Code Makers vs. Code Breakers exhibit now open in library

Kimberly Laferty

The University Library opened a new exhibit to be viewed now through summer 2016 on floor 12 of the library, called Code Makers vs. Code Breakers.

Edith Serkownek, an associate professor at the University Libraries, joined with Kathleen Medicus, associate professor at the University Libraries and cataloger in the Special Collections and Archives, to curate the exhibit. They split the work of putting the exhibit together, and were inspired by the American Cryptogram Association, who donated some of the materials used.

“(The American Cryptogram Association) started creating little cryptograms (messages or writings in code or cipher) in the 1930s, the same way that crossword puzzles were very popular, (with) this idea that it was a game and anyone could play,” Serkownek said. “And so it’s really great because they are still producing their newsletter and still create cryptograms.”

When a person enters the exhibit, they can pick up a cipher wheel, which they can use to decode messages that are in the corners of some displays.

James Bracken, dean of University Libraries, said the department has a deep collection in cryptography.

“It’s a fascinating subject that has been with us forever,” Bracken said.

The exhibit shows codes that were created by military leaders, spies, monarchs and many more themes. There is even a display on crime called Forensic Cryptanalysis that includes codes by the Zodiac Killer and the serial killer Unabomber.

“The Zodiac case is still actually an open murder case in the state of California from the 1960s,” Medicus said. “They never identified the identity of the Zodiac Killer and he’s kind of opposite in his use of code. He sent messages to the newspaper kind of boasting, kind of like Jack the Ripper.”

According to Medicus, an amateur decoding couple were able to decode the Zodiac Killer’s messages in the newspaper.

Another highlight of the exhibit includes a display with a theory that Shakespeare didn’t actually write his famous stories. The theory is that the stories were written by the English philosopher Sir Francis Bacon, and that he put secret messages within the stories.

Serkownek said that though this theory was kind of disproved, it is still popular today.

Also in the exhibit is a display about Mata Hari, a belly dancer and a German spy during World War I. She used invisible ink in her codes and the ink, which she claimed to be make-up, was supposedly found in one of her rooms, according to Medicus.

“They were looking for a spy whose code name was H21 and they were able to decipher radio messages or telegram messages and figure out that it was Mata Hari,” Medicus said. “She was 41 when she was executed by (a) firing squad because her messages got intercepted.”

Some other exhibit highlights and displays include codes in wartime, codebreakers in fiction, cryptography as a pastime and many more.

The exhibit is open Tuesday-Thursday from 1 to 5 p.m., or by appointment.

Anyone who follows Kent State University Special Collections and Archives on Facebook can also get a chance to win a $5 FlashCash gift card by breaking a code given every Tuesday. They draw from their email from people with the correct answer and choose a winner.

Kimberly Laferty is the libraries reporter for The Kent Stater, contact her at [email protected]