The Book-Banning Controversy

Nonetheless, by the mid-1950s, State Library administrators had several reasons to feel satisfaction. Troubles of the 1940s were behind and, with unprecedented collections and services growth and stabilizing management, the library appeared to be regaining its place as a respected leader in state librarianship. But a seemingly insignificant event in southeastern Illinois in October 1953 touched off one of the great controversies in the history of the library.

A teenage girl in the tiny Richland County town of Noble obtained a copy of a State Library book, The Boy Came Back, written by Charles H. Knickerbocker. Without public library service in Noble, the girl got the book through her local high school, which received and distributed State Library books. This was one of three copies of the book held by the State Library. Although the book had received several favorable reviews, it contained profanity and graphic sexual descriptions. Her alarmed mother, Mrs. P.F. Harrolle, presented the book to Richland County Sheriff Jesse Shipley, a Democrat, who shared her extreme disgust.417

n Nov. 3, 1953, Shipley wrote Republican Illinois Governor William Stratton, providing quotations from the book that, Shipley argued, would “lower the morality of American boys and girls” with “vulgar, obscene, and profane language to lower the respect and sanctity for our institutions of marriage.” Shipley also stated his belief that the book was “communistic in purpose.” The sheriff also recommended that the individual responsible for purchasing and circulating the book should be removed and prosecuted, with a legislative inquiry to follow.418

Richland County Superintendent of Schools Loren W. Cammon also offered his opinion. Further inflaming the situation, Cammon wrote to Assistant State Librarian Helene Rogers that The Boy Came Back was “without a doubt…the worst form of reading material I have ever seen in a high school. It is lewd in every sense of the word.” Upon receiving Shipley’s letter, Governor Stratton forwarded the complaint to recently elected Secretary of State Charles Carpentier. Stratton’s communication carried the additional concern that the book may be “Communistic in purpose.”419

Such an exchange was all too common in the 1950s. In the post-war, Cold War years, conformity reigned, and fear and suspicion about alternative views of social norms were rampant. It is not too much to generalize that civil rights and women’s rights were denigrated while the values of suburban, white, middle-class, male-dominated America were revered. The rise of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy (RWisconsin), who saw communists everywhere, coupled with the FBI’s despotic J. Edgar Hoover, led to the surveillance of U.S. citizens suspected of “communist” sympathies. Thousands of Americans were labeled as “Reds” or “Pinks” based on their supposed commitment to communism and, with the flimsiest of evidence, were blacklisted as a result.

Liberalism was often portrayed as unpatriotic in an American society where conservative thinking was at its 20th-century peak. Among the groups hardest hit were actors and musicians, groups both viewed as on the fringe of traditional values. Careers of performers such as folk singer Pete Seeger and others crashed amid the blacklisting that swept a fearful public. Books were especially suspect, especially by non-readers, and “book-banning” became a heated topic of debate. Thousands of volumes were pulled from library shelves across the nation for content deemed inappropriate, profane, or unpatriotic. The episode unfolding in Springfield proved to be one of the more publicized bans of the entire decade.

On November 10, Secretary Carpentier ordered Helene Rogers “to immediately take out of circulation, the book titled The Boy Came Back.” But Carpentier did not stop there, also directing Rogers to “likewise take out of circulation now in the library, all books which are in the same category as the book named; that is, books of a salacious, vulgar, or obscene character. You are hereby notified that you shall not order books in this classification in the future.”420

Carpentier left much room for interpretation with his directive. Rather than act on the memo alone, Rogers on November 16 met with Carpentier and Mr. Frances Gillen, who had been designated by Carpentier as an unofficial “liaison” for library matters. The events of the meeting, which were reported by Rogers at a later Illinois State Library Advisory Committee meeting, did little to further interpret the November 10 memo from Carpentier. A politically careful Carpentier declared that he did “not propose to be a censor in any way but he had experience with movies,” a reference to his younger days, when he and a brother ran movie theaters in the Quad Cities. Rogers wryly noted that, “if we acted on [the November 10 memo] as it stands we would start with the Bible.” According to Rogers, Carpentier’s reply suggested focusing on “fiction only at this time, and do not buy any sex education books, also remove them from the shelves.”421

