How can an entire library disappear? This is one of the questions addressed in literary historian Nicole Moore’s book, and the answer is an unsettling one. It was an open secret that ‘Australian censors kept a reference library of banned books’ from the 1920s to the late 1980s, but after this period the collection disappeared. Moore found a reference to it in an anti-censorship newspaper article in 1971, but then ‘across more than thirty years I couldn’t trace another encounter with the collection’ (xi). In 2005, the Censor’s library – all 793 boxes and 12,000 titles of it – was rediscovered in the basement of a branch of the National Archives in western Sydney. It had been carefully stored, but its whereabouts had not been recorded -it had become an unnamed deposit in an uncatalogued file belonging to the Customs department.
Moore gives the library many names: the Customs library, the Censor’s library, the ‘purloined library’, the non-Australian library (‘suspect’ books published overseas were seized by Australian Customs officers on arrival). She also uses the expression ‘the negative library’ because these books went unread: they were confiscated, wrapped in brown paper and removed from public sight. The ‘mistrustful, practical men who exercised authority’ (124) deemed these works too dangerous – obscene, blasphemous, seditious – for Australian eyes.
The books in question were as varied as Aldous Huxley’s famous Brave New World and Robert Close’s unmemorable Love Me Sailor (Forever Amber, one of my favourite trashy novels when I was a teenager, also made it to the hit list -as did Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders.) The history of censorship is somehow always as banal as it is intriguing (speaking with modern hindsight, you have to wonder what all the panic was about) – in the case of Moore’s research, the most interesting aspects are the reflections made on Australian society. Why were our censors so very reactionary, and so over-zealous? Which modern European and American ideas were they trying to protect our island from?
Read this wonderful book to find out!