“A Librarian is not a Legal Process”

banned books

Banning books is an old phenomenon. One of the first examples was during the Chinese emperor Shih Huang Ti’s reign. From 259 to 210 B.C., he allegedly burned 460 Confucian scholars alive to control how history was written during his life. In 212 B.C., he burned all but one copy of each book, which were kept in the Royal Library. But those too, were destroyed before he died.

In 35 A.D., the Roman emperor Caligula opposed Home’s The Odyssey, written more than 300 years before, because he thought the Greek ideas of freedom dangerous. In 1807, Dr. Thomas Bowdler published his revised edition of Shakespeare’s plays, in which he had removed “everything that can raise a blush on the cheek of modesty.” One hundred and fifty years later, it was discovered that it had been Dr. Bowdler’s sister Henrietta Maria who had exorcised the texts. The Bowdler name led to the word “bowdlerize,” meaning “to expurgate (something, such as a book) by omitting or modifying parts considered vulgar.”

In 1933, months after the Nazis took power, the main courtyard of Humboldt University in Berlin was used to burn books by “Jewish, communist, or ‘degenerate’ authors.” In Munich, over 25,000 books “unGerman” books were burned. This event is still commemorated today, when many of the books are read in public.

Even children’s books were not immune. During the 1980s, the London County Council banned Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny from all London schools because the stories only portrayed “middle-class rabbits.”

Banned Books Week is the “annual celebration of the freedom to read” and draws attention to the harms that censorship creates. While many books have been banned over the years, they remain available through the efforts of booksellers, librarians, teachers, and others. It was launched in the 1980s, after the 1982 Island Trees School District v. Pico Supreme Court case, which ruled that “school libraries enjoy a special affinity with the rights of free speech and press. Therefore, the Board could not restrict the availability of books in its libraries simply because its members disagreed with their idea content.” That year, the American Booksellers Association (ABA) BookExpo America brought attention to the issue by placing more than 500 challenged books locked metal cages, with a sign cautioning that some thought the books dangerous.

The successful event led the ABA to invite Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) Director Judith Krug, and the National Association of College Stores to join the new Banned Books Week. This led to institutions, stores, and other businesses hosting similar events, with PBS and the New York Times covering it. Political leaders issues proclamations in support.

In 1933, The United States v. One Book Called Ulysses led to a new legal interpretation of the First Amendment. Judge John M. Woolsey overturned the federal ban of James Joyce’s Ulysses, because it did not meet the legal definition of obscenity, “[t]ending to stir the sex impulses or to lead to sexually impure and lustful thoughts.” Woolsey ruled that the ban could be lifted, as Ulysses, “did not tend to excite sexual impulses or lustful thoughts, but that its net effect on them was only that of a somewhat tragic and very powerful commentary on the inner lives of men and women.”

The case set precedent, but the Comstock Act – passed on March 3, 1873, which “ defined contraceptives as obscene and illicit, making it a federal offense to disseminate birth control through the mail or across state lines” – was not overturned until 1957 in the Supreme Court case Roth vs. The United States. The plaintiff, writer and bookseller Samuel Roth, was convicted of mailing pornographic magazines to subscribers. The court ruled that obscenity was not “”within the area of constitutionally protected speech or press” and that the First Amendment did not protect materials that were “utterly without redeeming social importance.” The test to determine obscenity, was “whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to prurient interest.” This excluded books that depicted sex and violence.

This year’s Banned Books Week will be from September 23–29. The 2018 theme is “Banning Books Silences Stories,” “a reminder that everyone needs to speak out against censorship.” The BannedBooksWeek coalition has relevant materials. The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom also has resources, including a “Top 10 Most Challenged Books List” from 1990 to the present. 

What’s your favourite banned book?

Seeking And Preserving the History

Doing something a little different this week and blogging about several women historians who have birthdays this week.


Iris Shun-Ru Chang (March 28, 1968 – November 9, 2004) was an American author and journalist, best known for her 1997 book The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II about the Naking massacre. Her first book was Thread of the Silkworm, published in 1995), a story of Tsien Hsue-she, a Chinese-born physicist forced to leave the American space program and deported back to China during the McCarthy era. After returning to China, he founded its international missile program.

The Rape of Nanking was published sixty years after the massacre, the first full-length nonfiction book, and the most detailed Western account of the atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers after they invaded in December 1937. Within two months, more than 300,000 civilians were murdered and 800,000 women were raped.

