Freedom to Read

Richard Ovenden

On 10 May 1933, a bonfire was held on Unter den Linden in Berlin. Watched by a cheering crowd of almost forty thousand, a group of students marched up to the fire carrying a bust of Magnus Hirschfeld, the Jewish founder of the Institute of Sexual Sciences. Chanting the ‘Feuersprüche’, a series of fire incantations, they threw the bust on top of thousands of volumes from the institute’s library, which had joined books by Jewish and other ‘un-German’ writers (gays and communists prominent among them) that had been seized from bookshops and libraries. Rows of young men in Nazi uniforms stood around the fire saluting. Goebbels gave a speech:

No to decadence and moral corruption! Yes to decency and morality in family and state! … The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character. It is to this end that we want to educate you … You do well to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past. This is a strong, great and symbolic deed.

Ninety years later, the excuses of ‘decency’ and ‘morality’ are being used by those who seek to control the books that people can access in public libraries across many US states.

PEN America has tracked more than four thousand instances of books being challenged or removed from American libraries since July 2021, with more than 1400 between July and December 2022 alone. The repressive action began with an organised takeover of the boards which govern public libraries (the system is different in the UK, where local authorities have been required since 1964 to provide libraries as a public duty). Schools have also been targeted, with right-wing pressure groups such as ‘Moms for Liberty’ recognising no irony as they oppose the freedom to read, through controlling which books are stocked in classrooms or school libraries. One of the books the group sought to ban in Tennessee was Ruby Bridges Goes to School, which celebrates racial integration in schools.

Since last year, seven states have introduced restrictive legislation. Florida now requires the vetting of books in all school libraries and classrooms, and access to books is withheld until the vetting can take place. In Tennessee, publishers and booksellers are subject to criminal prosecution if they sell ‘obscene’ books to public schools. In Indiana, a new education bill imposes controls on books that could be considered ‘morally, sexually or intellectually’ offensive to a ‘reasonable person’ (Goebbels would smile). It places the onus on librarians to censor books which they have been acquiring and making available to their communities for many years, or risk being charged with felonies that carry custodial sentences. Many of the targeted books have LGBTQIA+ subjects but racial equity also features prominently.

The New College of Florida, a liberal arts college in Sarasota, is part of the ‘independent’ state university system. Appointments to its board of trustees are in the hands of the governor. The librarian and chief diversity officer were both fired for opposing the ultra-conservative policy perspectives of the new board members appointed by Ron DeSantis in January.

Meanwhile in the UK, a survey carried out by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (of which I am a longstanding member) found an increase in demands from members of the public to censor or remove books from library shelves. So far these challenges have not moved into the legal frameworks that govern libraries, but the profession will have to remain vigilant.

On 10 May 1934, a year after the book burning in Berlin, the Deutsche Freiheitsbibliothek (German Freedom Library) opened in Paris. Founded by Alfred Kantorowicz, with support from André Gide, Bertrand Russell and Heinrich Mann, among others, it had collected more than twenty thousand volumes: not only the books targeted for burning in Germany but also copies of key Nazi texts, to help understand the emerging regime. The library became a focus for German émigré intellectuals, with organised readings, lectures and exhibitions, much to the disgust of Nazi newspapers. (When it was broken up after the fall of Paris in June 1940, many of the volumes joined the collections of the Bibliothèque Nationale.) In December 1934, the Brooklyn Jewish Center established an American Library of Nazi-Banned Books, with Albert Einstein and Upton Sinclair on its advisory board.

There is a fight-back in America today, too. In Illinois, a bill has been passed prohibiting libraries from banning books under partisan or doctrinal pressure. In Glen Ridge, New Jersey, the public library board of trustees voted unanimously in February to keep six challenged books on the shelves, following a mobilisation of public opinion by librarians and others concerned with the freedom to read. In Texas, an organised effort pushed for a judicial review of twelve books removed from the public library of Llano County. The judge reversed the ban and required the books to be returned to the shelves in April.

But the attacks continue on libraries and librarians, some of whom have received death threats. Amanda Jones, a librarian in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, spoke out against book banning at a public meeting and has since been subjected to an online campaign of extreme hostile misinformation, accusing her of ‘grooming’ children. She continues to defy the onslaught and has filed defamation suits. Librarians are organising in other ways, with groups such as EveryLibrary and Freadom, as well as the American Library Association developing strategies, toolkits and support networks for the librarians defending basic rights for access to knowledge. Libraries in states which are not in the grip of book-banning have been using technology to get past the restrictions. The Brooklyn Public Library’s digital library of banned books saw more than 100,000 downloads last year by teenagers across America.

‘You may burn my books and the books of the best minds in Europe,’ Helen Keller wrote in 1933, ‘but the ideas those books contain have passed through millions of channels and will go on.’ Earlier this year, Margaret Atwood challenged people to ‘go ahead and ban’ The Handmaid’s Tale, as it would only make teenagers more interested in her book.

The attacks on libraries and librarians are an attempt to reduce people’s freedom to take on board, through reading, ideas that may challenge received opinion, or help support their own identity. ‘Only through a diversity of opinion,’ John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty, ‘is there in the existing state of human intellect a chance of fair play at both sides of the truth.’ John Rawls went further in Political Liberalism, arguing that a ‘diversity of reasonable, comprehensive religious philosophical and moral doctrines … is a permanent feature of the public culture of democracy.’ As the attempts to suppress the books circulated by American libraries show, libraries and the people who work in them are part of the critical infrastructure of democracy.


  • 18 May 2023 at 9:52pm
    Nigel Howells says:
    A timely reminder of the need to be vigilant in opposing censorship of thoughts and ideas- be they written or oral. The scope for reasoned and reasonable debate about a range of issues which is fed by books is increasingly under threat.