Publication packages labeled with foreign country destination, circa 1900. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Image no. MAH-26963.

The Smithsonian International Exchange Service in World War II

While responding to a digitization request, I uncovered the story of how the Smithsonian International Exchange Service (1849-1992) helped rebuild the library collections of Chinese cultural heritage institutions during the Second World War.  

Sometimes it is the inquiries from researchers that enable Smithsonian Institution Archives staff to rediscover powerful stories within our collections. As someone who responds to inquiries for digitization-on-demand services, I often learn about and explore the collections as I am imaging them. 

That happened with one large request from a few months ago.  

After retrieving the requested boxes from the Archives stacks, I usually get right to work digitizing material without looking closely at what it is I’m imaging. As I am not only responsible for fulfilling digitization-on-demand requests but also multiple long-term digitization efforts, I often don’t have the time to delve any deeper than that. But if you combine a large request and a significant period in 20th century history, well…sometimes my curiosity gets the better of me. 

The Smithsonian International Exchange Service, founded in 1849, was designed to assist various international and national literary and scientific societies, institutions, organizations, and universities by disseminating and exchanging publications. This typically included books, periodicals, and specimens. Beginning in the 1880s this service extended to the official exchange of government publications between the United States and foreign countries. 

International Exchange Service at work, circa 1903-1904. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Image no. MAH-15674.

Publication packages labeled with foreign country destination, circa 1900. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Image no. MAH-26963.

The request I worked with dealt specifically with correspondence between the Service and Chinese institutions during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), which is considered a part of World War II. As Imperial Japanese military forces invaded and occupied large swaths of mainland China, various universities and national institutions, such as the National Library of Peiping and National Peking University (Peiping and Peking are both old names for present day Beijing), had no choice but to relocate to safer regions in free China or establish temporary offices in British-controlled Hong Kong. 

Throughout this chaotic time the Service continued to collect and ship materials to support Chinese scholarship when original institution locations and their collections were inaccessible or destroyed because of invasion. As I was digitizing correspondence between the Service (including Smithsonian Secretary Charles G. Abbot) and leaders of Chinese universities and cultural heritage institutions, I couldn’t help but notice the urgency and direness conveyed in the letters. Directors appealed for “books and periodicals of all kinds, old and new, especially standard works in various fields” to start rebuilding from scratch Chinese institutional and library collections. The following series of images is a sample of the correspondence that best describes the situation:

Attachment – “Psychological Bulletin for 1939, p. 408”, circa 1939. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 509, Image No. SIA2020-007807.

Letter from Chinese Bureau of International Exchange to Secretary Charles G. Abbot, 10 September 1940. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 509, Image No. SIA2020-007808.

Letter from T.L. Yuan to Secretary Charles G. Abbot, 23 November 1937, pg. 1. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 509, Image No. SIA2020-007809.

Letter from T.L. Yuan to Secretary Charles G. Abbot, 23 November 1937, pg. 2. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 509, Image No. SIA2020-007810.

Letter from Secretary Charles G. Abbot to T.L. Yuan, 17 January 1938. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 509, Image No. SIA2020-007811.

Letter from T.L. Yuan to William A. Simmons, 26 January 1939. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 509, Image No. SIA2020-007812.

Under direction from the United States government, the Smithsonian International Exchange Service gathered and shipped to China materials not only from the Smithsonian, but also from the Library of Congress, U.S. federal agencies, and donations from American universities and scientific institutions. While the effort was not always successful, as evidenced from correspondence that was returned to the Smithsonian when Chinese organizations were forced to relocate yet again on account of anticipated military actions, the Service continued its work whenever logistically possible. 

The Service was phased out eventually in 1992. Due to the rise of information exchange over the internet, there was soon little need to ship physical materials halfway across the world. Yet, in its 143-year run, the International Exchange Service had proven itself more than capable of promoting the Smithsonian’s purpose – the increase and diffusion of knowledge – not only on a global scale, but also in times of war and major social upheaval. 

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