Senate House Library is currently running an exhibition called Radical Voices, displaying items associated with activism for positive change in society, which have been preserved in the library’s collections. As part of this exhibition season the library hosted a film night, showing Storm Center (1956), directed by Daniel Taradash and co-written by Taradash and Elick Moll.
Storm Center stars Bette Davis as a public librarian who is fired for refusing to remove a book about communism from her library. While the film itself is significant for being the first Hollywood film to challenge McCarthyism, I found it more interesting to discover the real-life story behind the film.
Dr Richard Espley (Head of Modern Collections at Senate House Library) introduced the film, explaining that it was inspired by a true story: the dismissal of Ruth Brown, a public librarian in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, in 1950. Although Brown was dismissed for circulating communist materials, many believe that the real reason behind it was her civil rights activism. Brown was a member of a group affiliated with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). She had made efforts to promote racial equality, for example by running an integrated library, trying to introduce an integrated story-time, and taking part in a sit-in with two African American teachers at a local drugstore (Robbins, 2007). This was in 1950, before sit-ins became more widespread as part of the Civil Rights Movement. Despite the complaints of a “citizens committee”, Brown could not be dismissed for her actions and had been careful not to break the law. The library board that supported her was replaced by the City Commission, who interrogated and then fired her.
An intriguing detail concerns a photograph published in the local newspaper during the controversy and claimed to be of subversive materials removed from the library. In an attempt to calm the situation, the library board had moved copies of these magazines to locked storage, but on top of them were two books about communism, which later could not be located (Robbins, 2000). The library board denied knowledge of the books, and it has since been asserted that the copy of Marx’s Das Kapital was not even from the Bartlesville public library, but had been checked out from the Tulsa public library for the unauthorised picture in order to incriminate Brown (Robbins, 2007). Presumably the book was returned to the Tulsa public library and remained there free from censorship.
After Brown’s dismissal, a group called ‘The Friends of Miss Brown’ was formed in order to defend her and protest against the censorship of library materials. The group’s spokesperson, Darlene Anderson Essary, wrote in a letter to the Saturday Review, “the denial of Constitutional rights to our citizens has significance beyond the boundaries of our town”. It was this letter that inspired Daniel Taradash and fellow screenwriter Elick Moll to make a film based on the events in Bartlesville (Robbins, 1998).
Storm Center is historically significant for challenging McCarthyism, and is an enjoyable, if melodramatic, film. However, as Espley pointed out, it is ironic that a film about fighting censorship and defending intellectual freedom actually censors the real-life story upon which it is based. The film makes no mention of the civil rights activism of Ruth Brown. Louise S. Robbins researched the story and wrote a book about it: The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown: Civil Rights, Censorship, and the American Library (2000). The photograph of subversive materials mentioned above appears on the cover of the book.
Thank you to Dr Richard Espley and Dr Jordan Landes at Senate House Library for hosting such an interesting event. I am excited to attend the related conference next month, Radical Collections: Radicalism and Libraries and Archives.
There has been talk of organising a regular film night at #citylis in order to watch movies about librarians. I think that this is a great idea, as there are many more films featuring librarians! The 10 best librarians on screen: Staff at the BFI Reuben Library nominate their top 10 librarians in film and television.
Senate House Library blog post: The (partially) radical librarian on film
Robbins, L. (2000) The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown: Civil Rights, Censorship, and the American Library. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press
Robbins, L. (1998) Fighting McCarthyism through Film: A Library Censorship Case Becomes a “Storm Center”. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science 39 (4), 291-311. doi:10.2307/40324305
Robbins, L. (1996) Racism and Censorship in Cold War Oklahoma: The Case of Ruth W. Brown and the Bartlesville Public Library. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 100 (1), 18-46.