March 27, 2012

Censored books found buried beneath National Archives

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After so much talk about scary new forms of censorship, it’s interesting to reflect on the halcyon days when prudish customs officials were sometimes all we had to worry about.

David Pescovitz writes on Boing Boing that Nicole Moore, a literary historian, has uncovered thousands of banned books, buried under the National Archives of Australia in Sydney. Moore found almost 800 boxes of books, spanning from the turn of the century to the 1950s. Although mostly censored for ‘obscenity’, a significant portion was kept hidden for sedition or blasphemy.

Craig Munro reviews Moore’s new book The Censor’s Library in the Sydney Morning Herald.

According to Munro,

“As Moore shows, such secret collections have accumulated in many parts of the world, often carefully tended by censor-librarians. Private Case, Public Scandal, the book that revealed the contents of the British Library’s secret collection, was itself banned in Australia in 1966. Not surprisingly, the 20th century’s largest and most notorious repository of forbidden literature was in the Soviet Union, with more than 1 million items.”

 For the most part, Australian Customs officers simply looked at material and referred that which they thought was offensive to a ‘panel of literary experts’.  Per Munro,

“The standard British test for obscenity as the tendency ”to deprave and corrupt” had been established in 1868 by the aptly named Lord Cockburn. Deciding just what might be offensive, indecent, scandalous, disgusting or immoral has kept Australian politicians, lawyers, judges, juries, ”expert” readers and legions of Customs clerks busy since.”

In this way, books like Lolita, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and The City and the Pillar were kept out of the hands of innocents, almost until 1966.

As humorous and out of touch at such censorship appears now, it seems almost naive, compared with the new and insidious forms of censorship, pursued by private individuals with money and reach.

Ariel Bogle is a former publicist at Melville House.

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