The following day, Rogers suggested to Carpentier that the Advisory Committee, as well as the American Library Association, “be advised of this situation as similar cases have come up in communities in this and other states involving books and magazines.” Carpentier chose to ignore the recommendation. Rogers, likewise and for reasons unclear, elected not to inform the Advisory Committee for several weeks. She also formed a committee of 16 high-ranking State Library staffers to discuss the situation and create guidelines to prevent future similarities.422

However, Rogers did not wait for her own committee to offer suggestions, but instead went quickly to work withdrawing hundreds of books from the shelves. Although it was reported that the State Library began pulling the books “reluctantly,” it is apparent the task was done with considerable fervor. Among those pulled were works by Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck, Norman Mailer, MacKinlay Kantor, Polly Adler, Vicki Baum, Frank Spillane, John Dos Passos, John O’Hara, and Erskine Caldwell. Most of the withdrawals were recently published works, including four of the 20 most popular books of the year. One book, The Wonderful Story of How You Were Born, was pulled despite a reported endorsement by the Girl Scouts of America. It was just one of many books touching on some form of sex education taken off State Library shelves. All activity was done with verbal instruction from Rogers and without public notice.423

By mid-December, over 400 titles numbering 6,000 to 8,000 volumes were listed as “banned” by the State Library. The library also made it clear that more would follow, as the entire fiction collection was compared to the Standard List of Fiction. Works that did not conform to the list were to be withdrawn.424

At some point, Rogers decided that the situation should be reported to the Advisory Committee, whose members had only heard bits and pieces of what was going on. She based her decision to inform the Advisory Committee on the feeling that “there will be repercussions by librarians out in the state.” At the December 11 committee meeting, Rogers laid out the events of the previous month. The committee’s reaction was predictable. Committee member Dr. Robert Downs, director of the University of Illinois Library and Library School, was outraged, calling Carpentier’s directives “deplorable” and “censorship in its worst form.” Rogers defended her own actions and largely absolved herself of any blame in the matter. She called for the committee to give Carpentier and Gillen “the benefit of another month to recall or rescind any directives, although I think we will get some repercussions from the public. If it could come from the public it would be better.” Her thinly veiled request for the benefit of the doubt was clearly outweighed by her wish for public outcry, an opinion shared by others on the committee. But no plan of action was offered by the committee, save for a motion calling for a meeting with Carpentier “as soon as possible.” That the chief advisory body of the State Library chose to take no specific action on such a potentially damaging situation is indicative of the explosive nature of the topic at the time. Apparently Rogers and the committee were prepared to let Carpentier take the fall. Downs predicted that the book removal “will cause all kinds of criticism of Mr. Carpentier.”425

That statement proved prophetic. The Moline Dispatch – Carpentier’s hometown newspaper – was the first to break the story on Dec. 16, 1953, with a frontpage headline that blared “State Sex Education Books Ban!” The Dispatch had “learned the facts behind the summary recall in an exclusive series of conversations with state officials, legislators, and book borrowers.” It was also reported that “a purge of sex education books for teen-agers was in full blast in Illinois today” through Carpentier’s “recall.” The report caught many off-guard, including the Republican majority leader of the Illinois House, Franklin Stransky of Savanna, who appeared blindsided by the controversy. “I’m not fully advised with reference to the facts involved in the controversy,” said Stransky in the Dispatch, “but I’m curious enough to ask some questions and find out what this is all about.”426

