Preserving Our Freethought Heritage Redux: The CFI Libraries Keep Growing. (Physician - Assisted Suicide, Pro and Con)

By Binga, Tim | Free Inquiry, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Preserving Our Freethought Heritage Redux: The CFI Libraries Keep Growing. (Physician - Assisted Suicide, Pro and Con)


Binga, Tim, Free Inquiry


When I began working at the Center for Inquiry Libraries back in 1996, I was not completely sure what freethought was. I had a few notions, but I had never read a formal definition. I discovered a possible reason that I didn't know much about freethought in an article that Gordon Stein, former library director here for the Center, wrote for the Spring 1994 FREE INQUIRY entitled "Preserving Our Freethought Heritage." His thesis was that freethought material was becoming more scarce because libraries were not inclined to save it: freethought is a controversial movement, and many libraries do not collect controversial material, even in this day and age. Stein also mentioned that religious relatives of freethought book collectors often destroy the materials. I, too, have witnessed this firsthand. He observed that freethought materials were also becoming more and more scarce in the used bookstores he frequented.

Stein noted that even among libraries that did save freethought materials, none were doing so in an organized fashion. The two collections mentioned in his article, aside from the Library of Congress (which acts as a copyright depository and not in a collection development framework) were the University of Wisconsin collection of British freethought materials and the Irving Levy collection at the New York Public Library. Both these collections were very specific in scope, with Wisconsin collecting British freethought material and the Levy collection consisting of several hundred bound freethought pamphlets.

Several freethought collections have developed since Stein's article. Emmett Fields has begun his Bank of Wisdom Project, which places freethought materials on CD-ROMs and makes some rare materials available electronically. He has five CDs out already, and these include "The Works of Robert Ingersoll"; "An Introduction to Freethought," which contains over twenty-five rare freethought works by various authors; a CD that contains a biography and the works of Thomas Paine; "Facts about Freethought," which contains nine more books about freethought; and a CD about the Bible and freethought. These CD-ROMs are in Adobe Acrobat format (PDF) as actual scans of the pages, which makes it a little more difficult to conduct a search for a particular passage or quote than straight electronic text. This drawback is small compared to the monumental advance that Fields is making in preserving these rare works.

The Labadie Collection at the Harlen Hatcher Library at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) also contains freethought materials. The primary focus of this collection is now called "Social Protest" materials. The collection is heavy on anarchist literature, but also includes labor history, socialism, and other areas "to the extreme Left and extreme Right." There are some freethought materials here, but not a large amount and mostly as it applies to the subject strengths of the collection.

The Internet Infidels (www.infidels.org) also are preserving freethought by having e-texts of various historical as well as modern freethought works on their Web site. There are other collections worldwide that include freethought, such as the South Place Ethical Society collection, Located in Conway Hall, London; the American Atheist collection in New Jersey; and other various private collections. Observers say the Conway Hall collection includes about ten thousand items, many of which are not catalogued in a meaningful way. This is being rectified, from what I have been told, but it is a slow process.

Since we acquired Gordon Stein's personal collection (which numbered over eight thousand books, about one-quarter of which are catalogued to date) on his death in 1995, we have done considerable work to make the resources of the CFI Libraries available to serious researchers. We have recatalogued the existing collection of materials (which numbered about 14,000 in 1995) to bring the bibliographic information up to current international library standards. …

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Preserving Our Freethought Heritage Redux: The CFI Libraries Keep Growing. (Physician - Assisted Suicide, Pro and Con)
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