Alec Craig and the ‘rational and wideawake outfit’ at Senate House.

This inscription, in a copy of Charles Knowlton’s ‘Fruits of Philosophy’ (Peter Pauper Press, 1937) reads: ‘To Alec Craig insightful and courageous defender of freedom of inquiry & discussion against legal obscurantists, pious prelates of cant and other enemies of the cherished liberties of man. From Norman E. Himes. Dec. 21, 1942.’

Among the list of named special collections at Senate House Library, that of Alec Craig (1897-1973) may require more introduction than others.  A somewhat forgotten figure, he was a formidable and tireless champion of a bewildering number of social causes, including sex education, the legalisation of abortion and homosexuality, the reform of divorce law, the abolition of the monarchy, and the freedom of nudists. However, his most abiding target was literary censorship, and his most influential work The Banned Books of England (1937), updated in 1962 as The Banned Books of England and Other Countries.

On his death, Craig’s library of roughly 3,000 volumes was donated to the Borough of Camden. However, his collection of previously censored or banned volumes which, ‘because of its […] subject, would have to be used in the controlled academic library situation’ (Camden 1974, p. 1) was transferred to the University of London Library, now Senate House Library. The Library had been recommended to Craig by his associate Gershon Legman as a ‘rational and wideawake outfit’ (1/4/57, MS 1091 / Box 1), and so a safe home. While it includes work by authors forever associated with censorship, such as de Sade and D.H. Lawrence, it is a surprisingly rich and diverse collection, including many rare and limited editions as well as books by now securely canonical figures such as Havelock Ellis, Sigmund Freud, Andre Gide, J.K. Huysmans, and A.C. Swinburne. 

While there is much in this collection of a sexual nature, it trivialises Craig’s intention to categorise it as erotica. Indeed, Craig could be as vociferous as any censor when railing against ‘the dreariness of even the most esoteric pornography’ (1937, pp. 152-3). What he strove towards was the eradication of pornography, believing that ‘the proper cure […] is rational sex education’ (1937, p. 155). Literature was part of that process, and making it ‘free from all shackles legal, economic and social’ was ‘essential to the continuance of civilisation as we know it’ (1942, pp. 108-9). In this, he saw the librarian as a key ally, and potential insidious opponent; he lamented that ‘in the vast majority of cases no books dealing with sexual matters are allowed on the shelves’ of libraries (1937, p. 90).

It is therefore fitting that these titles came to rest in a library which, very soon after their acquisition, came under the control of D.J. Foskett, who asked his profession ‘who are librarians that they set themselves up as censors?’ (1962, p. 6). Foskett argued that if the library was guided by the creed of ‘no politics, no religion, no morals,’ it might yet become ‘a formative factor of the highest importance in the shaping of the society of the future’ (p. 13). These are lofty but legitimate aims, and by preserving and, in due course, cataloguing the Craig collection Senate House Library is fulfilling its responsibility to document and disseminate the immense, and redemptively transgressive, power of the printed book.

Dr Richard Espley
Research Librarian – British, Irish and Postcolonial Literatures and Languages

Craig, Alec. (1937). The banned books of England. London: George Allen & Unwin
Craig, Alec. (1942). Above all liberties. London: George Allen & Unwin.
Foskett, D. J. (1962). The creed of a librarian: no politics, no religion, no morals. London: Library Association.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s