By: Valerie Nye
I interviewed John Harer about a faculty member’s request to remove Holocaust denial books from a large academic library circulating collection. The incident we discussed happened in the mid-1990s but has lasting ramifications today. John is currently an associate professor of library science at East Carolina University. In 1995 he worked at an academic library in the Southwest where a faculty member in the journalism department met with the dean of Library Services to object to the inclusion of seven Holocaust denial books that were in the library’s collection.
Valerie Nye: Please tell me about the complaint the library received from a faculty member about books in the library’s collection.
John Harer: A journalism professor held a meeting with the dean of Library Services to file the complaint. The library did not have a formal complaint process. He just spoke with the dean in this meeting. He initially objected to the inclusion of the books.
VN: Do you remember the book titles?
JH: The only title I remember is Butz, Arthur R. The Hoax of the Twentieth Century. The books were purchased some time prior to the incident and my employment there. However, they were included in the general collection, presumably purchased through the normal proposes.
VN: Was the complaint known about by the entire library staff or just a small group?
JH: The complaint was not generally announced to the entire library staff. The people who knew about it were mostly the administration and library faculty who were chosen for the review committee. I am sure word of mouth got around about it.
VN: Did the library have a collection development policy that could be used effectively in this situation?
JH: It did not have a collection development policy as in a formal written statement that dealt with how to balance the collection, and guidelines for inclusion or exclusion. There were procedures that collection development librarians followed, but the document was more about the process of purchasing, not policy issues. There was no policy at all or even guidelines for addressing a complaint. The dean recognized a need for one because of this incident and one was created soon afterward.
VN: How quickly after the incident did the library create a policy?
JH: Within that academic year.
VN: How was the issue resolved?
JH: A committee was formed that included the professor who filed the complaint, subject specialists among the library faculty, and some library administrators. The professor recognized the concern about outright censorship during the committee meetings but felt the books were miscataloged. The books were cataloged so that they were shelved along with serious research on the Holocaust. The professor felt students would not understand the difference between the denial books lack of appropriate research and their lack of credibility compared to the serious and credible books on the Holocaust that were shelved with them. The resolution was to recatalog them. An LC classification was found on “spurious research” and this placed the denial books in a somewhat different location. But, they remained on open shelves.
VN: Was the faculty member who complained satisfied with the decision to move the books to a different area of the library?
JH: Yes, very satisfied and I believe that was due to the decision to include him as a member of the committee. He really was a reasonable guy as well.
VN: What did you (or the library/library staff) learn through the experience?
JH: Involvement of the faculty complainant was crucial to this resolution. In an academic institution, faculty are key. We also learned that we really needed a policy.
VN: Thank you for sharing this story. I think the fact that the person challenging the material was able to serve on the review committee and was satisfied with the committee’s decision is an important lesson for academic libraries.
Following our interview, John Harer and I continued to exchange emails about the things he could remember about the incident, and I began to do some of my own research on this topic. Through research and our ongoing discussion I learned that in the mid-1990s, just around the time John’s library was making decisions about reclassifying Holocaust denial books within a large academic library, changes were made to the Library of Congress Classification scheme that created a new subject heading, “Holocaust denial,” and a specific area within Holocaust research for books that deny the Holocaust was specified: D804.355. Debra F. Spidal outlines the history of these changes in her article, “Treatment of Holocaust Denial Literature in Association of Research Libraries” (2012). With this change, the Library of Congress classification system keeps Holocaust denial books alongside Holocaust books, so a person browsing the shelves will find the books together, but the books that deny the Holocaust occurred are grouped together.
Valerie Nye is the library director at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. She has been active in local and national library organizations; recently serving on ALA Council, the New Mexico Library Association, and the New Mexico Consortium of Academic Libraries. Val has cowritten or coedited four books, including True Stories of Censorship Battles in America’s Libraries published by ALA Editions in 2012. True Stories is a compilation of essays written by librarians who have experienced challenges to remove material held in their libraries’ collections. She has an MLIS from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In her time away from the library she enjoys road trips in convertibles and kayaking. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.