The Censor's Library

By Osborn, Jennifer | Transnational Literature, November 2014 | Go to article overview

The Censor's Library


Osborn, Jennifer, Transnational Literature


Nicole Moore, The Censor's Library (University of Queensland Press, 2012)

How can an entire library disappear? This is the first question addressed by literary historian Nicole Moore in The Censor's Library. The answer is an unsettling one. It was an open secret that Australian censors kept a reference library of banned books from the 1920s to the late 1980s, but after this period the collection mysteriously disappeared. Moore found a reference to it in an anti- censorship newspaper article in 1971, but then 'across more than thirty years I couldn't trace another encounter with the collection' (xi). Her journey of research had just begun.

It wasn't until 2005 that the Censor's library - all 793 boxes and 12,000 titles of it - was rediscovered. Working with Moore, National Archives of Australia staff tracked it down in the basement of one of their branches in western Sydney; it had been carefully stored seven storeys underground, its whereabouts incompletely recorded. The Censor's library had become an unnamed deposit in an uncatalogued file series, pertaining to the Customs department.

As Moore opens the boxes and unpacks the books, she gives the library many names: the Customs library, the Censor's library, the 'purloined library', the non-Australian library. She also uses the expression 'the negative library': these books went unread. They were confiscated, wrapped in brown paper and 'removed from public sight... the mistrustful, practical men who exercised authority' (124) deemed these works too dangerous - obscene, blasphemous, seditious - for Australian eyes.

The books in question were as varied as Aldous Huxley's famous Brave New World (1932) and Robert Close's unmemorable Love Me Sailor (1945). Kathleen Winsor's Forever Amber (1944), one of my favourite trashy novels when I was a teenager, also made it to the hit list -as did Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders (1722). Petronius, Boccaccio, George Orwell, D.H. Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Jackie Collins: the history of censorship is somehow always as banal as it is intriguing. Reading with hindsight, you have to wonder what all the fuss was about. Here its most interesting aspects are the reflections made on Australian society. Why were Australian censors so very reactionary, and so over-zealous? What were they trying to 'protect' us from?

Moore explores these issues in the sixteen chapters of her well-written, thoroughly-researched book. The arrangement is thematic, so a reader can easily leam that, at different times, Australians were prevented from reading particular political pamphlets, comics, gay and lesbian material, birth control information, romance fiction, poetry and the work of modernist authors. One chapter deals with the so-called 'Bastards from the bush', Australian authors who fell foul of post-war censorship: Frank Hardy, Sumner Locke Elliott, Christina Stead and 'Ern Malley'. (On the latter, there is a wonderful irony in the idea that the work of an imaginary person could be declared obscene.) The 'Homosexualists and pornographers' section highlights the fact that 'in its various forms, homosexuality was often treated as a threat more dangerous, more pervasive and more in need of erasure than any other manifestation of obscenity' (131). Many 'suspect' titles from Europe and Australia were censored, including Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (1928) and Jean Devanny's Virtuous Courtesan (1935). …

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