The Librarian Spies
Philip and Mary Jane Keeney and Cold War Espionage
by Rosalee McReynolds, Louise S. Robbins
March 2009, 183pp, 6 1/8x9 1/4
1 volume, Praeger

Hardcover: 978-0-275-99448-8
$64, £48, 56€, A87
eBook Available: 978-1-56720-707-1
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This work discusses librarians involved with and investigated for espionage during Cold War and McCarthyism.

In 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy declared that the State Department was a haven for communists and traitors. Among famous targets, like Alger Hiss, the senator also named librarian Mary Jane Keeney and her husband Philip, who had been called before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee to account for friendships with suspected communists, memberships in communist fronts, and authorship of articles that had been published in leftist periodicals. Conservative journalists and politicians had seized the occasion to denounce the pair as communist sympathizers and spies for the Soviet Union. If the accusations were true, the Keeneys had provided the Soviets with classified information about American defense and economic policies that could alter the balance of power between those rival nations. If false, the Keeneys had been shamefully wronged by their own government, for the accusations tumbled them into grief and poverty.

In 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy declared that the State Department was a haven for communists and traitors. Among famous targets, like Alger Hiss, the senator also named librarian Mary Jane Keeney and her husband Philip, who had been called before The House UnAmerican Activities Committee to account for friendships with suspected communists, memberships in communist fronts, and authorship of articles that had been published in leftist periodicals. Conservative journalists and politicians had seized the occasion to denounce the pair as communist sympathizers and spies for the Soviet Union. If the accusations were true, the Keeneys had provided the Soviets with classified information about American defense and economic policies that could alter the balance of power between those rival nations. If false, the Keeneys had been shamefully wronged by their own government, for the accusations tumbled them into grief and poverty.

This book draws on a wide range of archival materials, especialy FBI files, interviews, and extensive reading from secondary sources to tell the story of Philip Olin Keeney and his wife Mary Jane, who became part of the famed Silvermaster Spy Ring in the 1940s. It paints a picture of two ordinary people who took an extraordinary path in life and, while they were never charged and tried as spies, were punished through blacklisting. It also reaveals the means by which the FBI investigated suspected spies through black bag jobs, phone tapping, and mail interceptions. Spies compromise national security by stealing secrets, but secrets can be defined to suit individual political designs and ambitions. Philip and Mary Jane Keeney constantly tested the boundaries of free access to information – to the point of risking disloyalty to their country – but the American government responded in a manner that risked its democratic foundations.

Rosalee McReynolds, until her untimely death in 2002, was a special collections librarian at Monroe Library, Loyola University, New Orleans. She held the MLS from Simmons College, Boston, and an MA in liberal studies from Boston University. In 1987 she won the Justin Winsor Prize for excellence in library history research. A member of the Carrollton-Riverbend Neighborhood Association, she was named a Preservation Hero by the Preservation Resource Center in New Orleans.

Rosalee McReynolds, PhD, is professor and director, School of Library and Information Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her historical research, focusing on libraries and intellectual freedom during the McCarthy period, has won numerous awards. Her best known book, winner of the Eliza Atkins Gleason Book Award from the American Library Association's Library History Round Table and the Willa Award from Women Writing the West, is The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown: Civil Rights, Censorship, and the American Library (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000). It has even won her a spot on an Oklahoma Library Association centennial list of 100 Oklahoma Library Legends. Robbins is also author of a number of articles and Censorship and the American Library: The American Library Association's Response to Threats to Intellectual Freedom, 1939-1969 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1996).

Reviews

"A major achievement of Cold War scholarship, and a must read for all library professionals. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries."—Choice, September 1, 2009

"What responsibilities does the Government have in protecting the country from foreign subversion? And by what constitutional and moral constraints must the government abide in carrying out this duty? In conducting her remarkably compelling research, Louise Robbins discovered government misconduct in its treatment of the Keeneys, but also another fat: they were indeed guilty of working with the Soviet Union to undermine the United States. Unlike many other accounts of McCarthyism, in Robbins' story, the alleged bad guys were indeed bad guys, Robbins has performed thorough and intensive research, and she presents her ideas with the precision and care of a true scholar. At the same time, she presents a human drama of ambition, misplaced idealism, self-righteousness, and intrigue that is worthy of a high-level detective story. And she raises important moral, legal, and political questions that liberal democracies must confront in dealing with enemies bent on their destruction."—Donald A. Downs, Professor of Political Science, Law, and Journalism at the University of Wisconsin, Madison

"Thorough, interesting, well-written, and well-documented."—John Earl Haynes
Author of
Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America

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