The Politics of Preservation & Censorship

'BnF: L'Enfer de la Bibliothèque, Eros au secret'

'BnF: L'Enfer de la Bibliothèque, Eros au secret' by Yann Caradec (y.caradec) on Flickr.

I’m accustomed to tales of librarians sticking up for our rights to read whatever we like. Attendees at the Music: Parts and Labor conference at New York University recently were treated to exactly that kind of demonstration, as Columbia University librarian and activist Aliqae Geraci discussed a variety of labor and access issues (including the move away from owning an item toward licensing of e-journals and e-books: when an item is only licensed, it can easily be removed without the purchaser’s agreement. And even open access e-journals/e-books, she suggested, still have problems, including the hidden labor involved in creating and maintaining them). I also remember the librarians sticking up for Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men in 2002. To be honest, it has been a while since I encountered a recent tale of library censorship, but it transpires that Florida libraries have removed an erotic novel from their shelves: Fifty Shades of Grey banned from Florida libraries (Guardian).

Libraries ‘protecting’ readers from encountering erotic material has a pretty long history. The l’Enfer collection in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France was created in the nineteenth century to make sure erotic materials could only be seen by those who would not be affected by them. (This is the odd thing about censorship: the censors look at stuff that they may then decide would deprave or corrupt others. I’m not a fan of pornography—much of it is misogynistic, and I don’t find misogyny erotic—but I don’t think the way to deal with misogyny is to sweep it under the carpet and pretend it’s not there.) Many books on historical erotic materials open with authors’ accounts of going to the BNF and being taken in to a private room (so they couldn’t corrupt other readers) and having to be supervised while consulting images, pamphlets, poems and books. But back in 2007/8, the BNF put on a public exhibition of materials from the collection, and the catalogue is still available.

The equivalent in the British Library is the locked case book. I read sixteenth/seventeenth century Italian editions of Pietro Aretino’s works that were treated like any other rare book: they arrive, you give your seat number when you collect the book, you carry the book back to your seat and work away until you finish. When I read a modern English translation of Aretino (from the 1970s or 1980s), however, it arrived in a locked case. I had to switch desks within the Rare Books & Music reading room so that the music librarian could watch over me; the issuing librarian brought the case over to me and unlocked it at my new desk. After that, it was the same. But it was really quite bizarre: you can order up any number of English-language scholarly books about Aretino or about eroticism, and even more recent translations don’t seem to be in a locked case, but this book, for some reason, was considered particularly precious. Perhaps it was the only copy left in the world, although I don’t think that explains the locked case since most of their rare books aren’t in locked cases. However, at least I could consult the book, which is more than can be said for Florida library users who want to read Fifty Shades of Grey.