As we acknowledge the thirtieth anniversary of Banned Books Week, we celebrate the freedom to read. However, we’re also provided the opportunity to reflect upon the times and motivations that drove individuals and groups to censor books and to learn from those who worked the front lines, keeping publications available to their constituency.
Like many locations across the United States, censorship affected Orange County. What follows are the recollections of two Orange County librarians whose own experiences with banned books are documented in their oral histories held by the Center for Oral and Public History.
Elva Haskett, Anaheim Public Library
Elva Haskett, who joined the staff of the Anaheim Public Library in 1925—and for whom the Elva L. Haskett Branch was named—recalled some of the opposition she encountered during her tenure: You can’t work with the public without having some complaints no matter what position you’re in, and so it has been with books. So, when the parents complained, we re-read it and tried to re-evaluate it. If we felt that it was justified, why, it was taken off the shelves. Religious motives often were the things that the parents considered, and if it had a value that didn’t slant the way they believed, then they would complain about the book. Even Tom Sawyer had some words parents might complain about, so you had to read the book and see if the word really was something that the child wouldn’t know. And, we’ve had objections even to Call of the Wild, a literary masterpiece.
However, censorship wasn’t always because of religious or moral reasons. Often times, it was politically-driven as well, as Ms. Haskett explained: [During World War I]I, there were complaints about books written in German and some of the music books that had some of Wagner’s compositions were moved off the shelves for a little while. You know, we were friends with Russia just after the war and a great number of books came onto the market in which there was a leaning towards Russia, and it was those books, I think, that we had the most complaints about. It was all so unnecessary and very pathetic.
Dorothea Wilson Sheely, Newport Beach Public Library
Veteran Newport Beach librarian Dorothea Wilson Sheely, interviewed in 1987, spoke of more drastic measures disgruntled community members took to getting books removed from the shelves. For instance, in 1961, there was an effort to ban The Last Temptation of Christ in Los Angeles and Orange Counties and the following year, it was Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Ms. Sheely recounted: The Last Temptation of Christ was the first book in our area to be criticized. It didn’t arouse the public’s attention too much because the book quickly disappeared off the shelf. It was requested but it disappeared. The catalog cards were in the files, so they knew we’d had it in print. Now, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the first time I saw that book was when I was overseas in the library. It was purchased when I returned here because it seemed very mild. It was requested in the 1950s; we were not criticized at that time because the book was kept in back of the charging desk on the reserve shelf along with sex education titles.
In 1963, a Pasadena group calling themselves the Network of Patriotic Letter Writers began a campaign to remove the Dictionary of American Slang, believing it too obscene and demanding that it be removed from high school and public libraries. Not only did they want it removed, they wanted it destroyed. Initially, a small editorial in the Ensign, a Newport Beach weekly newspaper, asked its readers, “Are you willing to read this book to your children, to your neighbor, and members of your club? It is the wrongful use of taxpayers’ money to purchase books of such degrading influence for our public libraries.”
A resident of Balboa, who had no library card, came in and asked for the book. She was given the book, and then rushed out of the library and that was the end of the American Dictionary of Slang. She started a petition and canvassed the shops on the peninsula with a petition opposing the filthy books that we had in the library. At the very time, every newspaper became interested in this situation.
Because of the incident, Ms. Sheely considered resigning. It was such an uncomfortable, unhappy, and unfortunate situation. It’s unbelievable that this could happen in such a broadminded city as Newport Beach.
Censorship in Orange County Libraries
At the time, there were eight public libraries in Orange County plus the Orange County Library System and the nine directors would meet each month and discuss their mutual problems. All the libraries were unanimous in concern on the censorship problem. It was a like a rash. It seemed to go through every library. Censorship, I would say during the sixties, early sixties, was our greatest problem.
For more information about these oral histories and others, contact the Center for Oral and Public History at email@example.com or (657) 278-3580.
An Oral History with Elva L. Haskett
conducted by Annette Moon
on 13 May 1968
An Oral History with Dorothea Wilson Sheely
conducted by Shirley Stephenson
on 14 September 1982