In response to the investigation by the Dispatch, Carpentier addressed the situation later in the day of December 16. He admitted that the purge had “gotten out of hand” and blamed Rogers. In a statement issued by Carpentier’s office – the Secretary himself was in Florida “at the bedside” of his ailing wife – it was declared that Rogers’ actions would be “reassessed,” and that the Advisory Committee would review the list of banned books. Delivery of The Boy Came Back was blamed on a possible “clerical error.” In a declaration that clearly tried to deflect responsibility, “this overzealous and wholesale withdrawal of hundreds of books from general circulation goes far beyond protecting school children in the selection of reading material, and has the tendency of making [Carpentier’s] original intention appear ridiculous.”427

Carpentier’s statement continued with an alternative plan. Rogers was “ordered…to institute an immediate study in which the materials of the Illinois State Library are to be classified according to the criteria of the American Library Association, the New York Public Library, the Enoch Pratt Library of Baltimore, and the Cleveland Public Library, to determine the basic works essential to a modern library in certain fields of writing.”428

By now the controversy was generating headlines around the nation, with the Chicago Tribune devoting several articles to the story and the Associated Press following suit as the purge made the wires. Before long the New York Times and Christian Science Monitor were providing coverage of the story, as well as many other American daily newspapers. News of the purge reached as far as papers in London. While few of the American articles – with the exception of those in the Moline Dispatch – carried a particular slant, incendiary words and phrases such as “book banning,” “book burning,” “censorship,” “purge,” and “embargo” dotted the coverage.429

The State Library Reference Department around 1950.

The State Library Reference Department around 1950.

In subsequent editorials, however, many newspapers criticized Carpentier and the ban. In Connecticut, the Hartford Courant mocked the State Library’s removal of The Wonderful Story of How You Were Born, “which apparently has decided that it’s not such a wonderful story after all.” In response to Carpentier’s statement that his order appeared ridiculous, the New York Times crowed, “Ridiculous orders get ridiculous results.” The Chicago Daily News even challenged Carpentier’s chivalry, stating the Secretary “resorted to a still older fashion, going back to Adam, of blaming his troubles on a woman.” The term “sex education” was used repeatedly in many articles, often interchangeably with controversial books of other literary genres.430

The majority of public sentiment proved to be against the ban. The original Dispatch article reported on Mrs. Howard Riordan of Erie, northwest of Moline, who had been asked to return The Outsider, a novel by African-American writer Richard Wright, after it had been “recalled.” Mrs. Riordan, a Radcliffe College alumnae, declared the recall “a ridiculous gesture” and that “she couldn’t find anything offensive in the book other than the realism and perhaps, a communistic atmosphere.” Librarians were especially outraged, including one who asked that her name be withheld and responded in the original article in the Dispatch. This unnamed librarian – possibly a State Library employee – offered an eye-opening assertion:

“The book recall has not been publicized because librarians involved were asked to remain silent on the subject. Just because that woman downstate didn’t like what her daughter read is no reason other borrowers should suffer. Sex education books for young girls are necessary.”431

Downs, still angry over the episode, was also quoted by the Dispatch. “People have a right to a wide range of reading on all subjects including contemporary fiction and on books on sex education, the two types of books in question,” said Downs. Even though the Advisory Committee had done little only days before, Downs added that the committee “took a very strong stand against censorship of books” and that the activity in question was “indefensible.” The brewing storm finally drew a response from Governor Stratton, who issued a statement warning that the State Library should be cautious in the withdrawal of books from general circulation. Stratton was of the opinion that, while children should be “protected” against obscene literature, adults are “capable of determining their own reading tastes. The adult population can read what they want.”432

It is apparent by their statements that the political leaders of Illinois were attempting to diffuse the situation and avoid blame. Carpentier’s order of November 10 was vague and open-ended, and no parameters were set as to which books should be withdrawn. Rogers, who has been described as both energetic and autocratic, interpreted the directive broadly, and proceeded to pull thousands of books. Rogers, however, was no different than many other librarians of the time. Book banning was a contentious topic, and many books, movies, and songs were banned on the basis of “inappropriate” content.433

