered the movement by promising to send books, free, to any part of the world, as long as the supply lasted.”

The sets of books in the Alcoves were used to promote learning about international relations and foreign cultures. The goal was to influence people to realize what Butler described as their “duties, rights, and obligations” as humans within an international system. Beginning in 1918 and ending in 1948, the International Mind Alcoves program established 1,120 adult collections and 447 juvenile collections in U.S. public libraries located primarily in rural communities.

“Public libraries and reading rooms, International Mind Alcoves and International Relations Clubs are to be strengthened or brought into being not in one land, but in many lands, that the public mind, which in the modern democracies is in the last resort the source of authority, may be opened and broadened and deepened and instructed in all that relates to international understanding and international cooperation.”
— Nicholas Murray Butler, Annual Report, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1927

By 1924 International Mind Alcoves had gone global, with 81 collections in the U.S. and 22 in Europe, Latin America, and Asia. To promote the program abroad, the Carnegie Endowment sent librarians and staff around the world. In 1927 Florence Wilson, former League of Nations librarian, traveled across Southern Europe and the Middle East to survey American educational institutions. Traveling to Egypt, Syria, Turkey, and Greece, Wilson assessed the potential of the International Mind Alcoves and other Endowment programs such as their International Relations Clubs. The staff at Near East institutions, like their counterparts at rural public libraries in the States, expressed interest in promoting internationalism among their readers and embraced the International Mind Alcove collections with enthusiasm. Wilson was confident that the collections would contribute to the development of the peoples of the Near East, who, “held in restraint by despotic rulers and the domination of foreign governments, and without education facilities, need, as a preparation for their new democracies and to combat rather violent nationalism, a knowledge of international affairs.”

The Alcoves were seen in the U.S. and abroad as a foundation for the modern mind poised to engage with the emerging global society a strategy promoting a new cosmopolitan worldview. As Butler stated in a 1927 report on adult education activities, “Public libraries and reading rooms, International Mind Alcoves and International Relations Clubs are to be strengthened or brought into being not in one land, but in many lands, that the public mind, which in the modern democracies is in the last resort the source of authority, may be opened and broadened and deepened and instructed in all that relates to international understanding and international cooperation.”

To prepare future generations for a globalized society, the Carnegie Endowment established Children’s International Mind Alcoves in 1925, and these soon gained favor among libraries. “The fifth-grade teacher is using the books about children in other lands for collateral reading this year and she could scarcely wait for me to get In Sunny Spain ready for the shelf,” wrote a librarian from Brookville, Indiana. “She began to read it aloud at opening exercises this morning. The books for the little tots are darling!” Subsequent reports described the use of these children’s collections in a range of programming, such as reading passports, travel clubs, and world friendship clubs. By 1945 the Endowment had established more than 500 of these children’s collections to introduce youngsters to the world’s cultures and languages.

Books for Peace This handwritten bar chart represents the distribution of approximately 156,000 books under the auspices of the International Mind Alcoves, comprising 1,567 collections spread across the United States and around the world between 1925 and 1951. (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Records, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University)

The Endowment used the national and local press to further advance its mission, sharing feedback from librarians that provided evidence of a growing interest in international affairs. “Many Study World Topics,” announced the New York Times of December 7, 1930. Librarians everywhere were reporting that “the man in the street, formerly interested in fiction, detective stories and in the stock market … has, in the last few years, been awakened to a consciousness of other countries, with their different customs, finances, and morals.” Local U.S. papers reported on new International Mind Alcove books and commented on their popularity. The Charlotte Observer, noting the library’s acquisition of a “fine collection of books” in 1922, observed that the International Mind Alcove “shall be a definite contribution toward the formation of public opinion along international lines.” Six years later the Tulia Herald of the Texas Panhandle described the potential of Leland Hall’s Timbuctoo to change people’s perceptions of Africa as a dangerous place. Just as the Mind Alcoves abroad served as links to other nations, the U.S. collections symbolized a link between seemingly isolated rural America and the rest of the world.

Reviews and descriptions of the Mind Alcove collections were often provided by Amy Heminway Jones, an assistant in the Carnegie Endowment’s Division for Intercourse and Education. Jones selected books for the program, authored the International Mind Alcove booklists, and traveled extensively to promote the Endowment’s work. Jones served as more than a facilitator and assistant for the program. Her vast correspondence with librarians around the world was a conduit for international exchanges that formed a network of relations bound by the Mind Alcove collections. Her friendly communications invited candid responses. On April 22, 1924, the librarian from the Tokyo University of Commerce (now Hitotsubashi University) complained that the proposed Immigration Act of that year, effectively banning Asian immigration to the U.S., would create difficulties. Jones agreed that it was an unjust law, remarking that nevertheless it was a pleasure that she and Mr. Ota, the librarian, could “write sincerely and frankly regarding this matter.”

