A Frickin’ School Library Decides to Burn Some Frickin’ Books

Northcote High School Library decided to get rid of some books, which is not news: such libraries discard books all the time. Except, the method by which NHS Library went about it was news. A week ago, The Age‘s Adam Carey had a report, School library discards outdated and offensive books on colonisation: Carey’s report begins,

Dozens of 20th century non-fiction titles deemed historically inaccurate or offensive have been removed from the Northcote High School library as part of a push to decolonise the school’s book collection.

“decolonise”. Yep, again.

There are already other signs that this will not end well: the meaning of “historically inaccurate” can be subjective; “offensive” is very subjective, and very shaky ground for the removal of a book. Carey’s title could have used some quotes or, better, scare quotes.

The critical question is, who is doing the deeming, and how? Well,

[The school] leaned heavily on the guidance of Dr Al Fricker, a Dja Dja Wurrung man and expert in Indigenous education at Deakin University …

The focus of Dr. Fricker’s research is “ways to decolonise education“. Of course. Dr. Fricker would also like us to know that Dark Emu is his favourite book. Of course.

Dr. Fricker and the school librarians apparently went through “all 7000 titles”, and according to Dr. Fricker,

Some of the books removed were almost 50 years old and were simply gathering dust anyway.

Carey quotes Dr. Fricker,

We wouldn’t accept science books being that old in the library …

To which the only appropriate response is “Yes, we damn well would, you ignorant clown”.

Some solid truths, in the sciences and the humanities, have a way of staying true. But clearly Dr. Fricker is not a fan of the Olds. How, then, did Dr. Fricker and the school librarians deem which dusty texts were no longer acceptable?

Books were assessed to make sure they were predominantly written by First Nations people, or had First Nations people working or authorising them …

Authorised by First Nations people even if the text was not primarily about First Nations people?

Others were removed because they promoted heroic stereotypes of colonialist settlers but overlooked the frontier wars.

Which appears to answer our question. If a history text deigns to suggest it wasn’t all easy going for colonialist settlers, or if there is insufficient Indigenous blood splattered on the pages, then farewell to the text.

Dr. Fricker and the librarians also had issues with “offensive [and] outdated terminology”:

Texts that refer to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as nomads or hunter-gatherers … are among those that were cut from the school’s collection.

[It was ensured that books] did not use outdated images or inappropriate language such as “aborigines”.

We’re not going to enter the anthropological minefield of accurate and acceptable terminology. It suffices to note that what is deemed to be the acceptable, best or necessary term to use has changed several times over a short period. (Alternating “Aboriginal” or “Aborigine”, capitalised or not, as one or both forms were labelled disrespectful; then “Koori” was mandatory for a period; then “Indigenous Peoples”; and now Fricker’s sparkly new “First Nations”.) It makes it absurd to glean automatic offence from writings published in earlier phases of this ongoing history of linguistic policing. In particular, discarding every text that refers to “hunter-gatherers” or “aborigines” is likely to result in a hell of a bonfire.

To be fair, not all texts deemed problematic were discarded. Carey’s report indicates that 36 texts were removed from the library, but also with

a further 12 titles being filed under a new restricted category. … These books were kept in the collection but flagged as restricted, with a blurb explaining why.

Dr. Fricker explains:

It just means that [students] don’t just accept those books at face value and take them as gospel …

Also implying, it seems, that the texts of which Lord Fricker approves – Dark Emu, for instance – should be taken as gospel.

In the end, the question is what are the 48 books Dr. Fricker and the librarians deemed sufficiently “outdated” to warrant removal or brown-bagging. We do not know the answer. Carey’s report names five books that were removed, however, although without any indication of the specific reasons:

We shall consider one of these books at some length: A History of New South Wales, by Beverley Kingston. That’s Kingston pictured above, at the top of the post.

