Charlotte Serber

The story of the Lab’s first female Group Leader

By Brye Steeves | October 10, 2023

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Her job wasn’t easy.

Serber faced two significant obstacles: she did not have extensive formal training or experience as a librarian; and this library did not actually exist yet.

Regardless, in just two years’ time, as Los Alamos scientists raced to secretly create the atomic bomb and help end history’s deadliest war, Serber built and managed a classified technical reports library that Oppenheimer and his team relied on for scientific success. 

Oppenheimer himself commended Serber back then, and Los Alamos commends her today. She was critical to the success of the Manhattan Project. Thanks to Serber, the original materials remain a part of the Lab’s collections today, making up a vital component of the National Security Research Center (NSRC).

In honor of her contributions, NSRC staff and Lab leadership dedicated to her the room that houses the Classified Reports Collection, originally started by Serber. This room, now known as the Charlotte Serber Center, contains hundreds of thousands of classified materials, including documents, photos, handwritten notebooks, and the entire Rocky Flats Collection (actinide research and development data). These materials are used daily by researchers throughout LANL’s Weapons Program and across the Nuclear Security Enterprise. 

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Charlotte Serber (center, bottom row) was handpicked by first Lab Director J. Robert Oppenheimer to oversee the wartime technical library. She built and curated collections that are still relied upon today.

Who was Charlotte Serber?

Oppenheimer met Serber through her husband, Robert, his student, protégé, and friend. The Serbers even lived in a small apartment above the garage of the Oppenheimers’ Berkeley, California, home before both couples moved to Los Alamos to help create the first atomic bombs.

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, Serber filled library shelves with reference materials that were first mailed circuitously around the country to avoid suspicion. She also oversaw the top-secret technical materials exchanged around the laboratory. In the beginning, there was just one safe, which only opened if Serber kicked it while dialing the combination, she wrote in Standing By and Making Do.

Meanwhile, Serber learned the Dewey Decimal System and how to catalog materials—all new concepts to the former freelance journalist. In his memoir, Robert Serber wrote that Oppenheimer saw Charlotte Serber’s lack of library experience as a benefit because she would likely have fewer objections about cutting corners to hastily build a library.

As the library Group Leader, she oversaw an eventual staff of 12 and the thousands of materials that would come to fill the shelves, card catalogs, and storage cabinets.

High praise, crushing disappointment 

By all accounts, Serber’s library was exceptionally well run, which Oppenheimer noted in a post-war congratulatory letter he wrote to her, stating, “[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 his praise, her work did not result in equal treatment relative to her male counterparts at the lab. Serber was the only Group Leader not invited to witness the first-ever detonation of an atomic bomb—the Trinity test—in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945. Oppenheimer said she was excluded because there were no sanitary facilities at the site. She was justifiably offended. 

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 denied a security clearance related to accusations of involvement with communism. Following World War II, the loyalties of many, including Oppenheimer himself, were questioned without merit, and they suffered consequences.

By the early 1950s, the Serbers moved to New York City, where Robert worked as a professor at Columbia University and Charlotte became a production assistant for the Broadway Theatre.

Charlotte Serber died May 22, 1967. Today, the NSRC remains part of her legacy, and she a more visible part of ours, through the Charlotte Serber Center.


What is the Charlotte Serber Center?

The Charlotte Serber Center is part of the National Security Research Center, which is the Lab’s classified library. It is named in honor of the Lab’s only female wartime Group Leader. 

The Center includes the Classified Reports Collection that Serber cultivated while Los Alamos scientists simultaneously accessed the materials to build the atomic bombs. The Center also includes the Rocky Flats Collection, the Directors’ Correspondence Collection, a third of the NSRC’s photos and negatives, and more. Additionally, it houses the NSRC’s customer service area.

Collections in the Charlotte Serber Center help support today’s national security mission work.

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Archivist John Moore works in the Charlotte Serber Center, which includes the Classified Reports Collection that Serber started in the early 1940s.