Jones’s letters flowed throughout the rural U.S., Asia, the Americas, and Europe, tracking shipments of books while building camaraderie among librarians through her humor and concern. When librarians in Bend, Oregon, worried that an International Mind Alcove might frighten readers, Jones suggested alternative names such as How the Other Half Lives, Do You Want to Travel?, or Books on Foreign Lands. Jones also traveled extensively to support both the International Mind Alcoves and the allied International Relations Clubs. She went by train to Mind Alcoves throughout the U.S., conducting workshops, presenting to library boards, and meeting with librarians. She made stops in North Carolina, Georgia, Indiana, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Missouri, Colorado, Oregon, and up and down the East Coast. She also made steamship journeys to Europe and traveled across Asia, visiting Japan, China, and even Australia. Jones’s travel memoir, An Amiable Adventure, was published in 1933.

It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again In a handwritten letter dated April 22, 1924, T. Ota, librarian at the Tokyo University of Commerce, sends his thanks to Carnegie Endowment’s Amy Heminway Jones for her “kind” gift of books as well as a menu from the Japan Society of New York, “which we all looked [at] with great interest.” Ota observes that the “immigration problem is very difficult in your country relating to Japan.” (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Records, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University)

Despite Jones’s genial efforts, the International Mind Alcoves rankled critics who charged that the books were “arguing for internationalism as against Americanism,” and that “these activities should all come under the classification of foreign propaganda. Their purpose is the breaking down of time-honored American policies.” A 1930 Chicago Daily Tribune article, “Virtue for Tiny Tots,” complained that the juvenile collections were a part of a trend to water down history and children’s stories with “substitutes for the heroism of two-gun patriots.” In 1938 the Public Library board in Harlingen, Texas, noted the popularity of the International Mind Alcove collection while debating the need for “more books on Americanism” to “combat the spread of communism.

Americanism versus internationalism also featured heavily in a series of Congressional speeches from Representative George Tinkham of Massachusetts. As the Milwaukee Sentinel reported on February 26, 1933, Tinkham warned that “the manipulation of public opinion from sources which do not represent the general public will become the poisoned cup from which the American Republic will perish.” Tinkham called for “a congressional investigation of the propaganda methods of the Carnegie Endowment and its allies [to] … insure preservation of American independence and American neutrality.” Tinkham called out the International Mind Alcoves as a particularly dangerous force that placed subversive books in public libraries, “even for children.” Although the criticism continued, the Endowment supported the International Mind Alcoves during the build-up to World War II.

As war made it difficult to partner with countries in Europe and Asia, the program shifted toward supporting U.S. understanding of forces antithetical to the internationalist mission: German fascism in Europe and the expansion of the Japanese Empire in Asia and the Pacific. In a domestic shift, the Carnegie Endowment also began to highlight the International Mind Alcoves as a tool to build racial tolerance at home. Its 1939 Annual Report focused attention on the need for broader understanding and tolerance of foreign cultures and practices to promote acceptance of multicultural aspects of the U.S. The publication noted that “in some parts of this country, the foreigner is still an object of suspicion, and even the fact that he eats different food and wears different clothes may open him to ridicule, if not to condemnation. One of the most vital needs in the development of better relations is for the average citizen, man, woman and child to get below surface differences and to realize that a human being is a human being no matter how widely customs and beliefs may differ.” Although racial tolerance was always a facet of the “international mind,” this shift strategically narrowed the goals of the International Mind Alcoves program from world peace to domestic tranquility.

The Immigration Problem On May 15, 1924, Carnegie Endowment’s Amy Heminway Jones replied to the letter from T. Ota, librarian at Tokyo University of Commerce (carbon copy shown). Concerned about how the immigration issue is being handled in Congress, she hopes that matters can be dealt with from a “diplomatic standpoint.” Happy that the two of them are able to write to each other sincerely and with candor, Heminway notes that “Antagonisms are so easily aroused among peoples of different nations.” Ultimately, the Immigration Act of 1924 limited the number of immigrants allowed entry into the U.S. through a national origins quota, and it completely excluded immigrants from Asia. (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Records, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University)

Reports of increased use of the Mind Alcove collections poured in as war became imminent. A librarian from Salisbury, North Carolina, stressed the importance of the collections amidst the growing conflagration, stating, “we are particularly delighted to receive these books at this time when the need for better understanding is so imperative and when people are turning to the libraries for sane and unbiased information.” As soon as the U.S. entered the war, the Endowment made it known to the director of the Office of War Information that “International Mind Alcoves may without exaggeration be counted as a direct contribution to the war effort.”

A librarian from the Hutchinson, Minnesota, Free Public Library noted that “the demand for books about the Allied countries and which describe the theatres of war is great and we are grateful for all of those in our International Mind Alcove. Also, I cannot tell you how helpful the books on the subjects of peace and postwar planning which we have in our Alcove have been to study groups and the reading public in general.” He added, “parents of our boys in service are reading everything on foreign countries they can find and our Alcove gives much satisfaction.” Using the letters and reports of International Mind Alcove libraries, the Carnegie Endowment positioned the program to support a U.S. international policy that now paralleled the organization’s mission in many ways. The reports of the peace-oriented Endowment make clear, ironically, that the International Mind Alcoves became more synchronized with U.S. foreign policy when the country became involved in World War II.

