“The Shut Up Shelves:” Librarians as Censors in 1908

Librarians today are known as crusaders for intellectual freedom, dedicated to providing unhindered access to a wide variety of content. Their dedication was shown most dramatically in 2003, after the Patriot Act made it permissible for the FBI to request library records on patrons’ reading habits, computer use, and more. Librarians began shredding patron records so that, if faced with a request from the FBI, they would be unable to comply.1 They understood that protecting intellectual freedom isn’t just about putting books representing a wide spectrum of perspectives on the shelves, but also protecting patrons’ privacy and allowing controversial books to be just as accessible as any others.

However, in late 19th- and early 20th-century America, protecting readers from “bad books” was seen as an important part of a public librarian’s job. Depending on the community and librarian, a “bad book” could be anything from a literary classic with sexual content, a novel by an author with a controversial moral or political perspective, a book on sexual health, or an illustrated anatomy textbook. “Exclusion” of unsuitable books, as it was called, was not a job that all librarians relished, but it was a duty they took seriously. In a 1908 piece in The Library Journal, librarians from around the country described their procedures regarding the exclusion or restriction of controversial material. A librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library explained, “here and there is found an ‘indignant citizen’ who questions the right of the library authorities to act as censors, but the reading public and the taxpayers expect such a course, and consider it the proper one to pursue when looked at from the standpoint of what books are likely to be best appreciated by readers.”2

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Most of the librarians who contributed to the 1908 piece agreed that books that were clearly “immoral or indecent” would simply not be bought by the library, and one noted that “every library exercises a certain amount of censorship of a negative kind when it is forced by the meagerness of its funds to purchase only a limited number of the new books published.”3 However, when such books had literary merit or academic value, the solution was not so simple. Books by foreign authors were frequent targets of exclusion, and some librarians reported only purchasing them in their original languages to limit readership. As they do today, children’s sections steered young readers to age-appropriate materials, but this did not address the issue of adults accessing these materials without guidance. Wisconsin librarian, Mary Frances Isom, explained that in her library:

all these [questionable books] are kept under lock and key in the librarian’s office and marked with a ‘Minor label’ plate [a label stating that it was not suitable for young readers]. The catalog cards show no location and the small collection is held in mind without difficulty by the assistant. The young people seldom discover the existence of this forbidden fruit…A few library-wise women with morbid tastes yearn for a sight of ‘the shut up shelves,’ but in vain, for no one is allowed to go to these shelves; books must be requested from the catalog. They are read consequently only by those who know what they are asking for.4

Other librarians described similar systems. In some libraries, a patron requesting books from hidden shelves would have to answer questions to prove that his or her interest in the material was scholarly. At the Pratt Institute Free Library in Brooklyn, New York, patrons who requested a book bearing a warning label were asked by the librarian to read the label and confirm that he or she understood and still wanted the book. These hurdles may have deterred immature readers from books librarians thought would disturb or negatively influence them, but they also deterred adult patrons with genuine literary or scholarly interest. Many were likely unwilling to run the risk of being judged as morally or politically deviant, or invite scrutiny of their personal lives based on their reading interests. 

The librarians’ 1908 accounts show a profession held responsible for the intellectual diets of their patrons, under great pressure to protect readers, especially the more impressionable, from potentially disturbing or unsavory material. Today, the public’s expectation of librarians is very different, and while children’s and teen sections guide young people towards books that are appropriate and engaging for their age levels, public libraries have dispensed with the complex systems of restriction that once “protected readers” at the cost of intellectual freedom.

--Jennifer Coggins '12

1. Dean E. Murphy, “Librarians Use Shredder to Show Opposition to New FBI Powers,” New York Times, April 7, 2003.
2.“What Shall Libraries Do About Bad Books? II” The Library Journal  (October 1908): 390. Google Books
3. “What Shall Libraries Do About Bad Books?” The Library Journal  (September 1908): 353. Google Books
4. Ibid.

Related Reading:
Christopher M. Finan, From the Palmer Raids to
the Patriot Act (Boston: Beacon Press, 2007).

Arthur E. Bostwick, “The Librarian as a Censor: Address of the President, American Library Association, Lake 
Minnetonka Conference, 1908” The Library Journal, July 1908, p.257. Google Books

Frederick J. Stielow, “Censorship in the Early Professionalization of American Libraries, 1876 to 1929,” The Journal of Library History 18.1 (Winter 1983). JSTOR

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