Monthly Discussion: Censorship part 1

For the third month of the ILN program we’d like to discuss censorship, including how it happens around the world and what it means for our work. We are lucky to have a guest writer for this month, Michelle A. Tisdel, Research Librarian at the National Library of Norway and Coordinator of Beacon for Freedom of Expression, an international bibliographic database about censorship and freedom of expression.

Michelle Tisdel, Coordinator, Beacon for Freedom of Expression

Michelle Tisdel, Coordinator, Beacon for Freedom of Expression

Censorship and “Glocality”: what this means for the international librarian

How can we think and act glocally to highlight censorship and promote freedom of expression in the library? More and more in our current era of globalization, censorship has become a “glocal” issue. Norwegian anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen notes that “People’s lives are neither wholly global nor wholly local—they are glocal” (Eriksen 2010: 318). Glocality can also refer to the local manifestations of global issues, processes, and circumstances. In terms of censorship, glocality has several dimensions and can apply to how we share, access, experience, interpret, and preserve information and ideas globally and locally. Thus the international librarian is a glocal being and lives, at least partially in a global world.

What is an international librarian?

Let me suggest that there are two important criteria for being an international librarian: managing an international collection, and promoting understanding and solidarity with fellow librarians in other countries. It is fairly safe to say that this applies to most librarians. In addition, there are many other ways to be an international librarian. A librarian who works outside of his/her country of origin can be an international librarian. For example, I am originally from Texas in the United States, although I live and work at the National Library of Norway. Often this means that my interests are transnational. I follow events and trends in Norway and Scandinavia, as well as in the United States. Specialized knowledge and interests can also make one an international librarian. Perhaps your interest in Brazilian music or Indian cuisine, Nigerian literature or Chinese history is valuable to your colleagues and users. Then you are possibly an international librarian. If you represent your institution or country in international collaborations or meetings, then you are also on your way to becoming an international librarian. I am sure that you have many other good examples.

Censorship is ancient and global

Censorship—the control of free expression and freedom of speech—is as old as social life. It still exists in many forms and in all parts of the world. Throughout history those with power and authority have used censorship to limit freedom of expression and control social life. Today censorship is regarded mostly as the suppression of free expression, speech, the exchange of ideas and other expressions. Censorship can be direct, indirect and self-imposed. Even though freedom of expression has been widely accepted as an universal human right, many societies acknowledge limits to freedom of expression and use forms of censorship to protect privacy and to protect against sedition or making false claims.

In ancient societies censorship was considered a legitimate instrument for regulating the moral and political life of the population. The term censor can be traced to the office of censor established in Rome in 443 BC. In Rome and many ancient societies the ideal of good governance included shaping the character of the people. Thus censorship was regarded as a public duty and necessary to control freedom of speech and protect the public from offensive, undesirable and disruptive ideas. Censorship was often based on political, moral or religious ideologies.

Even before the era of the printed book, kings, rulers and church leaders confiscated and destroyed books to control the spread of undesirable information. In the era of book printing, censorship was used to control the press and the printing of unorthodox religious ideas. In Europe throughout the 1400s and the mid-1500s the Roman Catholic Church leaders created censorship laws for their provinces and territories. In 1542 the General Inquisition took over the supervision of books and the following year began to publish a catalogue of forbidden books. The first list or “Index” of forbidden books meant for the entire world was published in 1559. The revised Index of 1564 also included ten guidelines for what should be censored:

  • Of all heretical and superstitious writings;
  • Of all immoral (obscene) books, the old classics along excepted, which, however, are not to be used in teaching the young;
  • Of all Latin translations of the New Testament coming from heretics.
Index Librorum Prohibitorum, used under CC from

Index Librorum Prohibitorum, used under CC from

A special Congregation of the Index was created to oversee censorship and create the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Over the following five centuries the Church published 19 editions by different popes. The last edition was published in 1948, and was later suppressed in 1966. The censorship of books developed by the Roman Catholic Church remains an extraordinary example of long-lasting and comprehensive religious censorship, at times ruthlessly implemented by the Roman Inquisition. The system of censorship created by the Catholic Church in Europe was also exported to the forcibly colonized communities in the Americas. When the Inquisition was established in Peru in 1569, the Tribunal’s district ranged from Panama to Chile and Rio de la Plata.