After the war’s end, the Carnegie Endowment shifted its focus to postwar efforts, mainly bolstering the United Nations. Although the Mind Alcove book lists began including works such as United Nations Primer by Sigrid Arne, the Endowment reported in 1946 that no new Alcoves had been established since 1944, and that all Alcove commitments to libraries would be met by 1951. With new opportunities to promote internationalism through the UN and UNESCO, the Carnegie Endowment allowed the International Mind Alcoves program to end.

This decision coincided with amplified criticism of the Carnegie Endowment and other foundations. By the early 1950s anti-communist sentiment in the United States once again focused attention on the activities of the Endowment and other foundations and nonprofits. The U.S. Congress began to investigate whether or not tax-exempt foundations were misusing funds to support activities against national interests. The hearings of the Special Committee to Investigate Tax-Exempt Foundations took place between 1952 and 1954 with Congress investigating “which such foundations and organizations are using their resources for un-American and subversive activities; for political purposes; [and for] propaganda or attempts to influence legislation.” The Chicago Daily Tribune, a longtime critic of the Carnegie Endowment, editorialized that “huge foundations in the country have been diverted into propaganda for globalism, including international communism.” On the other hand, the New York Times described the “dangers to freedom of scholarship, research and thought that lie half-hidden between the lines” of the committee’s investigation.

The project and its collections were scrutinized. The congressional committee hired Northwestern University political science professor Kenneth Colegrove to review International Mind Alcove books. He concluded that titles such as Harold J. Laski’s Studies in the Problem of Sovereignty were “opposed to the ‘national interest’ and inclined toward extreme left.” Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth was labeled “slightly leftist” and other titles were categorized as “globalist” and “Marxist,” with some authors linked to reports from the House Un-American Activities Committee. Colegrove concluded that International Mind Alcove books presented a perspective that did not promote the national interest.

Illustration by Marcos Chin

The hearings on tax-exempt foundations also included testimony from both Joseph E. Johnson, president of the Carnegie Endowment, and Charles Dollard, president of Carnegie Corporation of New York. In both their testimonies, Johnson and Dollard countered categorization of Carnegie activities as un-American, distancing their organizations from the high-minded internationalism of the International Mind Alcoves program. When asked about the selection of books and whether or not the collections were biased toward globalism and in support of “one world,” Johnson countered that the program had been discontinued before he became president and credited Amy Heminway Jones, who no longer worked for the Endowment, with selecting all of the books. Johnson further placed the Alcove program within the context of broader Carnegie support for libraries and asserted that “there was a feeling in the endowment that the endowment could usefully help people study international relations by making gifts of books to colleges and universities and other libraries which helped to explain and help people understand international relations.” Combined, the testimonies of Johnson and Dollard clearly sought to limit the scope of the Carnegie Endowment’s involvement in the program while recasting the purpose of the Mind Alcoves from one of the primary tools to transform global public opinion to a simple collection of books on international relations.

The committee’s findings implicated American foundations in subversive activities, broadly accusing them of employing vast funds to mount information campaigns to influence educators, manipulate public opinion, and — ultimately — impact foreign policy. In a statement apparently aimed directly at the International Mind Alcoves, the report claimed that overall “some of the larger foundations have directly supported ‘subversion’ in the true meaning of that term — namely, the process of undermining some of our vitally protective concepts and principles and the result of these combined efforts has been to promote ‘internationalism’ in a particular sense — a form directed toward ‘world government’ and a degradation of American ‘nationalism.’”

The report singled out the Carnegie Endowment’s campaign for the “international mind” as particularly dangerous because it had proven so successful in using publishers, libraries, the media, universities, and other organizations to aid in disseminating information that reached nearly the entire U.S. population. The focus of the committee’s concerns was on the ability of well-funded organizations to create international networks that advanced alternative political agendas running counter to prevailing governmental policies. While highly critical, in the end the committee report did little to increase government oversight or change how foundations and NGOs could operate in the United States. The International Mind Alcoves, however, were never revived.


It may seem that the International Mind campaign ended in failure, but many of the ideals of internationalism live on in the work of UNESCO and other international organizations. The debate between globalism and nationalism continues, as do attempts to influence public opinion through targeted information campaigns, including the use of psychographics in social media. The battle for minds continues.


An award-winning scholar of library and information history, Steven W. Witt is director of the Center for Global Studies and head of the International and Area Studies Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research focuses on the trajectory and impacts of international developments in library and information science, placing global trends in librarianship and knowledge production in the context of wider social and technological developments.

Originally a transplant from Toronto, Marcos Chin has been living and working in New York City as an illustrator for over 12 years. An instructor at the School of Visual Arts, he has created illustrations for companies such as Google, Target, HBO, Starbucks, Michael Kors, and the New York Times. marcoschin.com

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