The brave history of rescuing books
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 The head and the librarian refused, and the donation was withdrawn.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.