Beverley Kingston is a serious and highly respected historian. She is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Social Sciences and for three decades, before retiring in 1999, was an Associate Professor at UNSW. Kingston was also a trailblazer. In 1972, Kingston created and taught the first university subject on Australian women’s history, indeed the first Australian subject on “Women’s Studies” in any sense, and she wrote a number of influential books on aspects of this history. Kingston was a pioneer of the idea that we can teach new things, produce new kinds of history, but it’s a fair bet that Fricker is unaware of and couldn’t care less about any of this.

Published in 2006 – so not all that dusty – Kingston’s A History of New South Wales is regarded as the authoritative historical work on New South Wales. Of course, given the author, the History is the furthest thing from a reactionary tour of noble governors and conquering explorers. All the reviews we have found of Kingston’s history are very positive, and our opinion is that the book is excellent.

Kingston’s writing is careful and scholarly, while also being clear and engaging. The book is enjoyable, a very human and somewhat Left history of a developing, experimental society. There is a strong focus on the effect of historical events on the broader community, on women’s rights and labour rights and, generally, on those in less control of their destiny. She describes well the necessary pragmatism and the inevitable hypocrisy of a new society. Kingston is too professional to indulge in emotive language, but her empathy can be felt throughout.

Again, we’re doubting that Fricker cared, that the general, undeniable merits of Kingston’s History mattered to him. It’s a safe assumption that Fricker’s sole concern was with History’s treatment of “Aborigines”, which is how First Peoples are referred to in the text. “Offensive” term aside, let’s consider this treatment.

Kingston’s History contains a couple dozen passages on the consequences of settlement on Aboriginal society; they are not her primary concern but neither is the coverage token. As with the History in general, these passages are written with a calm concern for truth, but with empathy. Here are two passages, from History’s second chapter, on the early settlement days.

Competition for the fish and oysters found in the waters of Port Jackson was probably the first intimation for the Eora people of the seriousness of the danger represented by these newcomers. Then there was the incredibly efficient felling of trees with iron axes and saws, the destruction of tubers and fouling of water supplies. The Aborigines saw the mysterious but deadly effect of firearms. They experienced inexplicable and devastating sickness as they were exposed to colds and flu, smallpox and venereal disease. Competition for food and other resources led to conflict, thieving, and murder on both sides. Eventually farms with a plentiful supply of corn and potatoes in the barns and lots of meat neatly herded and enclosed by fences would present both a threat and a snare to the independence of the Aboriginal people. This did not happen for some years, and in the meantime, Europe’s diseases and her bad habits were let loose in New South Wales, hunting and fishing grounds were destroyed in desperation or ignorance, and havoc was wreaked on those Aborigines unfortunate enough to live too close to the white settlement.

Commissioners were appointed to collect the fees, supervise the squatters, and adjudicate disputes over rights to grass and water. However, the speed and the distances the squatters
covered in search of unclaimed pasture made regulation impossible. More importantly, the squatters became easy targets for the Aborigines whose lands they were invading with their flocks and herds and wagons of arms and provisions. As Aboriginal attacks became common, so too did squatter demands for military or police protection. But the murder of a group of harmless Aborigines, mostly women and children, by stockmen at Myall Creek in 1838 was certainly not in self-defence. The law exacted capital punishment with unfortunate consequences. … [S]erious crimes committed … against Aborigines … were driven underground. Police became reluctant to lay charges, and juries to convict, lest the prescribed penalty be imposed.

