Heroic li­brar­i­ans

The brave his­tory of res­cu­ing books

The Guardian - G2 - - Front Page - Sian Cain

Only at Ox­ford could musty tomes about phal­lic wor­ship be re­garded as a gen­uine tar­get for onanis­tic stu­dents. With the uni­ver­sity’s Bodleian Li­braries an­nounc­ing that they will dis­play their re­stricted sec­tion (read: any­thing clas­si­fied as im­moral, erotic or ob­scene) for the first time since it was started in 1882, the lengths li­brar­i­ans took to build this col­lec­tion of books pub­lished abroad but banned in the UK have been re­vealed. These in­clude the covert mis­sion to smug­gle in two copies of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chat­ter­ley’s Lover, and per­sonal let­ters writ­ten to Bri­tish of­fi­cials, plead­ing for books snatched by cus­toms be­fore they were de­stroyed.

Li­brar­i­ans are often called on to stand up for free­dom of ex­pres­sion. In 2012, Ab­del Kader Haidara helped to smug­gle 500,000 manuscripts out of Tim­buktu, away from Malian Is­lamists who were threat­en­ing to de­stroy them. Saad Eskan­der, the di­rec­tor of Iraq’s Na­tional Li­brary, has shel­tered books tar­geted by both Is­lamists and US forces since 2003. And many li­brar­i­ans were charged with “dan­ger­ous­ness” in Cuba for stock­ing books classed by Cas­tro as in­cen­di­ary – like An­i­mal Farm.

But brav­ery isn’t al­ways risk­ing your life: in 2005, a par­ent of a stu­dent at St An­drews Epis­co­pal school in Texas of­fered it a $3m dona­tion if it re­moved gay ro­mance Broke­back Moun­tain from its li­brary. The head and the li­brar­ian re­fused, and the dona­tion was with­drawn.

Li­brar­i­ans have also made li­braries places of safety: the Fer­gu­son Mu­nic­i­pal Li­brary in Mis­souri pro­vided “wifi, water, rest, knowl­edge” dur­ing the 2014 ri­ots sparked by the shoot­ing of un­armed teenager Michael Brown. And Yvonne Cech, a li­brar­ian at Sandy Hook ele­men­tary school, pro­tected chil­dren and staff in a closet dur­ing the 2012 mass shoot­ing by bar­ri­cad­ing the door with a fil­ing cab­i­net. It’s a step be­yond pe­ti­tion­ing an of­fi­cial to send on a copy of Ed­uard Fuchs’ Geschichte der ero­tis­chen Kunst – but part of the same brave his­tory of li­brar­i­ans putting ideas be­fore safety.

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