Debate: Should Librarians Remove Bellesiles's Book from the Shelves?


Mr. Sternstein is Professor Emeritus of History, Brooklyn College, CUNY, and co-editor of The Encyclopedia of American Biography. Mr. Volokh teaches free speech law, copyright law, the law of government and religion, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy at UCLA Law School.

Should librarians take Michael Bellesiles's Arming America off the main circulation shelves?

MAYBE: Mr. Sternstein

The other day, while traveling back from New York City, I heard an item on local Public Radio. It said that a reader in Goshen, N.Y. (there is also a Goshen, Conn., and a Goshen, MA) complained about Arming America being on the open shelves despite the fact it had been discredited, etc. The librarian investigated, and agreed that Arming America should no longer be available and pulled it off the shelves. The reporter didn't say what the library did with it.

I'm conflicted about what to do with books like Arming America. Should works deemed fraudulent be removed from the library shelves? And if so where should they reside? Should they be put in a rare book room or in special collections?

This is not the first time this problem has arisen. In the mid 1960s I helped expose a book by S. Walter Poulshock, The Two Parties and the Tariff in the 1880s, published by Syracuse University Press. The author, after being confronted by overwhelming evidence of his fraud -- concocting hundreds of documents -- confessed and resigned his teaching position at Rutgers University. (I wrote all about this for HNN in February, just when the Bellesiles scandal was heating up.) Syracuse recalled the book. But not all libraries returned their copies and the book is still available in some collections. I was amazed to find it was on the shelves at Brooklyn College when a student there cited it in his term paper. I went to the librarian and asked her to place it in the Special Collections room. She did, It remained there only for a short time. Somebody later returned it to the open stacks. I protested, but the librarian then in charge refused to remove it and it probably still is on the shelves for students to use for their "research papers," despite the fact that it is filled with hundreds of invented sources.

The problem with leaving works like Poulshock's or Bellesiles's on the open shelves is that over the years sometimes even professional historians forget about the problems attached to them. About five years ago, a book by Robert W. Cherney, American Politics in the Gilded Age, 1868-1900, written primarily for college students, appeared with Poulshock's fraudulent book prominently cited in its bibliography, where it was praised for shedding light "on major issues and policies." When Cherney, a specialist on the Gilded Age who teaches at San Francisco State, was informed that the book was a fraud, he was terribly embarrassed. He then set about to track down whether other libraries in California -- other than the one at SFS -- had copies and found that many did. I don't know if he succeeded in having the book removed from the open shelves but that was his intention, I'm told.

So if a professional historian can be deceived by a fraudulent book that remains on the open shelves years after the fraud has been uncovered, what about the general reader? And should readers be protected from these books? Should they perhaps remain on the shelves with some statement attached about their unreliability as works of history?

As I said earlier, I'm conflicted about what course to take. I'm uneasy about the Goshen, NY library removing Arming America from its shelves but I'm equally uneasy about leaving it there without notifying the unwarry about its serious flaws.


I think this is a very interesting, and difficult, question.

Seems to me that research libraries, and main branch libraries, absolutely should keep the book on the shelves: The book is of substantial interest precisely because of the controversy, and of course the book continues to have some defenders, at least as to some parts (though I'm certain that it's flawed in much more than its use of probate records).

The matter is more difficult for smaller libraries, where shelf space might be an issue, and where the main market is more people doing general reading about the subject, rather than scholars tracking down the entries in a particular debate. My sense is that libraries should keep the book on the shelves if there's no lack of space; but if there is a lack of space, this book ought to be on the to-remove list, alongside other books that seem no longer that informative (because they're obsolete and no longer reflect what is seen as sound scientific or historical thinking). I'd like to know more about how librarians actually handle such shelf-space problems, though.

But should libraries take steps to label the book, so readers know at least that there's serious controversy about its accuracy? (I see no reason for the library to take a stance on whether the critics are right or the author is right; at most, they should let readers know about the criticisms, and let readers decide for themselves.) I think that in principle they ought to: The library's purpose is to inform readers, and if there seems to be a substantial chance that the book is grossly in error it seems good to stress that. This is especially true since the error doesn't seem obvious at first glance: I don't think libraries need to label astrology books this way, since most people know that astrology is at the very least a highly questionable discipline; it's a different story, though, when a book seems at first like serious scholarship, but it turns out that its factual underpinnings have been seriously undermined.

On the other hand, I can also see why many librarians would rather stay out of this, simply because there are so many books whose factual assertions have been seriously criticized. True, it's rare to have scandals of quite this magnitude, with serious claims of outright dishonesty. But there are surely lots of other books that have also been exposed to withering criticism, some of it perhaps correct. Many librarians would prefer not to get into those debates, and take an "as is, no warranties" attitude towards their collections.