This is not wailing, black armband history, but is stating bluntly the devastating effects of settlement on Aboriginal life. Here is another excerpt, on an Australia Day protest in 1938, the 150th Anniversary of settlement:

While Hero Black, Archie Boney, Anzac Williams, Jimmy Wongram and the others were playing themselves in the official ceremonies, about 100 other Aborigines, veterans of a decade of campaigning against the inequities of the Aborigines’ Protection Board, had gathered in the Australian Hall in Elizabeth Street to pass a resolution declaring 26 January ‘A Day of Mourning and Protest’ for them.” The Protection Board, set up in the 1870s to shield NSW’s remaining full blood Aborigines from exploitation as closer settlement claimed evermore of their land, had clearly failed. The number of full bloods declined to a pitiful level. This was not surprising as levels of nutrition on the board’s reserves were often woeful and the withdrawal of rations used frequently as a punishment, while health-care and education were badly administered often by the same under-qualified, overworked and poorly paid manager and his wife. Nevertheless, the board managed to have its powers extended to cover part-Aborigines as well by insisting on its duty to educate part-Aboriginal children excluded from state schools, and to supervise their training as farmhands or domestics. Those Aborigines who were, in fact, struggling for independent economic survival saw the board as a threat to their independence and a barrier to their self-respect. Known by Aboriginal people in the 1930 as the Persecution Board, it represented both charity and the officialdom they desired to avoid, the equivalent of the workhouse detested by the poor in Victorian England.

Did Fricker find these passages unacceptable? We very much doubt that he considered them at all, given he had another 6999 texts waiting for him, to be either condemned or reprieved. It’s a reasonable assumption that Fricker spotted “Aborigines” in History and that was enough. Even if not, even if Fricker went further and located some other micro-crime, Fricker’s rejection of History is absurd.

It seems plainly obvious that Fricker did not properly evaluate History to weigh the text’s virtues and problems. For Fricker, one “offence” apparently outweighed all virtues, irrespective of how minor the former and how great the latter, and no matter that the book might be the best or only source in that library for information on some particular topic, including topics that Fricker would presumably claim to care about. There is no reason to believe the other 35 condemned books were treated with any greater consideration or respect.

Unsurprisingly, a number of historians are quietly livid with the treatment of Kingston’s fine work and, by extension, Kingston. But also, and also unsurprisingly, Fricker and the school librarians had applauding supporters, who will undoubtedly continue to applaud as Fricker continues his decolonising crusade. AEU, the powerful teachers’ union, clapped happily. A few librarians were only grumpy with Fricker for his getting the credit when they’d already been merrily “decolonising” their libraries; Carey also reports that the School Library Association of Victorian considered that the Northcote school “had set an example for other schools to follow”. Which is all closer to the Fahrenheit 451 firemen than one would ever hope to be occurring in real life.

29 Replies to “A Frickin’ School Library Decides to Burn Some Frickin’ Books”

  1. This is clearly going too far. Yes libraries have power over their own collections. And problematic texts should be removed. But there doesn’t seem to be a real problem here.

    What a shame.

    1. It is possible that beginning is going too far. What is the compelling problem that necessitated the speed-vetting of 7000 books? “Shame” might be the unintended perfect word.

    2. Removing any text for being “problematic” opens the door for more and more censorship. There’s no need to remove a text even if it’s offensive; it being in the library or even being read causes no harm to anyone. There’s a very real harm caused by censorship, however.

  2. This is very concerning. One major issue, I think, is that NHS have acted on the advice of one individual, who seems to have no authority other than his aboriginality. That does not make him an automatic expert in history, library studies, education, or indeed in anything else. Moreover, he trumpets himself as being a “proud Dja Dja Warrung man”. And rightly so – it is no bad thing to be proud of one’s ancestry. But, given that his country is around the Bendigo area, on what authority does he speak for other Aboriginal peoples? Especially, for example, those in New South Wales?

    As far as I know, there is no agreed list from some central organization (such as ATSIC was) of “offensive” books – indeed, I doubt that such a list could ever exist. So NHS throwing out books on the advice of just one person is pretty much putting themselves in the hands of that one person’s own prejudices, limitations, and world-views. If NHS put any of us in charge of saying, winnowing the maths collection, there’d hardly be a book left in the place!

