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

By Evelyn Geller | Go to book overview

7.
THE LIBRARIAN AS A CENSOR: 1900-1908

"Some are born great; some achieve greatness; some have greatness thrust upon them." It is in this last way that the librarian has become a censor of literature. Originally the custodian of volumes placed in his care by others, he has ended by becoming in these latter days much else, including a selector and distributor. . . . As the library's audience becomes larger, as its educational functions spread and are brought to bear on more and more of the young and immature, the duty of sifting its material becomes more imperative.

-- Arthur E. Bostwick, ALA President, 1908

The years from 1900 through World War I saw the rise and fall of the Progressive "movement"--a constellation of shifting coalitions and issue publics that was marked by a curious blend of political liberalism and moral conservatism, civil service and business reform, blue laws and temperance crusades, antiprostitution campaigns and the persistence of censorship norms in the new century.1 This combination of political liberalism and moral conservatism was reflected in library service. The idea of freedom was barely mentioned until the end of that period, and censorship crystallized as a symbol of the librarian's role, autonomy, and guiding function.

The dimensions of tolerance of the Progressive "era" can be symbolized by several key events. The Socialist party, formed in 1901, grew in legitimacy and influence, especially at the state and local levels, culminating in the 1912 election in which Eugene Debs won 6 percent of the vote. On the other hand, deportation laws for alien radicals and anarchists, passed in 1903, permitted summary executive decision to eliminate the dissident actor, as an alternative to suppressing his speech. The International Workers of the World, formed in 1905, was persecuted with vicious vigilante action in the Northwest and with sabotage frameups, while anarchists like Emma Goldman were cruelly mis-

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