One example happened near Richland County and was likely known by Sheriff Shipley and his constituency. In Vincennes, Indiana, just to the east of Richland County, the classic story Robin Hood had also recently been banned for its “communistic influence.” The Moline Dispatch believed the Vincennes controversy “touched off” the ban in Illinois. The Vincennes incident was far from solitary. In December 1951, the New York State Board of Regents had appointed a three-man commission to investigate public-school textbooks for “subversive material.” Two months later in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, a few books dealing with “socialism and sex” were actually burned. For several years in the late 1940s and early 1950s, The Nation, a leading social commentary magazine, was banned from New York public schools due not only to its content but to the advertisements placed in the magazine. The debate was certainly not new even to Illinois. In 1950, a newspaper columnist accused the Peoria Public Library of purchasing “one-world” and Soviet propaganda films, touching off a polarizing controversy that inflamed an Illinois Library Association conference in that city. While the Illinois controversy may seem especially shrill, there is little doubt that its mood was typical of the issue of “appropriate” reading material for children and adults.434

Fairly or not, Carpentier had pointed the blame at Helene Rogers through his public rebuke of her “overzealous” actions. Rogers could not be reached for an immediate response; she was reportedly out of the office due to a family illness. On December 22, six days after the first Moline Dispatch report, Rogers finally issued her own statement. “I thought the procedure we were following was what Mr. Carpentier wanted us to do,” she claimed, but “apparently, there has been some misunderstanding. We on the staff of the Illinois State Library have no intention of going beyond his instructions, nor of falling short of them. We expect and we try to carry them out as he wants them.” She also urged an “early conference” with Carpentier “so we may understand one another better.” Rogers’ cautious statement was a tepid response to pointed accusations of “overzealousness” by Carpentier and might be interpreted as accepting the blame.435

Clearly, there was a rift between the Secretary and the Assistant Librarian, and tensions between the two may have reached back several years. Carpentier was one of the four state senators who introduced the 1947 bill that sought to place the State Library under a five-member board. That bill had been endorsed by the Illinois Library Association, which sought to limit Rogers’ authority.436

Carpentier, a Republican, is remembered as an effective administrator with a knack for self-promotion, including his role as State Librarian. More than any Secretary of State before him, photos of Carpentier appeared regularly in Illinois Libraries, often on the cover. His efforts helped affirm his position as State Librarian in the minds of Illinois citizens. His election in 1952 marked the end of a long Democrat-dominated occupancy of the office for 19 of the previous 20 years. Rogers assumed power under Democratic rule and enjoyed the support of former Democratic Secretaries of State Edward Hughes and Edward Barrett. In the Advisory Committee meeting of December 11, Rogers’ desire for Carpentier to suffer public criticism was apparent. There is every reason to believe that political agendas played a crucial role in the relationship between Carpentier and Rogers.437

Carpentier and his wife returned to Springfield in early January 1954, as Alta Carpentier apparently had recovered well enough to make the long train trip from Florida to Illinois. On Jan. 5, 1954, Carpentier, his staff, and Rogers held a three-hour conference to further discuss the book purge. Afterward, the Secretary announced that all books withdrawn would be “restored to adult circulation” and hoped to implement a plan that would “not place unreasonable restrictions on adult reading, but [would] make it impossible for school children to obtain smut or objectionable materials from the Illinois State Library.” Although censorship was obviously at the heart of  the issue, Carpentier downplayed his role as a moral authority and again publicly blamed Rogers.

“I have no intention of setting myself up as a moral arbiter or censor, but I do not want materials in the Illinois State Library, intended for adult consumption, to circulate among school children. I believe I have a moral duty as State Librarian to millions of Illinois parents to see to it that their children do not obtain such materials from the library which their taxes support.

My original order to Miss Rogers was directed toward that end. It was never intended to result in what has been termed a “wholesale” withdrawal of books…Each trade and profession have their own special terms and special interpretations of commonly used terms. In my original order, and in my conversations with Miss Rogers, I sincerely believed we had reached a meeting of minds, but it now appears that terms and expressions which I have used have much broader meanings among professional librarians than I suspected.

