Librarians vs. HUAC’s Book Burnings

Censorship, General Interest, Information Access

By: Sarah Hicks

The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) turned 79 in May. While it may be uncommon to acknowledge anniversaries on the 9th year instead of the 10th, and HUAC itself ceased operating in any way in 1975, given the current climate, it feels relevant again.

Comic Book BurningsHUAC officially started in 1938, initially as a special investigating committee, and from the get-go, it had its eye on communists. It also supported the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, and declined to investigate the Ku Klux Klan. Once it became a permanent committee, these points of view remained, and while it was officially trying to ferret out secret communists, what it essentially did was make it easier to target people in “undesirable” minorities. Anyone deemed a communist, regardless of the truth, could easily lose their job, if not face far harsher consequences. (Obviously, the Hollywood blacklist is one of the most well-known examples of this, but hundreds of regular people lost their jobs, too.)

At the height of HUAC’s influence in 1953, there were reports of book burnings at America-funded overseas libraries, encouraged by Senator McCarthy or President Eisenhower himself. It’s not entirely clear who was to blame, but the target was literature deemed too communist to keep on the shelves.

After the reports came out, an article was published in The New Republic about not only the dangers of book burning, but also the importance of libraries (and librarians). The article itself is not particularly long, and worth a read (and the ALA’s Committee for Intellectual Freedom gets name dropped in the last paragraph!)

New Republic Article - The Horrible, Oppressive History of Book Burning in America

What stood out to me most was the feeling that the article resonated strongly for our current political climate, one which is also marked by fear and resentment and stark societal divisions. Parts of the article could have been written this year, instead of 64 years ago.

While I admit that I’m personally not convinced we’re at risk of mass book burnings anytime soon, it seems that we are once again at a point in which librarians must stand our ground. We can’t pretend that the idea of someone being “un-American” hasn’t stuck around. The term has a long history, and it’s still being bandied about regularly. As always, our responsibility is to ensure access to information, regardless of what’s being deemed antithetical to whichever group is in power. Our profession stayed true to its ideals during the HUAC years. We must do our best to stay true to those same ideals today.


shicksheadshotSarah Hicks is a current MLIS student at the University of Pittsburgh, and works in a local public library. She has long been passionate about issues regarding intellectual freedom, and believes that these issues are becoming increasingly important worldwide, especially those related to privacy, surveillance, and censorship. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as certain stereotypes about librarians are not wholly untrue, she is both an avid reader (of many genres) and a total cat lady. Sarah can sometimes be found @exactlibrarian.

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