Despite Mr. Trump’s recent meeting with Kim Jong-un, the threat of nuclear war lingers in our minds, as it did during the Cold War. In the 1950s, librarians reacted to the nuclear threat by participating “vigorously” in the distribution of pamphlets on how to survive a nuclear attack, screening films such as “You Can Beat the A-Bomb” and in some cases, serving as fallout shelters because books were believed to be an excellent protection from nuclear radiation. This is according to Erin Blakemore in Preparing Libraries for Nuclear War.
An unfortunate fallout during the Cold War was the censorship of library materials by librarians. Russian literature, the magazines-The Nation and The New Republic and other “subversive” literature were removed from library shelves. Finders Keepers, a Caldecott award picture book, was expunged from some libraries because its red and gold cover was the same color as the Russian flag and the bone depicted on its title page was in the shape of Korea.
And yet, despite the prevalence of censorship in the McCarthy Cold War era, this period also marked a change in librarian attitudes. Historically, librarians considered themselves to be guardians of morality, so censorship was necessary. However, slowly, librarians came to believe in intellectual freedom and a person’s right to knowledge, even if that knowledge is subversive. It is why some libraries lent out books on how to make a bomb.
In 1948, the Library Bill of Rights, a statement on intellectual freedom by the American Library Association (ALA), was amended to protect librarians who opposed censorship. In 1953, in reaction to the banning and burning of over 300 books in the State Department’s overseas libraries on the orders of Joseph McCarthy, the ALA published “The Freedom to Read”. Individual librarians refused to take loyalty oaths or inform on colleagues or remove books from library shelves. To this day, censorship continues, particularly in school libraries. Librarians are still fighting against it.
A funny twist on Cold War censorship is the case of Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. In 1958, the Central Intelligence Agency published and distributed within the Soviet Union thousands of the book’s first Russian edition. The book had been banned in that country for being subversive. Our government believed that the Russian people should have the freedom to read a subversive book.