Chang was inspired to write the book when she attended a conference in 1994 sponsored by the Global Alliance for Preserving the History of World War II in Asia and saw photographs of the atrocities at Nanking. Later, she met a group of Chinese-American activists when she moved to California with her husband.

Her maternal grandparents escaped mere weeks before the Japanese invasion. Chang grew up hearing gruesome stories about Nanking, but could not find any books on the subject in her school library. She later learned that there was very little printed material on the subject in China, Japan, or the West. She wrote The Rape of Naking, “out of a sense of rage. I didn’t really care if I made a cent from it. It was important to me that the world knew what happened in Nanking back in 1937.”

She spent two years researching, including going to China to look through archives and interview survivors. She made several discoveries, including diaries of two Westerners who saved hundreds of Chinese civilians, whom she dubbed the “Oskar Schindler of Nanking” and the “Anne Frank of Nanking.” The first was John Rabe, a German Nazi party member. He established an International Safety Zone before the Japanese soldiers arrived from Shanghai. The second was a Minnie Vautrin, an Illinois woman, a missionary and teacher at the Nanking Women’s College that became part of the Safety Zone. She saved hundreds of women and children there, but suffered a breakdown believing that she had failed because she had not saved more. In 1940 she returned home to Illinois and committed suicide a year later.

In her next book, The Chinese in America: A Narrative History published in 2003, the year before she died, Chang chronicled the 150-year history of Chinese immigration. At her death, she was working on a book members of the U.S. tank battalions who were taken prisoner by the Japanese and forced into the Bataan Death march. After the American general surrendered to the Japanese on April 9, 1942, the Japanese forced the troops to walk sixty-five mines through the jungle, during which around 8,000 died. Survivors spent the rest of the war in prison camps or as slave laborers. Though it was the largest U.S. Army surrender, the story was mostly forgotten after the war. One of the men she interviewed was Ed Martel, one of the last survivors, whom she “cross-examined…like a district attorney for five solid hours.”

Chang committed suicide while still researching her book on Bataan.

In April 2017, a memorial hall honoring Chang opened in her ancestral home, Huaian, Jiangsu province. Each of the six parts of the museum depict an aspect of Chang’s life. It is the second memorial to commemorate the Nanking massacre, after the The Memorial Hall of the Victims in Nanjing Massacre was built in 1985.


Joan Kelly (March 29, 1928 – August 15, 1982) was a leading Italian Renaissance historian who challenged dominant notions of women’s roles during that time. She took night courses at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, graduating with her BA summa cum laude in 1953. She also was the only woman in New York to receive a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship that year. She received an M.A. (1954) and Ph.D. (1963) in history from Columbia University, where her dissertation Professor Garret Mattingley described her dissertation as, “the best Columbia dissertation he had ever read.” It became the basis of her first book, Leon Battista Alberti: Universal Man of the Early Renaissance.

She spent the next few years teaching, including at Sarah Lawrence College where she became interested in women of the Renaissance and feminist theories of history and social change. She worked with Gerda Lerner to develop the first M.A. program in women’s history there and was acting director of the women’s studies program at City College of New York (CCNY) from 1976-1977. She defined herself as a socialist feminist and developed a Marxist-feminist theory of history.

Kelly wrote “Did Women Have A Renaissance?,” a ground-breaking area of scholarship (she concluded that they did not) and co-authored a Households and Kin: Families in Flux, a high school textbook. Her essay collection, “Women, History and Theory” was published posthumously.

Additionally, she served on the Renaissance Society of America executive board, was chair of the Committee of Women Historians of the American Historical Association, and was on the board of the Feminist Press.

In 1874, two years after Kelly died, the American Historical Association created the Joan Kelly Memorial Prize, “for the book in women’s history and/or feminist theory that best reflects the high intellectual and scholarly ideals exemplified by the life and work of Joan Kelly” which addresses “a recognition of the important role of sex and gender in the historical process. The inter-relationship between women and the historical process should be addressed.”


Muriel Wright (March 31, 1889-February 27, 1975), a member of the Choctaw Nation, was a teacher, historian, and editor. Her mother Ida Belle Richards was a Presbyterian missionary teacher who arrived in 1887, and her father, Eliphalet Nott “E. N.”) Wright, was a Choctaw and a graduate of Union College and Albany Medical College in New York. He returned to the Choctaw Nation in 1895 to establish a private practice and serve as company physician for the Missouri-Pacific Coal Mines at Lehigh.

