By Cassia Smith
As the US joined World War I, two librarians partnered with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to foster international understanding and world peace. The outgrowth of this partnership was the International Mind Alcoves, a curated collection of books on international travel, exploration, culture, and politics. These books were selected by the Carnegie Endowment and donated to small public libraries, primarily those located in rural areas. Over the following thirty years, International Mind Alcove collections were established in libraries across the country. Center for Global Studies Director Steven Witt has an article in the Summer 2018 volume of the Carnegie Reporter that traces the development, ideals, execution, and cultural impact of this program.
In addition to providing background on the Carnegie Endowment’s aims for and administration of the project, Witt also highlights anecdotes from librarians who circulated the collection, and political leaders’ (often less than enthusiastic) comments regarding the program. He also includes information on the overall quality and selection of the collections and the sometimes complicated ways in which the program interacted with overseas libraries and communities. He concludes by describing how the establishment of the United Nations prompted the end of the International Mind Alcoves, as other avenues for fostering international awareness and understanding became available. In a fascinating twist, after the program had already ended, it became involved in a series of McCarthy-esque Congressional hearings aimed at regulating the activities of American nonprofit organizations, a process that Witt also briefly documents.
Though the UN continues to be a valuable source of international communication and understanding, the precedent set by the Carnegie Endowment’s International Mind Alcoves should not be ignored. The principles of wide dissemination, varied and high-quality books, and a sense of exploration and free interchange are still valuable concepts for modern librarians considering their own collections policies. Even during a period of intense nationalistic forces, the International Mind Alcoves provided a valuable resource for communities trying to make sense of a sometimes chaotic world. As modern libraries face their own uncertainties, this effort may represent one way forward for librarians interested in fostering peace and peaceful communication. Witt’s article has been posted in its entirety on Medium, or you can download the entire issue to your device at this page.