    If NHS had been sensible, they might have asked the excellent Dr Fricker to recommend books as might be considered offensive, incorrect, or something else, and provide a written report. Such a report could then be considered by the School Council, or its Library Board, or whatever. But I have a mental image of Dr Fricker wandering along the shelves saying “that’s gotta go … chuck that one … don’t like that one either … ” I’m reminded of Bertrand Russell’s dream as retold by G. H. Hardy at https://bit.ly/3EB9qvU

    NHS have been stupid, short-sighted, overly hasty, and knee-jerky. We can look to America at some of the craziness that ensues when people in power are so terrified of children coming into contact with anything at all that might extend or enlarge their minds, that they get rid of everything except the anodyne, the dull, and (one might say) the right-wing. We would hope for a more balanced view, not that of a single person. And a LOT more sense from a school!

    1. It is unclear how much Fricker was the decision-maker and how much the librarians. I tried to share the credit around.

      1. I would have thought that no matter who made the decision, the ultimate authority on whether or not a book is fit to be in the library is the school. If Dr Fricker was on the school council (for all I know he might have a child there) there would surely be a conflict of interest. So as far as I can tell, the school is ultimately in the wrong; Dr Fricker being a consultant or advisor. The school could have chosen, after all, to ignore his advice, or even get a second opinion! I still think making such a decision on the basis of just one person’s views demonstrates very poor governance indeed.

        1. Sure. There’s plenty of “Doh” to go around. It seems clear that at least a decent subset of school librarians are cool with what happened, and what is seemingly happening elsewhere.

      1. I was just trying to be sarcastic; I apologise if this caused any offence or concern to the readers.

        However, burning books is a traditional way of removing objectionable material from public view.

        A kinder view is that librarians are not necessarily the best judges of what should be in a library. I know of one university that discarded volumes 2 and 3 of Whitehead and Russell. Volume 1 was saved because it had been borrowed in recent times.

        I have purged my own library, severely in recent years. It’s not so easy to get rid of books these days – even good books. I gave many away to colleagues and students. Libraries tend not to accept donations anymore. Even my favourite second-hand bookshop would not take them. “We have not been able to sell the last batch that you gave us.” I could not be bothered selling them on ebay. Sometimes, in sheer desperation, I have put them in the recycling bin with the view that this might, at least, serve some purpose.

        Again, please accept my sincere apology for my effort to be sarcastic if it offended readers.

        1. Terry it’s fine. I misinterpreted. But you’ve made enough straight and weird comments that sarcasm is not perhaps the optimal mode for you to use.

  3. Thanks, RT. Note that a school library has limited space, and will always be discarding books, on occasion. The issue here is not the “burning”, but the selection process.

    There is also an interesting question, the non-troll version of Terry’s comment, of what happened to the 36 discarded books. Typically such books would be offered free or cheap to whoever wants them, but it is difficult to imagine that having happened in this instance. In any case, the question is of very secondary importance.

    1. You’re making good points, but not points relevant to school libraries. They are not libraries of record, and Kingston’s book is in no danger of disappearing soon, if ever.

    1. Thank you Dr Mike. When reading through it, the work of Paulo Freire came to mind, “”Pedagogy of the oppressed”. While I appreciated Freire’s point of view, I did not know how I could make use of it.

      1. Hi JJ , it looks like they removed their propaganda. However, you can always find anything you are looking for here https://equitablemath.org/

        The list of definitions is definitely written by people who learned maths through an ‘equitable system’. “An anti-racist is someone who is supporting an antiracist policy through their
        actions or expressing antiracist ideas” – hilarious !!!!

        Click to access A-Pathway-to-Equitable-Math-Instruction-Toolkit-Glossary-Final.pdf

  4. It’s been interesting watching the growing censorship and prudery from the (creeplingly authoritarian) left. I am glad to see there are some “old liberals” that still believe in free speech (yes, even for people they disagree with). And are not crazy about the NSA sticking its periscopes up people’s assholes.

    1. It’s been appalling to watch the descent of the Left into madness. They are much the greater danger these days.

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