The effort to get the University of Manchester to remove David Irving’s books from open display, now backed by Rowan Williams, reminded me of my own experiences browsing through library stacks as an undergraduate. While I never encountered Holocaust denial, I did stumble upon the complete works of Kim Il-sung, a pamphlet praising the Khmer Rouge and a book arguing that the Armenian genocide never occurred.
Libraries are, ideally, fundamentally amoral places. The presence of works on their shelves is not an endorsement of their views. As someone who runs an online research repository archive, I can testify to having happily uploaded some lousy works of scholarship to its holdings.
But of course, that’s not the end of the story. Just as free speech inevitably needs to be limited in certain instances, so does the free access to library materials. To take an obvious example, while it’s important that pro-paedophilia texts are preserved for future scholarly and law enforcement study, they should only be accessible under restrictive conditions.
Books such as Hitler’s War read like well-sourced, reliable history. The deceptions are subtle and not always apparent
In the case of books by Irving and others of his ilk, no one denies that they should be part of library collections, the question is whether the danger that such works represent is sufficient to justify restricting access to them.
And there certainly is a potential danger. Read interviews with prominent neo-Nazis, Holocaust deniers and miscellaneous antisemites, and an encounter with Irving’s work is invariably a part of their political journey. Books such as Hitler’s War read like serious, well-sourced, reliable history. The deceptions are subtle and not always apparent to non-experts. After all, it took Prof Richard Evans and two assistants over a year of preparation, as part of the defence team in the court case Irving brought against Deborah Lipstadt, to unpick the ways he twisted the facts.
The danger that Irving and similar authors represents is arguably even greater today than it might have been in the past. As an undergraduate in the early 1990s, dodgy works of pseudo-scholarship stood out because I so rarely encountered them in my everyday life. These days, the fluidity of the online world is such that we are constantly bombarded with all kinds of outlandish material. The sober appearance and hefty page count of a book by Irving has a patina of gravitas in a world of Alex Jones and countless other near-hysterical “news” sources.
So in theory there is a strong case for removing Hitler’s War and other books by Irving from open access library shelves. Yet the more one looks at it, the more problems arise.
There are all kinds of other works whose scholarship is as flawed as Irving’s, and whose ability to mislead students and scholars is just as profound. Should libraries restrict access to contemporary books denying anthropogenic climate change or advocating “intelligent design”? What about older volumes advocating eugenics and displaying casual racism? And what about political tracts whose message is vile, but study of which is essential to understand important historical episodes? It would be ironic if the University of Manchester library removed Hitler’s War from open access shelves while leaving Mein Kampf alone.
Then there is the question of who makes the decisions. Librarians, for all their introverted reputation, tend to have an instinctive commitment to making information free. They are not only ill-suited to dealing with complex issues in free speech, it would also be unfair to expose them to a continuous set of controversies over what can be made publicly available.
Ultimately, university libraries only make sense when they work in tandem with university teaching. There is a clear need for students – in all disciplines – to be trained in how to deal with the chaotic flood of information that we are exposed to today. That means teaching skills in source evaluation and critical thinking, not just in disciplines that have always done that, but across the board.
Universities have to be a bulwark against hate masked as scholarship, but removing individual works of Holocaust denial from open library access is, at best, only a very minor contribution to the much greater task.