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400 Years of Banned Books


Banned Books Week is when libraries and other members of the book community support the freedom to read and raise awareness of challenges to this freedom.  Sadly, the banning of books is not a new phenomenon—while Catcher in the Rye or Huckleberry Finn come to mind, you can find books banned as early as the sixteenth century in the Rare Book Division.

The Catholic Church began printing the Index Librorum Prohibitorum in 1559, and versions of it remained in effect until 1966.  The Index listed books that went against the teachings of the Church, condemning their circulation and encouraging authors to edit their content in order to gain papal approval.  Many foundational thinkers, such as Galileo, Copernicus, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Flaubert, were banned in the Index.  The Rare Book Division holds many of these formerly heretical texts, as well as multiple editions of the Index itself.

Images from Galileo’s Dialogo, Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus Orbium Caelestium, and Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Among the books banned by the Index Librorum Prohibitorum are Galileo’s Dialogo, Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus Orbium Caelestium, and Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Defenders of the written word can take heart from the fact that as long as books have been banned, others have fought for intellectual freedom.  To protest the restriction of book printing in seventeenth century England, John Milton wrote the Areopagitica, and its words resonate as much today as they did in 1644:  

"Read any books what ever come to thy hands, for thou art sufficient both to judge aright, and to examine each matter."

What happened to Milton’s Areopagitica?  It was banned by English law.

To learn more about banned books, try Nicholas Karolides' 120 Banned Books: Censorship Histories of World Literature.  Or, attend a Banned Books Week event at an NYPL library!

Image Credits: Rare Book Division. New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox, Tilden Foundations.


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