When you think of “banned books” what comes to mind? Books that encourage radical or treasonous ideas? Fiction filled with descriptions of salacious sex or horrific violence?
Imagine, then, what must have been Isabella Alden’s first thought when she discovered her books were banned in some public libraries across the United States.
Banning (or “debarring”) books from circulation in public libraries was something of a regular practice in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Libraries often questioned whether they were justified in giving shelf space to “common novels.” It was even a topic of extensive discussion at the American Library Association meeting of 1894.
With only so much shelf space and limited dollars with which to purchase books, library trustees often wondered if resources should be restricted only to books that offered “instruction, or culture, or taste.”
The City of Boston Public Library devised a solution. They established a reading committee in 1895. The committee of 15-20 people was tasked to read all the fiction books the Boston Public Library was considering buying, and report their findings.
The Boston Public Library was always careful to say that the reading committee did not select books for the library; they merely gave an opinion about whether a book was “worthy.” But thanks to the reading committee’s reports, the Boston Public Library passed on most of the best-selling fiction books of the time. Jules Verne’s An Antarctic Mystery didn’t make the cut; neither did David Harum by Edward Noyes Westcott, even though it was the best-selling novel of 1899.
Where the Boston Public Library led, other libraries followed. The New York Public Library implemented a similar plan, and libraries in small and large cities across the country followed suit.
Unhappy readers complained, arguing that libraries should supply books the public wanted to read, but their complaints made little difference. Instead, the Boston Public Library added members to the reading committee and increased the number of books they reviewed each year.
Adding fuel to the fire: libraries refused to give reasons books were banned or removed from circulation. Newspapers, publishing houses, and writers who deplored the practice were left to guess at the reason a particular book was banned.
In 1901 Isabella Alden’s books fell under the scrutiny of the Boston Public Library’s reading committee. Here’s an excerpt of an article that ran in the San Francisco Call on March 17, 1901:
In their annual report for that year the Boston Public Library didn’t specifically mention Isabella Alden’s books, but it did give some insight into the reading committee’s reports about books they reviewed. Here’s what the reading committee said about these fiction books:
To Have and to Hold, the best-selling novel of 1900, by Mary Johnston would have been better “if some of the agony had been reserved for another occasion.”
Unleavened Bread by Robert Grant was characterized as a “very disagreeable and excellent story against women’s clubs.”
The Soft Side by Henry James was “an interesting puzzle for one who cares to see how a clever writer can hide plot, expression, style, clearness and force under a rubbish heap of senseless words.”
Blennerhasset, the 1901 best-selling historical novel by Charles Felton Pidgin, was rejected because “the author conveys the impression that Aaron Burr was a gay Lothario, and nowhere indicates reprobation of his conduct.”
The annual report summed up what the committee believed made a good novel:
“People generally want something which is restful, interesting and will take their thoughts away from themselves, and something that ends well.”
That guiding principle of the reading committee may have influenced the library’s decision to ban Isabella’s books from their shelves. Unfortunately for Isabella, she wrote books that made readers think, search their hearts and examine their own actions. And sometimes Isabella’s books didn’t necessarily end on a happy note.
By 1902 The Boston Public Library gave up trying to hide the fact that they were not interested in stocking works of fiction:
“The trustees … are of the opinion that most of the books of this character now published have little permanent or even temporary value.”
In other words, reported the Daily Sun on November 1, 1902:
“The library is no longer attempting to meet the demand, where the demand is for trash, and the word trash has been made to include a considerably larger class of stories than formerly.”
Because many libraries took their lead from the Boston Public Library, authors like Isabella Alden had good cause to be concerned.
In 1910 Isabella was living in Palo Alto, California when the local public library took exception to one of her books (that had been published eight years earlier).
It must have been shocking for Isabella to have one of her books labeled as “immoral” when the message of God’s love and plan for salvation was a strong and consistent theme throughout her novels.
We can only guess what action Isabella might have taken. Two weeks later, however, the Palo Alto Library reversed their decision and Isabella’s books were once again on the library’s shelves.
But Isabella had to remain vigilant to ensure her books, including her most controversial book, remained available in libraries for everyone to read.