Wright could trace her white ancestry on both sides of her family to the Mayflower (1620) and the Anne (1623). On her mother’s side she is descended from Frances Sprangue, who arrived on the Anne. Her paternal grandmother Harriet Newell Mitchell Wright, who descended from two Mayflower passengers William Brewster and Edward Doty was a Presbyterian missionary teacher who moved from Dayton, Ohio to the Choctaw Nation. In 1857, she married Rev. Allen Wright, principal chief of the Choctaw Nation from 1866 to 1870. It was he who suggested that the territory be named “Oklahoma” which means “red people.” in 1866. Wright was a member of several organizations, including the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Colonial Dames.

Wright attended Wheaton Seminary in Norton, Massachusetts and completed a teacher education course at East Central Normal School in Ada in 1912, but did not receive a degree. From 1912 to the mid-1920s, Wright worked at several schools in southeastern Oklahoma as principal and English and history instructor. From 1916-7, she studied English and history at Barnard College.

Wright’s interest in Choctaw history began in 1914 when she met journalist and Oklahoma Historical Society board member Joseph B. Thoburn. He encouraged her to study southeastern Oklahoma’s geography, map the Choctaw Nation, and conducted field work almost annually from 1922-9. Thoburn and Wright collaborated on a four-volume work, Oklahoma: A History of the State and Its People (1929). She also wrote three Oklahoma history textbooks used in the public schools: The Story of Oklahoma (1929), Our Oklahoma (1939), and The Oklahoma History (1955).

In addition to studying Choctaw history, Wright was actively involved in Choctaw Nation affairs as secretary of the Choctaw Committee during the 1920s, member and secretary of the Choctaw Advisory Council in 1934, and as a Choctaw delegate to the Inter-tribal Indian Council from the late 1930s to the early 1940s.

After joining the Oklahoma Historical Society in 1922, Wright wrote articles for the The Chronicles of Oklahoma from 1923 to 1971 on topics such as Indian and military history, biographies of notable women, and historic preservation. From 1943 to 1954, she was the journal’s editor in all but name, which she officially became in 1955. Wright produced more than one hundred issues, including over sixty-six of her articles.

Wright’s A Guide to the Indian Tribes of Oklahoma (1951), which surveys the sixty-seven tribes then in Oklahoma, including their location, membership, history, government, contemporary life and culture, removal experiences and adaptation to change, “remains a standard reference for studying the state’s American Indian people.”

In the 1950s, Wright and her historical society colleagues launched a program to create historical markers to raise awareness of the state’s history. Wright conducted most of the research for the inscriptions and created a list of sites which went from the initial 512 to 557 when the final list was published in the The Chronicles of Oklahoma in 1958. That same year, Wright and Oklahoma Historic Sites Committee chair George H. Shirk compiled and edited Mark of Heritage: Oklahoma Historical Markers, focusing on 131 sites. In 1966, Wright collaborated with LeRoy H. Fischer on “Civil War Sites in Oklahoma,” identifying and describing the location and historical significance of the sites. In addition, she also conducted OHS–sponsored public tours of historic sites.

Wright received numerous honors including listing in the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1940, the University of Oklahoma’s Distinguished Service Award citation in 1948, the Oklahoma City Business and Professional Woman of the Year Award in 1950, Oklahoma City University’s honorary doctorate of humanities degree in 1964, and the National American Indian Women’s Association Award in 1971. After retiring in 1973, Wright continued her research projects until she died in 1975. She was one of the first four inductees of the when the Oklahoma Historical Society launched the Oklahoma Historians Hall of Fame in 1993.

The Artist Speaks

March is Women’s History Month, after Congress passed a resolution on March 1, 1987. March first is World Book Day. Here are some historical events that occurred on March 1.


"Court Trial of Witches," illustration by unknown artist, published in "Witchcraft Illustrated" by Henrietta D Kimball, circa 1892

“Court Trial of Witches,” illustration by unknown artist, published in “Witchcraft Illustrated” by Henrietta D Kimball, circa 1892

On March 1, 1692, Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba, were brought before magistrates in Salem Village, Massachusetts, beginning the Salem witch trials. Sarah Good was a poor woman, Sarah Osborne, whose sister-in-law had married into the Putnam family, and Tituba was Reverend Samuel Parris’s slave.

Over the next few months, twenty people would be executed – nineteen hanged, one pressed to death – and over one hundred and fifty people would be accused. Thirteen of those executed were women, and around twenty-four other women were convicted.


