an open letter to The Sunday Times

This letter was sent to Complaints, The Sunday Times, The News Building, 1 London Bridge Street, London SE1 9GF and cc-ed to the journalist responsible for the article to which it refers.

To The Sunday Times,

Last week, I spoke to your <REDACTED> Editor, <REDACTED>, about the ongoing campaign to reclassify or recatalogue David Irving’s works to reflect the nature of their Holocaust denial. The article that was produced, ‘Universities may censor student reading’ published on 2017–10–29, was grossly misrepresentative of my position to the point of being outright lies. You quoted Radical Librarians Collective as saying that libraries’ feigned position of ‘neutrality’ actually “maintain[s] the status quo of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”. While I stand by the specific quote used, the context of the whole article grossly misrepresents the position of myself and RLC.

I spoke to your journalist in a personal capacity as the author of a blog post on the politics of collection management. I mentioned my affiliation to Radical Librarians Collective in passing as the Collective aims to facilitate discussions around politics in librarianship that our discussion touched upon. “The debate” is not being led by the Radical Librarians Collective as your article erroneously stated though I feel confident that the Collective, a non-hierarchical autonomous workers collective, would, broadly speaking, agree with my position on collection management of discredited works.

The overall context of the article is deeply misrepresentative of my position. Despite my reservations about talking to a journalist employed by News Corporation, I allowed myself to be talked into speaking to them for about half an hour about the nuances of collection management in libraries and how the display, classification, and even presence of certain works in a collection can subtly manifest political ideologies — most often, those ideologies which uphold the status quo and the existing repressive and ideological state apparatus. My position — as I very clearly explained — is that works should be labelled openly and honestly to reflect their content. In the case of discredited historical texts, they should be catalogued with subject headings that reflect their discredited views and classified as ‘historiography’ rather than ‘history’. In the case of David Irving’s widely discredited 1991 edition of Hitler’s War, for example, the bibliographic record can be given a subject heading for ‘Revisionist histories’ or ‘Holocaust denial’ (as the Wiener Library and now UCL’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies Library have done) and classified as ‘historiography’. I argue that the same kind of recataloguing and reclassification can be done in the case of texts that advocate climate change denial, trans-exclusionary radical feminism, sex-worker-exclusionary radical feminism, creationism, flat Earth theory, and other texts that spread disinformation.

When we spoke last Wednesday, I specifically talked to <REDACTED> about how this was often framed as a debate between ‘banning’ books vs. keeping libraries neutral and how a more nuanced position would acknowledge that reclassification or recataloguing of books could present discredited information in an honest way without removing books from libraries or removing them from open shelves. We also talked about how removing books — or weeding books — is a common and required practice in collection management that most often has nothing to do with politics. Libraries regularly dispose of books that are no longer circulated, that are discredited, or that are no longer appropriate for their users (i.e. removed from a university curriculum or reading list). There is no library in the world that stocks every single published text regardless of quality or truth-value.

Your journalist failed to represent any of this nuance in the article and lazily framed the discussion in precisely the way I argued against: as a matter of ‘banning books’ or ‘censoring’ certain opinions. You claim that these works are being labelled as “dangerous” or “wrong” (in a particularly sloppy act of bad journalism, these quotes are unattributed) when actually I referred to discredited works or works which spread disinformation. The use of the word “censor” is completely inappropriate and obviously plays into the current discussions in UK Higher Education about safe spaces and decolonising the curricula of university courses. This is a continuation of The Daily Telegraph’s disgusting vilification of Lola Olufemi on 2017–10–25 in which her position was also misrepresented. Collection management is not censorship. A library reclassifying a book does not ban users from finding that book. A university library not stocking a particular book does not ban students from reading that book. A student’s union refusing to stock The Times in its shops does not ban students from buying and reading The Times elsewhere.

The article also implies that there is a coordinated campaign (“led by… the Radical Librarians Collective”) to reclassify or remove discredited works from libraries. As I told your journalist, there is no such thing. UK HE libraries have varied and complex collection management practices and there is no wider discussion beyond the current debate on David Irving’s work of Holocaust denial. Your journalist knows this because they asked me multiple times for other libraries and other texts in this campaign and I told them that there was no such “list” of texts.

The conflation of feminists with “climate-change sceptics… eugenicists… and Holocaust deniers” is particularly damaging. Feminism is no way equivalent to the other ideologies listed and it’s frankly disgusting to imply that it is. I mentioned feminism only in the context of trans-exclusionary radical feminism and sex-worker-exclusionary radical feminism arguing that it would be possible to reclassify or recatalogue, for example, transphobic feminist works to reflect their exclusion of trans women from their feminism.

The article that your journalist produced was disingenuous at best and cynically manipulative at worst. As far as I can tell, your publication regularly spreads this kind of soft disinformation without any consequences. Your sloppy journalism contributes to a culture of ‘fake news’ which makes the world a worse place. You should be ashamed of spreading blatant lies to your readership. You are a disgrace to your profession.

I would like this letter to be published on either The Times or The Sunday Times letters page, I would like a correction to the disinformation that you spread to be published in the next print edition of The Times or The Sunday Times, and I would like a correction to be published immediately alongside the website version of the article.

Yours faithfully,