Where CIA Spies Go When They Need to Conduct Research

CIA spooks that need background research can often find it at the agency’s library. Located at its headquarters in Langley, Virginia the CIA’s library offers access to more than 200 foreign and domestic online databases. Together, they include more than 90,000 electronic periodicals, biographical resources, dissertations, public records, and photographs. The library also has vast print holdings including approximately 100,000 books.

In addition to international affairs and political science, these resources cover the fields of economics, business, and science and technology. One specialty of the CIA’s library is its Historical Intelligence Collection (HIC). This collection of nearly 25,000 volumes had its genesis in the 1950s.

The CIA’s legislative council at that time, Walter Pforzheimer, avidly acquired and read books on intelligence and brought many to the attention of Allen Dulles, the agency’s Director. Dulles tasked Pforzheimer with amassing a special collection of all the books vital to US security interests in a number of different languages.

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In addition to contemporary books, the HIC collects volumes from past times that that provide a window into counterintelligence, espionage, and conspiracies from their earlier times. Older volumes can provide valuable insight to help spies analyze current events. For instance, as CIA agents sought to understand Afghan culture and military practices after 9/11, they drew on Travels to Bokhara by Alexander Burnes, which was published in 1834. The oldest item in the HIC is a 1605 codebook published in Greek and Latin and bound in Velum.

Intelligence officers often don’t have time to read all of the books published on such key topics as Aldrich Ames or John Walker, so the CIA publishes a journal online that reviews such topics and provides a synopsis.

Unfortunately for laymen with a strong interest in the field of intelligence, access to the CIA library is classified. It remains a goldmine for the CIA’s agents, however.