I still believe that the interpretation of my order was overzealous and had the tendency to make my original intent ridiculous.”438

Among the books restored to circulation was the The Boy Came Back. This latest development was also carried in papers nationwide in what the Washington Post referred to as “The Illinois Book Controversy.”439

Workers sort through mounds of books in the Collections Department in the early 1950s.

Workers sort through mounds of books in the Collections Department in the early 1950s.

By early February 1954, the library had adopted a new policy of stamping books to call attention to their subject matter. Many previously withdrawn fiction works now carried the stamped notice “This book is for adult readers.” Some of the books selected for that designation included Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and Hans Christian Andersen’s Wonder Stories Told for Children. Carpentier was unavailable for comment, but a spokesman announced quickly that the stamping of the books “doesn’t mean what it seems” and that the stamps “will be obliterated at a later stage in the process of screening.”440

Joseph Belair, a public relations man for the Secretary, explained this seeming contradiction. All books “often requested by adults” would be stamped. Later, the stamps would be blotted from those books that were found to be “also suitable for teenagers.” Belair concluded that, at the end of the process, books such as Andersen’s fairy tales, for example, would no longer carry the stamp. While these titles would still not be recommended for circulation to teenagers, they could be loaned at the discretion of selected staffers. This loophole set the library up for troubles because there were apparently still no concrete guidelines to arm the agency against another controversy.441

And the stamping itself fanned the flames of the debate. Across the Atlantic, over 500 newspapers in Great Britain, including five in London alone, carried news of the book stamping on their front pages. One, the London News Chronicle, reported that “they are not burning books in the state of Illinois, they are putting ‘red flags’ on them.” The News Chronicle (labeled as “liberal” by the Illinois State Journal) depicted Carpentier as embarrassed by the situation. “He set out to clean up libraries,” crowed the News Chronicle, “but now his face is as red as the ban stamp.” While denying he was “red-flagging” books, Carpentier did not deny his obvious embarrassment. On February 6, he admitted that the book-banning episode had “turned into a comedy of errors…We’re beside ourselves and I’m ready to climb the walls over this thing.”442

The Advisory Committee issued its own statement in early February, reprinted in that month’s edition of Illinois Libraries. The committee’s opinion was diplomatic yet firm, blaming neither Rogers nor State Library policy. It also reflected the national concern with book selection amid the specter of censorship.

“We have examined the policies and practices of the Illinois State Library as to book selection and have found them in line with those of other outstanding libraries in the country. The problem of the circulation of books is somewhat different from that of the ordinary library, in that a loan of groups of books is made to a local library to supplement its own collection where they will be used in accordance with the usual practices of the local library and not under the direction of the Illinois State Library staff.

It is common in libraries to have shelves of books for limited selection only and this procedure serves to limit the borrowing of books by children to materials suitable for their years. In spite of erroneous reports and popular rumors, we have found no imposition of censorship by the State Librarian, no books have been withdrawn.

The Advisory Committee shares the concern of the State Librarian that the Illinois State Library does not become a vehicle for the circulation of pornography, but at the same time reaffirms its readiness to remain alert for the protection of the Illinois State Library against pressure groups who wish to impose their own ideas on ‘freedom to read.’”443

While the Advisory Committee met on Jan. 29, 1954, and presumably issued this opinion, it is interesting to note that no minutes may be found from that meeting. While records of the Advisory Committee show that a meeting was, in fact held, no descriptions of the proceedings are attached. Possibly minutes were purposely not kept, in order to mask the resentment that the Committee obviously felt about the State Library book ban.444

The controversy proved to be the last major event in Helene Rogers’ regime. On March 25, 1954, Rogers suffered a stroke in her office and was admitted to St. John’s Hospital in Springfield. Ironically, the next meeting of the Advisory Committee was scheduled for that same day. The meeting was canceled, with the only existing record being a handwritten sheet of paper with five words: “Meeting canceled Miss Rogers ill.” A lengthy hospital stay (Rogers was not released until June 18) ensued, followed by an even longer recovery period. Originally, Rogers was granted a leave of absence until Dec. 31, 1954, and by the next May, the Advisory Committee reported that she was doing “much better.” She was even able to have lunch with several library staff members. But she was apparently unable to resume her position, and her leave was eventually extended until Aug. 31, 1955.445

Margaret Cross Norton, longtime Superintendent of the State Library’s Archives Division, in her later years.

