With the development of public libraries, communities are able to access a variety of materials and resources. However, in the beginning this was not the case. The notion of Franklin’s self-made man persisted, and libraries tried to restrict what patrons borrowed. During the late nineteenth century, the school of thought was that good reading led to good social behavior, while bad reading led to bad social behavior.(4) Libraries promoted non-fiction (educational resources), rather than fiction, but the general public wanted to read fiction. Some public libraries did relent and began offering fiction but often restricted the number of fiction titles a patron could borrow at a time. Before public libraries allowed patrons to check out one book, instead they allowed patrons to check out two books: one fiction and one non-fiction.(5)
Libraries often censored what patrons read for fiction, often not buying the fiction titles patrons desired. The American Library Association (ALA) defines censorship as:
“the suppression of ideas and information that certain persons- individuals, groups or government officials- find objectionable or dangerous. It is no more complicated than someone saying ‘Don’t let anyone read this book, or buy that magazine, or view that film, because I object to it!’ Censors try to use the power of the state to impose their view of what is truthful and appropriate, or offensive and objectionable, on everyone else. Censors pressure public institutions, like libraries, to suppress and remove information they judge inappropriate or dangerous from public access, so that no one else has the chance to read or view the material and make up their own minds about it. The censor wants to prejudge material for everyone”(6)
Public libraries used the idea of censorship for many years. An example of this censorship was the dime novel craze. Public libraries would not purchase dime novels, believing that they were trashy and unsuitable for reading. “Early dime novels…were patriotic-and often nationalistic- tales of encounters between Native Americans and backwoods settlers. In the 1870s, detective adventures, society romance, and rags-to-riches stories were introduced, and by the mid-1890s, bold color covers depicting scenes of bloodshed and courageous feats.”(7) Some children’s librarians thought that reading dime novels would be dangerous for children. “A fourteen-year-boy shot himself during a period of mental aberration caused by reading dime novels.” A librarian from Worcester, Massachusetts: Samuel Green thought the opposite of what public libraries thought. He said that public libraries should provide children with sensational reading such as dime novels. Green wrote in the Library Journal in September 1879 that
“in order to keep boys and girls from reading . . . [dime novels], we must give them interesting books that are better. But sensational books in the circulating departments of our public libraries do good in another way. They give young persons a taste for reading . . . If boys and girls grow up with a dislike of reading, or without feeling attracted towards this occupation, they will not read anything. But if a love of reading has been cultivated by giving them when young such books as they will enjoy reading, then they will turn naturally to reading as an employment of their leisure and will read such books as correspond to the grade of culture and the stage of intellectual development reached by them. They will thus be saved from idleness and vice.”(8)
There was mixed reaction to Green’s proposal, the Boston Public Library embraced his ideas. Green suggested the popular and favorite authors of Horatio Alger and Oliver Optic for sensational reading for children. Grace Thompson (librarian from the Brooklyn Public Library) wrote an article in 1907 condemning dime novels, particularly Alger. She said
“there are still people who uphold Alger books as creating a reading habit. In genuine experience they create only an Alger reading habit. But worse than this is their effect to rob childhood of its joyousness. . . Their boys and girls are really business men and women. . . Boys and girls, particularly boys and girls in our cities, do often have to be business men and women. Let them learn wisdom in these lines from experience. When they come to the library let them find that life is not all business, some of it is pure enjoyment.”(9)
Books that were often censored previously by public libraries are now considered classic books that are required reading in some schools. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, was one of these books. A trustee at the Concord (Massachusetts) Public Library described the book as “veriest trash” and “more profitable for the slum than it is for respectable people.” A public library in Montana censored this book also, saying it was “unfit for youth.”(10) A couple of classic books by John Steinbeck: Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men were also censored by public libraries. Grapes of Wrath was censored for its “profane language and perceived radical politics.” Due to complaints from the community, “the Fort Wayne Public Library destroyed all its copies” of Of Mice and Men, and “also refused to purchase the Grapes of Wrath.” Later, libraries’ attitudes towards these books changed, allowing these books into their collections. Grapes of Wrath became one of the most circulated books.(11)
Inferno was an offspring of censorship that public libraries practiced. Materials that libraries already possessed that were deemed questionable were relocated to a special section called the Inferno. Librarians followed “the Comstock attitude” in their public libraries. In 1873, “Comstock Act prohibited the delivery of lewd materials through the mail,” and public libraries put this notion into practice by having Infernos.(12) Patrons needed special permission to access these materials, and librarians had to retrieve these materials. “Public libraries exercised two kinds of censorship… one of ‘exclusion’ (books not purchased) and one of ‘seclusion’ (tomes sent to the Inferno).” “The duty of the librarian is selection, not censorship.”(13) Many of the books that ended up in the Inferno were considered trashy, immoral, and risqué. Many librarians believed that the Inferno was important to public libraries, and library staff were trained in book selection. Library staff were only allowed to check out Inferno materials to adults. Librarians believe adults would have knowledge to discern for themselves if the material was morally good.
Different public libraries had various names for the Inferno shelf, including permission shelf or purgatory shelf. Books that are considered literary works today, were put in the Inferno in the 1920’s. Some of these books included A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway (1929), and This Side of Paradise, by F Scott Fitzgerald (1920). There were many different examples of librarians trying to restrict access to certain books. This is one of those examples: “when Chicagoan went to the public library in 1927 to borrow Voltaire’s Candide, a clerk whispered to him that this author’s books were banned. Library rules did not allow ‘permission shelf’ books out of the library, and only people over twenty-one were allowed to use them in the library.”(14)
After World War I, libraries let go of some of their notions about fiction, describing it as “harmless,” and easing up a little on censorship. Fiction helped the returning soldiers, who ended up in the hospital. This action was endorsed by the American Library Association. Some of the popular authors that the soldiers enjoyed reading were “Zane Grey, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Rex Beach, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Gene Stratton-Porter, and Harold Bell Wright- all banned or not collected by many public libraries before the war.”(15) Libraries have adapted to the needs of their patrons by purchasing fiction they desired. Steve Viggiano (librarian at Manchester City Library) stated that libraries should take “cues from large book stores to make its collection more attractive and user-friendly.”(16) This method of user-friendliness was put into practice in the Manchester City Library. Another librarian from the Manchester City Library, Rose DeNucci, has organized the development of different genre displays. She saw this as a way to reach patrons with creative displays. If patrons were perusing the shelves, they might find something of interest from one of these displays. The different genre displays at Manchester City Library include thrillers, romance, science fiction/fantasy, Christian fiction, and historical fiction.(17)
Click here to follow the path that public libraries took by adding audiovisual materials.