Theresa Bernstein, American painter and printmaker, ca. 1890-2002.jpg

Photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son in 1930, Archives of American Art     Smithsonian Institution

Theresa Ferber Bernstein-Meyerowitz (March 1, 1890 – February 13, 2002) was a Polish-American, Jewish artist and painter whose career lasted ninety years. She was born in Philadelphia and graduated from the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now the Moore College of Art and Design) in 1911. She studied with William Merritt Chase at the Art Students League. She painted urban scenes such as trolleys, elevated trains, and Coney Island. Her painting style was considered by some to be “masculine,” but Bernstein’s painted women at leisure and the workplace.

Although Jewish subjects were not her specialty, she depicted weddings and synagogue services. Despite growing up in what she called a secular household, Bernstein was an ardent Zionist who attended the first American Zionist meeting in Madison Square Garden in 1923.

Her popularity waned after the 1920s, but the women’s movement led to renewed interest in her work. Her paintings are part of the permanent collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, the Chicago Art Institute, the New York Public Library, the Brooklyn Museum.

Theresa Bernstein died on February 12, 2002, two weeks shy of her 112th birthday, though she may have been as old as nearly 116.

File:Mercedes de Acosta.jpg

Mercedes de Acosta (March 1, 1893 – May 9, 1968) was an American poet, playwright, fashion icon, and novelist, known for her many lesbian relationships. She was born in New York and befriended Degas, Tolstoy, Debussy, and others. Her wardrobe was the start of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Her lovers included Russian actresses Alla Nazimova and Tallulah Bankhead, dancer Isadora Duncan. While in a relationship with Duncan, Acosta began writing, producing three volumes of poetry, two novels, four produced plays, and many that wee no performed, and screenplays. Some of her other lovers in the 1930s included Ona Munson, who played Belle Watling, the madam, in Gone With the Wind, and dancer Adele Astaire, Fred Astaire’s sister).

In 1920 Mercedes married painter Abram Poole, though she kept her own name when she married and later joined the Lucy Stone League, which advocated women keeping their surnames upon marriage. Throughout her marriage, she continued having relationships with women, including actress Eva Le Gallienne, for whom she created several plays, including Sandro Botticelli, a fictional account of Botticelli’s model for his famous painting The Birth of Venus.

In 1931, Acosta met Greta Garbo, though the exact nature of their relationship is unclear, as Garbo publicly maintained that the relationship was platonic. Acosta also had relationships with other women, including Marlene Dietrich at the same time.

When her finances became dire, Acosta published her memoir, Here Lies the Heart, in 1960, though she was vague about her various relationships. She also sold her papers to the Rosenbach Museum and Library, including working material for her memoir, personal correspondence, objects and photos. Although some of the correspondence was sealed until the correspondent’s death at her request, all is now available.

Doris Hare.jpg

Doris Hare, MBE (1 March 1905 – 30 May 2000) was a British actress, singer, dancer and comedian. Her career spanned many countries, genres, and mediums. She was born in Bargoed, Monmouthshire, Wales. Her stage debut at three at her parents’ mobile theatre, was at a time without television, films, or microphones. Nearly fifty years later, she made her television debut in 1953 in an episode of Douglas Fairbansk Junior Presents. She performed in New York, London, and Scotland, included Mistress Quickly in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, Mrs Peachum in The Beggar’s Opera, Katherine in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta and Mary Hearn in The Farmer’s Wife and Emlyn Williams’s thriller Night Must Fall.

She is best known for being the second actress to portray Mrs Mabel “Mum” Butler in the popular sitcom On the Buses alongside Reg Varney. By the time she starred in On the Buses, she had spent over sixty years on stage, from performing in music halls during her childhood, to revues between the wars, to the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. She was appointed a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) for her wartime service in the Merchant Navy.


Some of my favourite books by and about women include:

  • Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

  • Deborah Harkness’s The All Souls trilogy

  • Mary Higgins Clark’s Kitchen Privileges: A Memoir

  • Jodi Taylor’s The Chronicles of St Mary’s series

  • Celeste Ng’s, Little Fires Everywhere

  • Elizabeth Peters’s The Amelia Peabody series

  • Jennifer Chiaverini’s Elm Creek Quilts series and her other historical fiction

  • Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian

  • Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

  • Sarah Nelson’s So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading

  • Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Egypt Game