Censorship, the Library and Libricide

Lucien X. Polastron’s Books on Fire: The Destruction of Libraries Throughout History (Polastron 2007), Rebecca Knuth’s (2006) Burning Books and Leveling Libraries, and Fernando Báez’s A Universal History of the Destruction of Books (2008) document how libraries have been exposed to violence, destruction and other processes associated with censorship in different historical periods. In China Emperor Qin Shi Huang (206-213 BC.) ordered the burning of many book collections, such as poetry, history and philosophy, but spared collections about agriculture and medicine (Báez 2008). During the French Revolution (1789-1799) the disaffected citizens destroyed religious and private libraries that were associated with the Ancien Régime (Knuth 2006:19). Under Hitler’s Third Reich books were seized, burned and censored in Germany, but also in countries that Germany occupied. From the 1920s through 1991 the Soviet Union’s “Glavit” or the Central Administration for Literary Affairs and Publishing implemented systematic censorship in the Soviet Union and its territories (Coetzee 1996). Books were censored and taken out of library collections, and libraries were even used to store the seized books.

Censorship, like the destruction books and libraries, is not only symbolic act of violence; censorship is the result of concrete practices, such as restrictive legislation, social pressure, intimidation and even physical violence. We also find examples of how libraries, archives and museums and their collections have been threatened in conflict zones and by authoritarian regimes, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Sarajevo, Iraq, and Egypt (See Báez 2008).

Forms of censorship

Of course there are different kinds of censorship, such as state censorship or direct censorship, indirect censorship, pre-censorship, banning and self-censorship. An example of state or direct censorship is when a court rules that a book will not be published or distributed or if a state’s national, regional or local governing authority closes down a television or radio station or demands that a program be cancelled. Indirect censorship by social pressure or intimidation might occur when special-interest groups campaign against books or television programs and then a library, bookstore or broadcaster reconsiders their decision to provide public access to the book or program. As a librarian, one could indirectly censor the free expression of others by choosing to exclude material that one perceives inappropriate based on one’s own personal values. Authors, producers, photographers or bloggers might experience similar forms indirect of censorship when their expressions and ideas are scrutinized by librarians, curators, editors, producers and sponsors/funders. Some forms of censorship, such as self-censorship can also be subtle and ambiguous. Self-censorship is subtle and can challenge ideas about free choice and personal values. Self-censorship can describe situations where one chooses to silence one’s own voice expression of ideas because others might perceive them unacceptable.

The agent of censorship can be a government or one of its representative entities, such as a school board or the Ministry of Information. Special interest groups, such as a parent organization or members of a religious congregation, or an entity such as a large company can also attempt to control the flow of information through censorship. Agents of censorship can practically be anyone, including a librarian, especially if one uses personal values and taste as the measure of universal quality and moral or political standards.

This is the first in a multi-part series on censorship that Michelle is writing for us, and we think it makes an excellent discussion topic. We’ve suggested some questions that you could use to generate a conversation with your partner below:

  • Do you agree with the idea of librarians being ‘glocal’? Do you think censorship is a ‘glocal’ issue?
  • Is censorship common in your country? Are there titles that you are not allowed to include in your collection?
  • Have you ever been subject to pressure from patrons to remove something from your collection?
  • How do you feel about including material in your collection that could be challenging or offensive to some people?

We hope this gives you plenty of material to discuss with your partner, and we encourage you to share your views in the comments below. If you’d like to take the discussion to Twitter remember to use the hashtag #InterLibNet. We’d love to hear your thoughts!

Works Cited

Báez, Fernando. 2008. A Universal History of the Destruction of Books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern Iraq. New York: Atlas.

Coetzee, JM. 1996. Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Eriksen, Thomas Hylland. 2010. Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cutlural Anthropology. London: Pluto Press.

Knuth, Rebecca. 2006. Burning Books and Leveling Libraries: Extremist Violence and Cultural Destruction. Westport: Praeger.

Polastron, Lucien X. 2007. Books on Fire: the Destruction of Libraries throughout History. Rochester: Inner Traditions.

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