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The Music Man

MAY 11 – JUL 22, 2012

CHAUCER! RABELAIS! BALZAC!Dirty Books and the Librarian’s Fight against Censorship


“Professor, her kind of woman doesn’t belong on any committee.  Of course I shouldn’t tell you this but she advocates dirty books.”
– Maud, Meredith Willson’s The Music Man

In Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, a new pool table is not the only thing causing trouble in River City.  Marian Paroo, the local librarian, is fulfilling the library’s purpose of “improving River City’s cultural level” by putting controversial, yet undeniably classic, literature on the library shelves.  The matriarchs of River City decry the works of Chaucer, Rabelais, and Balzac, calling them “dirty books,” and even go as far as to cast aspersions upon Marian’s own character.  Nevertheless, Marian stands up to their slander and attempts at censorship until the same matriarchs are transformed by the very literature they once disparaged.

The stand that Marian takes against the voices in the River City community reflects a change in a way that librarians viewed their role.  Until the 1930s, librarians had seen their role as a neutral one, providing the full spectrum of available literature without expressing their own opinions on controversial subjects or advocating for particular books.  This certainly circumscribed the librarian’s ability to act as an educator, but at the time it was believed that an impartial librarian would create a more diverse collection.  In the 1930s, however, the oppressive political climate of fascism in Europe made American librarians begin to see it as their duty to stand up as advocates of free speech, even speech that was controversial or unpleasant.

Ostensibly, there was no censorship in American libraries.  The American Library Association – a non-profit organization founded in 1876 to promote libraries and library education – proposed a “1929-1930 Code of Ethics” that advised librarians that their collections “should represent all phases of opinion and interest rather than the personal tastes of librarian or board members.”  In practice, however, many librarians were forced to bow to pressure from board members and others, while some acted as censors for their own reasons.

As the specter of fascism grew in pre-World War II Europe, however, Americans began to have a greater awareness of the political ramifications of censorship.  When “un-German” books were burned in Germany in 1933, and anti-fascist literature was purged or placed on lockdown in Italian libraries, American librarians, shocked at the wanton destruction of the written word, began to take a closer look at the more subtle forms of censorship that existed in the United States.

As Jay Otis, an anonymous librarian, pointed out in his article “Will Libraries Live?” (Wilson Bulletin 10, Sept. 1935), “Librarians seldom admit that they practice censorship.  When hard pressed, they call it ‘a proper choice of books with a limited book fund.’”  For many years this excuse had allowed librarians to purchase books representing one side of a political issue, while insisting that there were no materials of sufficient quality to represent the other side.  Works of radical literature could only be accepted as gifts, and sometimes not even then.  Libraries could also censor their collections by keeping objectionable literature on restricted shelves, only accessible to students and scholars.  This meant that at many libraries the works of Marx, Freud, James Joyce, Walt Whitman, and D.H. Lawrence were unavailable to library patrons.

This “secret censorship” persisted until the professional freedoms of librarians themselves began to be repressed.  In 1937, Philip Keeney, librarian and tenured professor of the University of Montana, was dismissed, supposedly due to the university’s objections to his “philosophy of librarianship.”  In reality, Keeney was fired because of his reputation as a Socialist and his efforts to organize a teacher’s union.  This injustice galvanized the American library community, because it linked the debate about censorship with a pressing concern for all librarians: improving the status of the librarian profession.

As war in Europe became imminent, America’s “secret censorship” became a matter of grave concern for library professionals.  In her article, “The Social Outlook of the Librarian,” published in the Library Journal on June 15, 1938, Marilla Freeman argued "Freedom of speech is becoming our almost unique and most treasured possession, certainly the possession for which free public libraries must fight to the death."  1938 was also the first year that the problem of censorship was on the agenda of the American Library Association’s annual conference, and the next year saw the creation of The American Library Association Library’s Bill of Rights, in which the ALA affirmed its commitment to combatting censorship and the suppression of free speech.  This Bill of Rights (in an updated form) is still used by the ALA today.

Today we take it for granted that librarians advocate for intellectual freedom, and that the ALA calls attention to censorship with its Banned Books Week and champions civil liberties all the way to the Supreme Court.  While it may be easy to forget that librarians like Marian Paroo who stood up for our right to read controversial literature were brave and revolutionary, it is important to remember that they were ahead of their time.