Thursday, August 29, 2013

An early incidence of library censorship: Scranton, 1898

During the final hours of my research at Albright Memorial Library in Scranton, I hurriedly flipped through dozens of vertical file folders containing hundreds of brittle newsclippings. I had already found much of the material elsewhere, so I only glanced quickly at headlines. I flew by a particular article but then paused after its meaning registered in my brain. It was titled, "Are These Proper Books For The Library Shelves?: A Very Indignant Letter From 'A Catholic Citizen.'"

Oh-ho. Censorship!

On October 9, 1898, the Scranton Free Press published a reader's complaint about the presence of Augusta Jane Evans-Wilson's novel, Inez, A Tale of the Alamo in the Scranton Public Library. The article included lengthy excerpts from the text, which appeared to portray a priest who had much manipulative power over the heroine. The "sworthy" priest spoke "menancingly" to Inez and told her not to associate with a Protestant friend. He also tried to compel the girl to marry against her will. The reader also took issue with the book's descriptions of xeveral Catholic sacraments. Within a few days, Scranton City Councilman James J. Grier, himself a Catholic, submitted a resolution that "the joint auditing committee of councils be directed to withhold approval of all bills for the Scranton public library until such time as the novels of Augusta J. Evans, the dramas of Wycherly and Congrieve, and all other books tending toward religious prejudice and immorality have been excluded from said Scranton Public Library (source not cited on newsclipping, possibly Scranton Free Press, October 14, 1898). This was a very serious threat, using the power of the purse to force the library's hand. Deeper in the folder, I found additional articles, and when I returned to Harrisburg, I used microfilmed copies of the Scranton Republican and Scranton Times to round out my growing archive on the incident.

Circulation desk of the Scranton Public Library, 1890s. Photo courtesy of the Lackawanna Historical Society
Poring over a half-inch thick pile of photocopies, what strikes me most is how arguments for and against censorship have not changed much over the past century. One side, represented by the Scranton Free Press, worried about the negative social influence bad books could have, especially on children. They also emphasized the moral sensibilities that all religions and most citizens shared. There were also objections to tax funding being used to purchase poor-quality materials. Some quotes that illustrate this position:

"The Catholic people pay taxes and have a right to be considered in this matter. I as a councilman and a Catholic will not stand it to have such books in the library" (attributed to Councilman James Grier, Scranton Republican, October 14, 1898).

"If a line can be drawn in the doings of our daily life, why can it not be drawn in books? If we would not have our children listen to sensational gossip, to lewd conversation, to bigoted harangues against our own faith, why must we pay for books in which these very themes are the subjects upon which the authors treat? Not only permit the reading, but pay for the books" (Scranton Free Press, October 30, 1898).

Other the other side, writers to the Scranton Republican pointed to the non-sectarian purpose of the public library. They also argued that if the library tried to purge every title that *could* offend *someone*, it would have *nothing* left on its shelves. In addition, they held the professionalism of librarian Henry Carr and the religious diversity of the library's Board of Trustees in high esteem. Surely these men did not deliberately include anti-Catholic or pernicious literature in the library. Finally, using rhetoric that is an interesting choice regarding an institution that existed to improve the community through reading, the library's supporters questioned whether a few novels could really influence anyone so profoundly. For instance:

"Scranton's public librarian is a man of rare judgment in book lore, having had an experience that puts him away and beyond the minds that would undertake to censor the books in his charge. There are men in the city councils who will grasp at any sort of excuse for withholding the appropriation that is the library's due, even to the humiliation of the city away from home. These are men who wouldn't be hurt the least bit if a careful censor was to measure their words for them before they were given public utterance" (Providence Register, October 15, 1898).

"It seems to us to have been at least unwise that the questions of religious differences should have been introduced into the public library ... The question was raised under a gross misapprehension as to the spirit and scope of such an institution ... The library is a public institution, broad as the public taste. In it should be found everything of literature that the public might demand. No distinction should be made because of political or religious opinion" (Scranton Republican, October 17, 1898).

"Persons of sound convictions will not be influenced by the pictures of a novelist, whether they be correct or otherwise. Children's reading under all circumstances should be under the direction of their parents or some other persons of judgment" (Scranton Republican, October 17, 1898).

"If Augusta Wilson were [unreadable] for her alleged anti-Catholic [unreadable], F. Marion Crawford would be [unreadable] for just the converse reason. On and on the list would go. The King James or the Douay bibles would not be permitted, and any translation of the New Testament would be excluded ... 'Ben Hur' and the 'Last Days of Pompeii' would be tabooed for the same reason" (Scranton Republican, October 17, 1898).

"Perhaps there may be publications that theologically do not meet the peculiar sentiment of our Catholic friends within the library, and there may also be some .. which do not conform altogether with the tenets of Protestantism. ... And then there are our Atheistic friends!" (Scranton Republican, October 17, 1898).

"If the work [censorship] were commenced where would it end?  .. Indeed, English literature is predominantly a controversial literature. There is hardly a work in the language worth the paper it is printed on, that is not strong tinged with the opinions of the author. Gibbon's valuable history is opposed to all religion. Tom Paine and Benjamin Franklin were atheists and showed it in their writings  ... When would it end? When the library shelves are stripped bare" (Scranton Republican, October 24, 1898).

Ultimately, during its meeting on October 18, 1898, Scranton's City Council decided to appoint a special committee, chaired by Grier, to meet with librarian Carr (Scranton Times, October 14, 1898). They met for an hour or more on October 30th, during which time Carr invited them to bring their concerns to Reverend Daniel J. McGoldrick, who was then the president of the University of Scranton (a Catholic institution), a library board member, and one who "use[d] the library every day and has a most extensive knowledge of books." Carr also referred to his profession's standards, explaining that the objectionable titles were available in major city libraries, including Boston and Chicago, and that many of the books he purchased received positive reviews (Scranton Sunday Free Press, October 30, 1898). It seems that the matter concluded in early November. The Scranton Free Press announced that "the Library will be cleansed and ... more care and a greater measure of true and wise liberality will hereafter be evident in selection of books is also certain" (November 6, 1898).

Henry Carr, head of the Scranton Public Library during the censorship controversy of 1898. Photo courtesy of the Albright Memorial Library
From the library's perspective, the events of October and November 1898 may not have been as controversial as the newspapers made them appear. The board of trustees certainly took the public's concerns seriously, for it instructed Carr to provide Council with any information it requested. Yet following his meeting with the special committee, Carr reported that he was "without particular results to report." After the board engaged in "considerable and amicable discussion of the general subject matter of book inclusion and exclusion," it voted "that as the Librarian has, in the past, been instructed to exercise his best discretion in the restriction of any books not considered desirable for general circulation, the Board deems it wise to continue the rule and have the same duty still rest with him regarding such books as may be found reasonably objectionable" (Scranton Public Library, Board of Trustees Minutes, November 12, 1898). Thus to me, it seems like the library returned to business. Councilman Grier may have won on Evans and Wycherley, but not on Congrieve. When I checked the 1903 Index Catalogue of the Scranton Public Library, I did not find Augusta Evans, Inez, A Tale of the Alamo, or any works by William Wycherley. However, the library apparently retained copies of William Congrieve's Best Plays. Not knowing much about the history of Scranton, I have no idea whether this conflict over books could (or should) be situated within broader themes such as possible conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in the city, questions about board versus governmental control over the new library, personality clashes between various members of city council, rivalries between the editors of the Free Press and the Republican, or other potential contexts. But it is certainly a thought-provoking episode in Pennsylvania library history.

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