The latest case of censorious librarians comes from the Cambridge University Library, which is one of Britain’s six legal-deposit libraries. Since 1662, readers have had the right to request and receive a copy of everything that has been published in the U.K. However, this culture of open research seems unlikely to survive our identitarian era.
The Telegraph reported earlier this month that Cambridge University Library sent a memo to the librarians in Cambridge’s 31 colleges, telling them: “We would like to hear from colleagues across Cambridge about any books you have had flagged to you as problematic (for any reason, not just in connection with decolonisation issues), so that we can compile a list of examples on the Cambridge Librarians intranet and think the problem through in more detail on the basis of that list.”
The word ‘problematic’ is a self-conscious euphemism, which in this case refers to books that are deemed objectionable and offensive. The library memo explicitly mentions ‘decolonisation’ – the movement calling for fewer texts by white, Western and European authors to appear on university reading lists – but we can assume that a text would be deemed ‘problematic’ if it offends woke sensibilities for any reason.
The memo also called on Cambridge colleges to inform the main university library of “anything you are already doing in your library to address this or similar issues” to be sent to a special “decolonisation” email address. One of these libraries, that of Pembroke College, immediately complied and emailed staff promising that it was “working to better support readers”. The implication here is that readers (university students, no less) are unlikely to be able to cope with the threat posed by problematic texts.
It should go without saying that it is not a library’s job to designate which books in its collection are problematic. Academics and their students ought to have the moral and intellectual maturity to deal with the content of the books they read.
Responding to the Telegraph report, a Cambridge University Library spokesman insisted that this is not a form of censorship. “Cambridge University Libraries do not censor, blacklist or remove content unless the content is illegal under U.K. law”, he said. Instead, Cambridge says that its aim is to create a kind of catalogue of problematic texts, with the goal of drawing up materials to help “support” readers who might be affected by them. So formally speaking, this is not censorship. Arguably though, it represents something even worse than that – it is an attempt to control how readers react to texts.
It suggests that librarians have started to behave like therapists, obsessed with micromanaging the thoughts and feelings of readers. Many have tried their utmost to present the collections for which they are responsible as a risk to the general public’s wellbeing.