Forbidden Books in American Public Libraries, 1876-1939: A Study in Cultural Change

Forbidden Books in American Public Libraries, 1876-1939: A Study in Cultural Change

Forbidden Books in American Public Libraries, 1876-1939: A Study in Cultural Change

Forbidden Books in American Public Libraries, 1876-1939: A Study in Cultural Change

Synopsis

This study traces the way in which the librarian as the guardian of the freedom to read came to replace the librarian as moral censor. This shift in ideology is traced against a backdrop of major social and literary changes. Within this context, censorship is treated as part of a broader professional ideology of book selection. Geller treats that ideology in terms of three constant dilemmas of choice: populism vs. elitism, neutrality vs. advocacy, and freedom vs. censorship. By exploring the ways in which librarians as public servants have defined their selection policies in terms of the public interest, she sheds new light on the complex historical background and shifting social values that underlie contemporary policy alternatives.

Excerpt

This study traces the way in which the ideal of the freedom to read came to replace a quite different ideology between 1876 and 1939. In 1876, when the American Library Association was formed, its leaders avoided controversial literature and endorsed the librarian as moral censor. In 1939, when the association adopted its first Library Bill of Rights, the librarian was defined as guardian of the freedom to read.

Two sets of questions are suggested by these changes. First, why did the idea of the freedom to read become dominant at a given time and not another? Why did censorship policies once seem to be consonant with our liberal political traditions and First Amendment freedoms? Second, how does a profession choose the values that justify its existence and social contribution? How do its concepts of the public interest change?

Today, as censorship efforts increase, and issues long thought resolved become controversial once more, the historical comparison of these competing ideologies becomes especially urgent. A long-term perspective is needed to shed light on the changing meanings of censorship and the shifting boundaries of permissible expression. Every society, however liberal, imposes its taboos, explicit and implicit. The ideas and values it forbids reflect its deepest fears and commitments, and their defenses and challenges define its cultural frame.

Equally complex is the relationship between First Amendment freedoms and academic freedom, freedom of the press, and the freedom to read. Academicians, journalists, librarians all have codes of freedom, but all have censored themselves and operate within overt and tacit limits. All have had their freedoms challenged by others and defined by court decision.

Librarians now opposing censorship in and out of court may be taking the opposite side in an old debate. Yet they have always had to defend their criteria for choosing books, as well as their professional authority, vis-à-vis the lay community to which they are accountable. The content of these disputes and even the values invoked may change, but the dilemmas that librarians have faced show remarkable parallels . . .

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