In Los Alamos National Laboratory’s earliest days, J. Robert Oppenheimer hand-picked Charlotte Serber for what he considered one of the most critical positions: to oversee the wartime technical library.
Her job wasn't easy. Serber faced two significant obstacles: She did not have extensive formal training or experience as a librarian, and the library didn't actually exist yet.
Regardless, in just two years’ time, Serber built and managed a classified technical reports library that Oppenheimer and his team relied upon for scientific success. This library has amassed millions more materials in the following eight decades and grown into today's National Security Research Center. Thanks to Serber, these collections are still used daily by researchers throughout the Lab's Weapons Program, as well as researchers across the nuclear security enterprise.
Who was Charlotte Serber?
Oppenheimer met Charlotte through her husband, Robert, who was his student turned protégé and friend. The Serbers even lived in a small apartment above the garage of Oppenheimer’s Berkeley, California home before moving to New Mexico to join the Manhattan Project.
Among Oppenheimer’s first recruits, the Serbers arrived in Los Alamos in March 1943, according to "Their Day in the Sun: Women of the Manhattan Project." While her husband focused on physics, Charlotte filled library shelves with materials that were first mailed circuitously around the country to avoid suspicion and oversaw the top-secret technical materials exchanged around the lab. In the beginning, there was just one safe, which only opened if Serber kicked it while dialing the combination, according to her account in "Standing By and Making Do: Women of Wartime Los Alamos."
Meanwhile, Charlotte learned the Dewey Decimal System and how to catalog materials. In his memoir, Robert Serber wrote that Oppenheimer saw her lack of related experience as a benefit because she would likely have fewer objections about cutting corners to hastily build a library.
As the group leader, she oversaw a staff of 12, thousands of materials that eventually filled the shelves, card catalogs and storage cabinets.
High praise, crushing disappointment
By all accounts, Serber’s library was run exceptionally well. In fact, Oppenheimer made note of it in a post-war congratulatory letter to her: “[No] single hour of delay has been attributed by any man in the laboratory to a malfunctioning, either in the Library or in the classified files. To this must be added the fact of the surprising success in controlling and accounting for the mass of classified information, where a single serious slip might not only have caused us the profoundest embarrassment but might have jeopardized the successful completion of our job.”
Although she had earned Oppenheimer's praise, Charlotte's work did not result in equal treatment relative to her male counterparts in Los Alamos. She was the only group leader not invited to witness the first-ever detonation of the atomic bomb — the Trinity test — on July 16, 1945, in the New Mexico desert. Oppenheimer said Charlotte was excluded because there were no sanitary facilities at the site, which she found offensive.
After the war and today
With the war’s end, the Serbers returned to Berkeley. Charlotte sought a librarian position at the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory, but was turned away after she was denied a security clearance related to unsubstantiated accusations that she was a communist (similar to the accusations Oppenheimer later faced).
By the early 1950s, the Serbers moved to New York City. Robert worked as a professor at Columbia University and Charlotte became a production assistant for the Broadway Theatre. She died May 22, 1967. Today, her work at Los Alamos remains her legacy.