A literary historian has uncovered thousands of banned books buried seven storeys underground in the National Archives of Australia building in Sydney.
It’s a prude’s nightmare but a book collector’s dream: Nicole Moore found 793 boxes filled to the brim with books Australians were never allowed to read.
The books were banned by authorities for various reasons between the 1920s and 1980s.
Associate Professor Moore has now written her own book - The Censor’s Library - explaining why so many publications were deemed unfit for consumption, including novels that are now highly acclaimed.
The ghostly collection, including copies of the Karma Sutra and first-edition comics from the 1950s, reveals attitudes towards sexuality, politics, birth control, reading, pleasure and race.
Associate Professor Moore says she was astonished to find the confiscated stash in 2005.
At the time, she was completing a fellowship at the national archives.
“Some of those archivists knew there was a big collection in the Sydney office that was catalogued under the category of ‘miscellaneous’, including hard-copy books,” she told the ABC’s 666 Drive program.
“The Chester Hill archives in western Sydney has seven floors underground - huge amounts of material - and when we started to look there there were 793 boxes of books in fairly good order, all full.
“It was really just astonishing to see them coming out on the trolleys, to think here they all are collected from the late 1920s through to 1988 in its entirety, and just been sitting there for more than 30 or 40 years of people having just forgotten what it was.”
She says the books were confiscated for a range of reasons.
“The main reason in Australia for censorship was ‘offensive obscenity’ as it was classified,” she said.
“More than 90 per cent of titles were banned for obscenity and the rest were banned for sedition or blasphemy, although the number of titles banned for blasphemy in Australia has actually been very few.
“We can break that down to all kinds of representations of intimacy and sexuality, that for many contemporary readers now seem like ordinary parts of our lives.”
Naughty or not
Associate Professor Moore says there were no guidelines for what was appropriate or inappropriate, and that the decisions were made by Customs officials.
“The Customs officers were the frontline, looking in people’s bags and looking in boxes being imported into book shops,” she said.
“It was very difficult for them to make a clear set of rules and we didn’t have a classification code like we do today, which actually tries to explicitly tell us what is offensive and what is not.
“So before that Customs officials just had to look at material and think, ‘oh that looks a bit off, that looks a bit naughty’.
“They had the power to ban things on the spot if they thought it had no claim to literary merit or artistic merit or scholarly merit.”
Books vetoed by Customs officials were then referred to a panel of literary experts.
“Those books that were thought to have no claim were then sent on to a panel of literary experts who then get to decide what is the literary merit of a book like Lolita, like Lady Chatterley’s Lover or like The City And The Pillar - Gore Vidal’s breakthrough book about gay men from 1948 which was banned until 1966 in Australia,” she said.
Associate Professor Moore says things finally began to change in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“Change began with Don Chipp, the Customs minister in the Liberal government. He was the first Customs minister to really stand up and be anti-censorship in Parliament,” she said.
“From then he began demolishing some of the Customs control over censorship.
“But then what really undid it all was the election of the Whitlam government in 1972 and by the end of 1973 the literary ban was reduced to absolutely zero.”
Historian uncovers Australia’s censored books