Margaret Cross Norton, longtime Superintendent of the State Library’s Archives Division, in her later years.

In her absence, Public Services Section chief de Lafayette Reid and Rogers’ longtime deputy assistant, Vonnetti Dieckhaus, assumed many of Rogers’ responsibilities. As Rogers’ illness dragged on, Reid was given the role of “Acting Assistant State Librarian,” with no one listed in the position of Public Services Section chief for some months. Finally, in May 1956, Colin Lucas, a former staffer of the Portland, Oregon Public Library and the Film Council of America, was named Public Services Section chief, with Reid continuing in his interim role as “acting assistant.”446

Reid’s position proved a difficult one based on the extreme length he acted in an interim capacity. A 1956 report unequivocally and colorfully described the situation as “absurd and completely untenable,” with the library staff feeling they were “a herd of sheep without a shepherd.” Indeed, the report claimed the lack of a permanent assistant librarian brought “confusion, bafflement, dissension, dissatisfaction, and antagonism to the whole staff.” Reid himself was hamstrung in dealing with over 125 staff and a budget of over $1 million without proper authority. Still, Reid performed competently in this time of uncertainty and received accolades for his work. The untenable situation ended on Sept. 25, 1956 – a full 30 months after Rogers’ initial absence – when Carpentier appointed Reid to the position on a permanent basis.447

The Circulation Department in 1950.

The Circulation Department in 1950.

Helene Rogers left behind a mixed legacy in her 17 years as top administrator of the Illinois State Library. Up until then, no one had served in the position longer or oversaw greater library growth. Among her greatest achievements was the wildly successful Victory Book Campaign, spurred by her hands-on leadership and recognition of the demand for books by servicemen. Her great energy, devotion to the spread of free reading, and concern for small, rural libraries is unquestioned. Ironically, the book-banning controversy struck hardest at these smaller libraries and rural areas. Those libraries and residents with small budgets were especially dependent on the State Library to fill their needs, and now large portions of the State Library collection were removed.

Rogers’ authoritarian methods throughout her career strained the State Library’s relations with the Illinois Library Association and other libraries, normally expected quarters of support. Also, due in part to her management style, the library experienced high employee turnover and discontent. Failure of the demonstration program, one of her pet projects, also reflects poorly on her tenure. However, it must be remembered that Rogers was a woman of great will and strong presence in a male-dominated era, and sexism almost certainly played at least some role in many of the criticisms directed at her. Her stroke at the time of the book-banning controversy – and on the very day of a crucial Advisory Committee meeting – also implies she may have ruined her health by the strain of her work. Helene Rogers is arguably the most controversial figure in the history of the State Library.

Rogers, who died on May 3, 1968, had several loyal supporters. On Sept. 22, 1956, the Advisory Committee lauded Rogers for her “devoted and selfless service” to the State Library, which had “achieved distinction as one of the outstanding state libraries in the country.” Ralph McCoy referred to her illness-induced retirement as “a sad end to the career of one of the most dynamic figures in American librarianship.” Other supporters included Margaret Cross Norton. The nationally renowned archivist said in 1972 that Rogers “was very nice to me; she realized she knew nothing about archives and therefore, did not disturb me; but she was someone to back me when I needed help.” Such an endorsement from someone with the grace and character of Norton speaks well for Rogers. Still, Rogers’ decision to leave Norton alone may simply be attributed to common sense. Helene Rogers, or for that matter any other administrator, would have been foolish to interfere with Norton’s brilliant management of the Illinois State Archives.448