Universities are considering the insertion of warnings into books and even moving some off open library shelves altogether to protect students from “dangerous” and “wrong” arguments.
The proposal could hit books by climate-change sceptics, feminists, eugenicists, creationists, theologians and Holocaust deniers. It will generate new controversy over free speech at British universities, where speakers have been “no-platformed” because of their views.
The move on books follows a campaign to restrict access to work by the historian David Irving, which has already resulted in some university libraries, including Churchill College, Cambridge, moving his books into closed storage. Others, such as University College London, have also labelled some of Irving’s books “Holocaust denial literature”, or shelved them with historiography rather than history.
Manchester has refused to remove Irving’s books from open display, arguing that making them available to students is a matter of free speech, which universities have a duty to uphold.
The director of library services at UCL, Paul Ayris, revealed the decision to move the Irving books was based on “contemporary thinking among librarians”. This included a study “of the sometimes complex ethical issues of library neutrality, in relation, for example, to climate-change denial, and questions of equality and diversity, as well as Holocaust denial”.
Ayris also referred to a campaign directed at Vancouver Women’s Library to ban 20 feminist titles including works by Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon on the grounds they might offend transgender people and sex workers.
Academics said controversial titles included Nigel Lawson’s book An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming, and The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, which hypothesised that the children of Jesus and Mary Magdalene have a claim to the throne of France, inspiring Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code.
The debate is being led by a group called the Radical Librarians Collective, which argues that pretending that libraries are “neutral” in the way they display books “maintains the status quo of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”.