Saturday, April 5, 2014

"What constitutes an objectionable book?": Flora Cessna describes a censorship debate in 1920s Bedford

History requires both interesting events and gifted storytellers. I was reminded of this fact yesterday when using the minute books of the Bedford Civic Club and Bedford County Library. In the early 1920s, the "CC" had established a library in town. Like many fledgling institutions of its era, the Bedford Civic Club Public Library subsisted on second-hand furniture, a book budget raised through social dances and teas, and, most importantly, part-time helpers who were compensated zero to 30 cents per hour. The CC's "library committee" handled all aspects of the work. Secretaries Elizabeth Goss, M. J. Kiser, and Judith Goodrich dutifully, yet succinctly, recorded the committee's everyday decisions. Having keys made for the library's door. Buying insurance. Purchasing postcards for notifying overdue borrowers. 

Sometimes,"pro-tem" secretaries filled in when Goss, Kiser, or Goodrich were absent. Such happened on March 10, 1927, when Flora Cessna took up the pen. In terms of generating "quotable gems" for future historians, one couldn't ask for a better observer than Cessna for that particular meeting.

On the agenda? -- censorship. 

As Esther Jane Carrier describes in her books on Fiction in Public Libraries, early librarians engaged in frequent conversation about the role of popular novels in society. They also debated the criteria that the profession should use in selecting titles for library shelves. Through collaborative efforts, they developed tools such as the A.L.A. Catalogue, a recommended purchase list of thousands of books. By attending training programs, participating at conferences, reading review sources, utilizing available aids, and observing how their customers interacted with books, local librarians often developed firm, if individualistic, opinions. When Anna McDonald of the State Library of Pennsylvania visited Bedford to help the CC get started, she advised local women on "how to judge the value of a book," stressing the importance of reading materials that were "true to life" versus ones that "gave false ideas." Among the first 1,000 items on the library's shelves were about 300 purchased under McDonald's "direction" (see CC Library Committee minute books, November 22, 1922 and January 19, 1923).

Despite the State Library's assistance, choosing materials that met Bedford residents' expectations proved difficult. When the March 10, 1927 meeting was called to order, Cessna and other attendees learned that the focus was to be "adverse criticism" of the library's book collection. She recorded that a "reviewing committee" had been attempting to "obtain and retain" the "best" literature. However, reading dozens of books each year was a substantial task. So, items from authors "in whom all have the utmost confidence" were being added to the shelves on the "strength of [their] reputation ... without being read." The review committee was caught unaware when such a writer "put across something not so desirable" and "consternation" ran "riot" in town.
Interior of the Bedford Civic Club Public Library, ca. 1920s

Cessna's minutes vividly captured the difficulty of achieving cultural consensus. As she described it, whenever there was doubt about a book, "quite a number" of club members ended up reading it, "some saying they see nothing specially improper in it, some saying it is horrid." She also noted that "one of these specially obnoxious books was found to be used in a school course." Although the women seemed to agree that "objectionable" books should be "destroyed," the question of "what constituted an objectionable book" quickly arose. As Cessna explained, "some books with fine historical background contained some very raw sex stuff." Ultimately, the group decided that from thence forward 3 members would read "questionable" books and "if there were two ayes it remained on the shelf and we would stand our chance of contamination." However, "if there were two nays off it goes." 

It is remarkable to read such a debate occurring in 1920s Bedford. Cessna's account is valuable when one ponders whether so much detail would have been recorded by other secretaries whose notes were generally not as colorful or detailed. But more importantly, it encourages us to check our assumptions when comparing the past to today, or contrasting small and large populations. We often presume that life was "simpler" in earlier decades, and we often expect attitudes in rural Pennsylvania towns to be more homogeneous than in our own diverse communities. However, the debate over "questionable" books in Bedford teaches us that even within group like the CC, where the vast majority (if not the entirety) of the membership was female, white, Christian, and rural, there were significant differences in reading tastes and moral judgments. Another takeaway is that the fine line between "answering community needs" and censorship is one that librarianship has been dancing around, to much the same tune, for a hundred years or more.

I wish I could find more information about Cessna and this censorship episode. NewspaperArchive, which offers full-text of the Bedford Gazette from the 1890s through present, lacks her obituary. When I searched the word "library," I found no articles from 1927 that tell us what author or incident precipitated the CC's special meeting. Nonetheless, it is clear that March 10th was a moment when story met storyteller on equal footing. 

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