Why banning David Irving books from university libraries would achieve little

[From The Guardian]

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.

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 invariably seems 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.

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Filed under Holocaust in the news, Knowledge entries, Lecture discussions

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