Secret Files from World Wars to Cold War | Reference eReviews

Secret Files from World Wars to Cold War: Intelligence, Strategy and Diplomacy Taylor & Francis Group

By Cheryl LaGuardia

CONTENT An abundance of riches, this database contains nearly 17,000 British government intelligence and foreign policy documents in 4,500 files dating from 1873 to 1953, with a preponderance of material from the 1930s and 1940s.

Files come from the National Archives, UK, most of them from the Permanent Undersecretary’s Department (PUSD). The PUSD material records the impact of intelligence activities on British foreign policy during the period 1873–1951, including information on signals intercepted and deciphered by the British Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park during World War II, and reports derived from codes such as ENIGMA. British prime minister Winston Churchill’s handwritten notes in red ink can be seen on some documents.

usability The home screen has a “quick search” box at screen top, with check boxes that let patrons “use synonyms” and “use stemming.” Below this are four content boxes. “Explore Content by Theme” lists ten topics such as “British Domestic Security” and “Foreign Policy and International Relations.” “What People Are Searching For” displays popular queries (“Adolf Hitler,” “Edward Bridges”). Located below these two boxes is an oddly placed “Introduction,” which provides an overview of the archive. Finally, a “Resources” box offers FAQs, site tips, relevant and well-researched essays that give context for the documents, video tutorials, and descriptions of the nine series in the database, which showcase various collections from, for example, the British Ministry of Defence and the War Office.

Users who explore by theme will gain access to a variety of documents. Clicking on “Weapons Technology and Nuclear Warfare” results in a list of 516 documents labeled by type (memoranda, correspondence, meeting minutes, and reports). There are options to sort results by document type, document date, conflict, theme, region, and organization, as well as view the scanned original documents along with relevant descriptions and keywords. Some patrons may find the interface a little difficult, as they will need to zoom in to read the documents.

Quick searching offers mixed results. A search for “Turing” (referring to computer scientist Alan Turing, whose code-breaking work was instrumental during World War II) yields four documents. A “Keywords in Context” button comes up for each record, allowing users to view at a glance precisely where in the document the term Turing is found. The first result is from a report in 1912 (and therefore irrelevant), and the other three are hyphenated forms of the words adven-turing, manufac-turing, and cap-turing. A search for “putsch” is more helpful and returns 30 documents, the first of which is “­Germany: Plots Against Hitler, dated 30 April 1945–27 July 1945.” After doing a quick search, users can either view the document or download as PDF.

Less a serious research tool and more a social media feature, the “What People Are Searching For” box offers examples of what others are curious about, though some researchers may not be pleased to see their queries so explicitly revealed.

PRICING While Taylor & Francis digital resources vary in cost, outright purchase fees for perpetual access range from $25,000 to $75,000, based on an institution’s FTE and research output.

Verdict There’s no question that Secret Files offers valuable primary source material. However, given the high price, those who have a large collection budget and serve scholars of these subjects should seek out a free trial before committing to ­purchasing.

Cheryl LaGuardia is a Research Librarian for the Widener Library at Harvard University and author of Becoming a Library Teacher (Neal-Schuman, 2000). Readers can contact her at

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Cheryl LaGuardia About Cheryl LaGuardia

Cheryl LaGuardia always wanted to be a librarian, and has been one for more years than she's going to admit. She cracked open her first CPU to install a CD-ROM card in the mid-1980's, pioneered e-resource reviewing for Library Journal in the early 90's (picture calico bonnets and prairie schooners on the web...), won the Louis Shores / Oryx Press Award for Professional Reviewing, and has been working for truth, justice, and better electronic library resources ever since. Reach her at, where she's a Research Librarian at Harvard University.

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