Magazine article American Libraries

Atomic Wives and the Secret Library at Los Alamos

Magazine article American Libraries

Atomic Wives and the Secret Library at Los Alamos

Article excerpt


For the first two years of its existence, the town of Los Alamos, New Mexico, was kept a secret from the nation and was a mystery even to its closest neighbors. The town's intriguing history began in 1943, when the location was selected by the Manhattan District, a special section of the United States Army Engineering Corps, to be the birthplace of the first atomic weapon. The Manhattan District was assigned the task of providing a safe and secret location where American and refugee scientists could work to create the bomb before the Germans or Japanese did. The future of the free world seemed to weigh heavily on the project, imbuing it with a sense of vital urgency.

There were several project sites affiliated with Manhattan scattered around the country, including those at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and at Hanford, Washington. However, the Los Alamos site in the Jemez Mountains, 20 miles northwest of Santa Fe, was responsible for the final design and assembly of the weapon. The Army contracted with the University of California to oversee the scientific aspects of the work. The laboratory was directed by J. Robert Oppenheimer, a physicist from the University of California/Berkeley.

Oppenheimer and a skeleton crew arrived at the site in March 1943. The site was appropriately isolated; the only facilities in the area, an exclusive ranch school for boys, soon became base camp for the labs. Prefabricated buildings were hastily erected and the town expanded rapidly. With the scientists came their families, as well as workers, support staff, and military troops of all kinds. The population of the town grew rapidly as a result of new arrivals, in the form of both new scientists and the offspring of the lab families.

Perhaps the most amazing achievement of the project was not that it was successful, but that a functioning community was created in an atmosphere of such complete secrecy. Many of the people of Los Alamos came without knowing their destination or what their responsibilities at the site would be. Security was extremely tight, with passes required to leave or enter the town; entry to the lab areas was even more restricted. All mail came through a single post office box in Santa Fe. Outgoing mail was first forwarded to another city before being mailed.

Qualm-free nonprofessionals

Like any successful scientific or research endeavor, the laboratory had a library. The first librarian was Charlotte Serber, the wife of Robert Serber, a physicist and longtime friend of Robert Oppenheimer. She was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania who had worked previously as a freelance journalist and a statistician, and would later work as a Broadway theater production assistant. In his memoirs, Robert Serber stated that Oppenheimer selected Charlotte specifically because she was not a professional librarian, and would therefore have few qualms about cutting "the necessary corners."

In Los Alamos, almost all the scientists were men, and most wives were required to work in some aspect at the labs, due to the otherwise limited local workforce. Often these jobs were secretarial or routine computer work. Charlotte Serber was the only female group leader at Los Alamos at the time (the "group" being the main organizational division of the lab), supervising a staff that eventually grew to 12 people. Despite this status, however, Charlotte, out of all the group leaders, was not invited to witness the test of the first atomic weapon at the Trinity Site on July 16, 1945. Oppenheimer's excuse for her exclusion was that there were no sanitary facilities at the site; Charlotte remained offended.

The Serbers arrived in Los Alamos in March 1943 with the first group of scientists. Charlotte spent the first month or so of the assignment working with the director's secretary because no library materials had arrived. …

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