the hidden politics of collection management

A recent petition protests “book-banning” at the Vancouver Women’s Library. The petition argues that “As a matter of principle and in defense of freedom of speech and thought, no library should ever ban any books under any circumstance…” The activist group demanding the removal of the books is Gays Against Gentrification, a group “composed of sex workers, trans women, IBPOC, queers, and people in solidarity with them”. GAG argue that one of the main organisers of the Vancouver Women’s Library enacts violence against trans women, sex workers, and queers and that the library collection not only excludes writing by trans women and sex workers but that it actively includes TERF and SWERF books. They demand the removal of these books from the library’s collection.

This issue highlights the political nature of library collections.(1) Libraries often strive to be apolitical and neutral especially with regards to library collections. A library collection is viewed as a neutral set of books: the meaning of those works is ascribed by the user but the collection itself is politically inert and can make no political statements.

But in reality a value-judgement is made by the acts of choosing which books to include, which to exclude, and how to represent those books within the collection. A library expresses a political viewpoint by virtue of the perceived educational authority of the library institution. In a society ever more suffused with falsification, ‘post-truth’, ‘alternative facts’, and so forth, I argue that libraries need to acknowledge the political value-judgements made by their library collections.

As an example, several major humanities-focused libraries in London — UCL Library, Senate House Library, and SOAS Library — carry the 1991 edition of David Irving’s Hitler’s War. David Irving is a legally-proven Holocaust denier, antisemite, racist, and falsifier of history and the 1991 edition of Hitler’s War (2) seeks to falsely diminish Adolf Hitler’s role in the Holocaust and downplay the suffering of the Jewish people. The catalogue records for this text at these libraries don’t indicate that this is a discredited work of history by a proven historical revisionist. To the library user, the book is classified and presented as a work of history. The 600 and 650 fields for subject headings are variously ‘Hitler, Adolf, > 1889–1945.’, ‘World War, 1939–1945 > Germany.’, and ‘Germany — Politics and government — 1933–1945.’, no different to any other work on Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. Each library uses a different classification scheme and, while it’s possible that the minutiae of the classmarks represent this as a work of falsified history — in the case of SOAS Library, perhaps one of the digits in the lengthy classmark ‘A943.086092 /996521’ classifies this as a work of falsified history — the lay library user could not reasonably be expected to know the classification scheme well enough to determine that.

Interestingly, however, the Wiener Library’s — a specialist library for the study of the Holocaust and genocide — catalogue record for the 1991 edition of Hitler’s War specifically includes a subject heading for ‘Revisionist histories’. Searching under this subject heading retrieves a range of texts on Holocaust denial and Nazi apologism including ‘Der Leuchter Report’, ‘War Hitler ein Diktator?’, and ‘Did six million really die? : the truth at last’.

Catalogue record from the Wiener Library Catalogue.

There’s a striking difference in how these library collections represent the later editions of Hitler’s War. The Wiener Library specifically labels the work as a revisionist history: a history that contains false claims and cannot be treated as truth. The other libraries label the work as ‘history’ and make no claim to the truth-value of the content. One assumes that the libraries have done this in order to aim at neutrality. But the act of labelling a work containing false claims about an event that actually happened — the Holocaust did happen and approximately six million Jewish people were murdered — is to make a implied statement about the truth-value of that work.(3)

In History on Trial, Deborah Lipstadt writes about the Institute for Historical Review, a California-based Holocaust denial group: “Their journal had a scholarly veneer. Students at leading academic institutions who encountered it in their university libraries assumed it a product of genuine scholarship.” It’s reasonable for library users to assume that library classifications accurately reflect the nature of the works classified. Although they may not actively pretend to be, libraries are perceived as educational authorities and that the books that the library classifies as history represent historical truth. The veneer of professionalism and its implied objectivity are an artefact of privilege and the ‘objectivity’ of the ‘library professional’ usually reflects the viewpoint of those in power: under white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, the conventionally-educated white man.

The books that a library chooses to include and the way that the library classifies those books expresses a political view. Librarians engaged in collection management actively make these choices and express their political views through choices made: libraries generally do not collect rambling, self-published books on how the moon landing was faked, for example. There is an unavoidable political connotation to presenting Holocaust denial as history; to including anti-sex-work books and not including pro-sex-work books.

In a world where falsity masquerades as truth and is used for the furtherance of political agendas, feigned neutrality is a privilege that none of us can indulge anymore. Libraries need to acknowledge that their collections and their classifications express political views and express value-judgements. They need to adjust their collection management policies accordingly.


(1) Using an issue for the purpose of an example is a privilege afforded to those who are securely able to do so: usually cis white men commenting on issues that have nothing to do with them. I’m aware that using a highly political issue that impacts on people’s right to self-define their identity as a jumping off point for a theoretical discussion on the political nature of library collections might be a dickish thing to do.

(2) The 1977 edition does include references to the Holocaust and Hitler’s role in it.

(3) I am in no way trying to imply that trans-exclusionary feminism is equivalent to Holocaust denial. I am using Holocaust denial as a very clear and unambiguous example of the distinction between truth and falsity to make a point about the political nature of library collections: a point that also applies to the inclusion or exclusion of trans and pro-sex-work books in a women’s library collection. Again, I acknowledge that, as a non-Jewish cis white man, using these issues as dispassionate examples is problematic.