From burning to learning: looking at banned books in the McMaster library archives

Reprinted courtesy of: The Silhouette (McMaster University's Undergraduate Student Newspaper)

By: Aissa Boodhoo-Leegsma

Photo coutesy of: Tyler Hayward

HAMILTON (CUP) — The McMaster Libraries Archives is more than just a museum for books. Their collection includes original works that once provoked mass outrage and book burnings.

Freedom to Read Week is an annual celebration sponsored by the Freedom of Expression Committee that runs this year from Feb. 24 to March 2. The week was initially founded as a result of attacks on Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women in 1978.

McMaster archivist Renu Barrett took The Silhouette through three particular works that McMaster owns as part of an exploration of formerly banned books. 

McMaster owns a first edition of Ulysses by James Joyce, which is no. 332 of the first 1000 published. The work was considered so contentious that publishers refused to distribute the work, so it was originally sold by subscription. Ulysses was banned from being published in the UK.

Barrett speculated that Ulysses was considered so controversial because Joyce wrote it from his stream of consciousness and was very free with his language. The work is so full of obscenities and sexually explicit language that Joyce was warned during an early review that he would need to revise his work.

Joyce refused and in 1932 US Customs seized a copy and declared it “obscene.” Eventually, in a landmark censorship decision, the novel was declared not pornographic and was allowed to be published.

McMaster also owns a copy of Dialogo by Galileo. Dialogo is considered to be extremely rare given that most copies were seized and burned following it being banned by the Catholic Church in 1633.

The work was considered heretical for endorsing a heliocentric view of the universe, which ran counter to Church teachings. McMaster acquired this particular work in the 1960s.

Barrett gave Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners as an example of a more contemporary work that was highly contested for its language and exploration of sexuality, race, class and abortion.

In 1974 The Diviners won the Governor General’s Award, Canada’s top literary prize. But by 1976 the book was banned by local school boards. In the 1980s the book was again subject to criticism, this time from the Catholic Church. McMaster has part of the original manuscript in Laurence’s handwriting.

Barrett explained how freedom to read week continues to remain an important part of both retelling literary history and discussing current works, stating that “it highlights the value of access to information and allows ideas that may be unpopular or unorthodox to be voiced.”

Barrett reiterated how, as an academic library McMaster, has never banned works from its collections.

But she also noted that censorship in public libraries can still exist in more subtle an innocuous ways explaining that “a public library may take a book off of the must-read or top-read list if community groups rally against a certain book.”

In the past few years, works such as His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman or the Harry Potter series have attracted intense controversy. But Barrett notes that the internet provides a valuable tool for mediating knee-jerk reactions and calls for book banning.

“Book banning and censorship is a less prevalent issue because of the access available through the internet or book downloads. So in one way we have less control over publication, but on the other hand, the internet can provide a forum where different groups can engage in dialogue to reasonably discuss their objections.”