Clear the shelves

savilecamdenAsking the council whether it would be keeping Jimmy Savile’s autobiography, As It Happens, and Rolf Harris’s childhood memoir in its libraries this week might have made the New Journal seem uncharacteristically in favour of furious censorship.

But there’s an interesting a debate to be had about how the decisions about what goes on the shelves, and what doesn’t, are made, and who has the final say. You can look at Savile’s book, available for loan at Swiss Cottage Library, as a historical document and make the case that you can’t just rub out the past, however much we might like to. It’s also fairly understandable that a parent could feel awkward if one of their kids came home with one of Rolf Harris’s books and asked about the new fun author they had just discovered.

In the end, Camden met this dilemma by following the example of other local authorities and said it was not up to them to act as censor, unless a book had been banned more widely.

While leisure chief Councillor Abdul Hai said “if publicly available material has not been banned, then it is not for the council to exclude this on moral, political, religious, racial or gender grounds and it is up to the individual if they wish to loan a particular item”, the press office also added: “The service reviews its borrowing statistics on a regular basis and have a stock management system which enables them to keep track of a large number of titles and their performance. The service will make a decision about whether to keep titles on the open shelves, keep in reserve, sell as unwanted stock, or donate to book charities based on issuing performance.”

It makes you wonder what the ‘issuing performance’ of some of the the titles surviving the cut each year actually is. I was in Kentish Town library last week and was disappointed, personally, how infrequently the biography of Thierry Henry seemed to have been loaned by the stamp card in the inside cover. Surely they can’t drop Thierry, and keep Savile.

Almost 30 years ago, however, Camden was looking more at the content of books, rather than the borrowing statistics. The library service made national headlines by compiling a guide to what we should and shouldn’t be reading. It invited a chorus of that 1980s cliche, loony Labour council, by questioning whether the ‘ideologically unsound’ characters in Enid Blyton and the Whizzer and Chips were suitable choices. Here’s a report in the Independent from the time:

BEANO PASSES ‘IDEOLOGICAL SCRUTINY’

INDEPENDENT, SATURDAY 24, 1988

A LEFT-WING Labour council has drawn up a list of ideologically unsound characters in children’s comics.

A report by Camden’s libraries department in north London – believed to be the first of its kind – has condemned Whizzer and Chips and Enid Blyton’s Famous Five adventure magazine as sexist.

The Eagle comes under fire for being too macho while Girl Monthly ‘is totally offensive and sexist.’

Roy of the Rovers is also criticised for not having enough black footballers in his team, and the ‘racist’ Beezer went on the ‘not recommended’ list for failing to take a ‘multi-cultural’ view.

Comics on the approved list include Beano and Dandy, which feature Korky the Cat, Desperate Dan and the Bash Street Kids.

They will join other magazines approved for young people on the library shelves, such as Lesbian and Gay Socialist and Spare Rib.

‘It isn’t meant to be a hard and fast guide, just an indication of what is good and bad on the market,’ said John Wilkins, who helped produce the 68-page survey, which the council hopes to sell to schools and libraries.

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