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

By Evelyn Geller | Go to book overview

10.
THE CRITICAL SHIFT: 1923-1930

In the 1920s the new literature confronted the old morality in city courts, state legislatures, and Congress. But censorship in this decade involved far more than the literary shocks of the Jazz Age. It was one of many eruptions of intolerance and campaigns for moral legislation: prohibition in 1919, the Scopes trial in 1925, the spread of the Ku Klux Klan, the Sacco-Vanzetti affair. The nativist hysteria was partially appeased by immigration curbs in 1924, which labor, even Socialists, supported, while business, an erstwhile champion of free immigration, resigned itself to machines as substitutes for foreign labor in keeping costs down. Political and literary censorship disputes persisted through the decade, and in 1929 the Customs Office added seditious literature to its roster of bans.1

Although some of these issues echo Progressive concerns, there was an important difference. First, the combination of moral liberalism and political conservatism of the 1920s was the opposite of the Progressive constellation. More important, the reform impulse itself vanished. Business was accommodated, involved as a friend of government, promoted in the mass media. The literary revolution, combining sexual liberation with a rejection of "commercialism," was largely apolitical and retreatist.2

As it came under assault, the library profession began to act as an interest group in defense of a limited freedom. As new strategies of defense were developed, the value of freedom came to replace censorship, and to supplement neutrality, in defining professional and social responsibility.

The profession now entered a new phase of sponsorship with new priorities, as the Carnegie Corporation, dropping its buildings program, focused on better library services and education, providing grants, scholarships, textbooks, and, most notably, a new research-oriented school at the University of Chicago, offering the first doctoral program in librarianship. These reforms were intended to put the field on a par with established professions.3

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