Finally, this raises a broader point: In law, there are computerized mechanisms -- and, before that, there were print mechanisms -- for seeing whether a case has been overruled, or even cast into doubt, by other cases. I don't think there are as many mechanisms in other disciplines for easily tracking down criticism of published articles or books. It would be great if such mechanisms were developed, and if libraries could make them easily available to people.

On the other hand, maybe the Internet, despite all its limitations, is already beginning to prove to be such a device. Anyone who knew enough to do a google search on "Michael Bellesiles, Arming America" would pretty quickly figure out that there's a pretty hot controversy about the book.

This exchange first appeared on Mr. Volokh's blog and is reprinted with permission.

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More Comments:

Tom Langford - 2/6/2003

Don't remove "Arming of America" from library shelves, put it in the fiction section where it belongs.

www.cronaca.com - 12/4/2002

Pasting or binding in a review is an excellent solution.
I posted a comment elsewhere on this topic where I only half-jokingly praised the practice of glossing books in the margins.

Wm Whitelaw - 12/3/2002

That's "Bellesiles," of course. And yes, "genuine fraud" is an oxymoron.

Wm Whitelaw - 12/3/2002

Rather than speculate, I looked into this question just after Bellisle's resignation was announced. I went to a rather good public library here in eastern Mass. and asked two of the reference librarians if there was any provision in the Dewey cataloging system for special treats like "Arming America," the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," and other famous frauds. But apparently there is no Dewey number for "notorious fraud." The librarians were aware that there was a real firefight over "Arming America," and the consensus was that if things settled down on the side of it being a genuine fraud, it would probably be discarded.

At that point I mentioned that the book still had a place (if only as an example of the perils of academic fraud), but that place shouldn't be in the history section. I expanded on that a bit, with a vision of local high school kids hauling the thing out for the next decade or two whenever assigned papers on gun control issues, and I mused (not entirely seriously, of course) on the possibility of putting it in with fiction. Then one of the librarians - obviously alert that night - noticed that they didn't have the book filed in history, but in the "social issues" section, in with the standard rubbish from Kellerman, Bogus, Wills, and the usual suspects. (As I said, it's a good library). Her rationale was that even the vaguest high school student is almost certain to know that anything in that section is controversial.

It seems to me that by competent initial cataloging they had managed to solve the problem before it even arose. Librarians who take their jobs seriously are a marvel.

Bud Wood - 12/2/2002

I am in agreement that there is little reason to ban books. I'm sure that there are many books which have bad information and out and out propaganda that are on library shelves. It serves little purpose to go on a banning crusade. Where would it end? - - taking out fraudulent works can become a career for numerous librarians. And who's to judge whether some of the history we "know" just didn't happen that way? The attack on Pearl Harbor may be one such instance.
Sure, Bellesile's book is simply not accurate. But I'm sure that there are numerous volumes of similar questionable scholarship that remain on library shelves. - - However, if there's any question, let's not spend any money buying more such baloney.

Benny Smith - 12/2/2002

If we learned anything from the Nazi era, it should be that book banning is self-destructive. When we practice ideologically driven censorship to this extreme, politics replaces reason and coercion replaces persuasion.

Once the flames of anti-Bellesiles hysteria begin to flicker and die, objective readers of "Arming America" might realize that many of the theses advanced by Professor Bellesiles already have a foundation in historical scholarship. In fact, in the three-volume tome Violence in America, you will find the following passage: "The citizen-soldier was not well regarded, despite the folklore, patriotic historiography and popular media imagery to the contrary. Also individual farmers and frontiersmen were not particularly well armed as a number of historical sources attest." Bellesile's Journal of American History article "Origins of the Gun Culture in the U.S." is listed in the bibliography for the article that included the above passage. This book doesn't just reside in the non-fiction section of my local library, it is in the reference section.

Whether or not "Arming America" eventually joins "Violence in America" in the reference section will not depend upon the intellectual demonization being practiced by right wing zealots and gun huggers. Rather, it will depend upon a prolonged retrospective by qualified scholars.

Kasper - 11/30/2002

Have you read the new Jesse James biography by T.J. Stiles, and if so what are your opinions of it?

Ted P. Yeatman - 11/29/2002

As a former librarian I would suggest that it be recatalogued and put in "Spurious and Doubtful Works". Whether this will be done or not is another matter, though. Professional librarianship too often faces the same challenges that the History profession now faces, which is one reason I left that field. If you think Prof. Johnson's story of his experience at Brooklyn College are something, I know of cases, partiticularly in some public libraries, that would make your hair stand on end.
Some libraries censor by omission. Books are recommended for purchase through various media, such as reviews in ALA's CHIOCE and BOOKLIST. My own book, FRANK AND JESSE JAMES: THE STORY BEHIND THE LEGEND, was a finalist for BEST WESTERN BIOGRAPHY in the Western Writers of America's Spur Award competition for 2001, coming in behind Prof. Donald Worster's A RIVER RUNNING WEST, a fine new biography of John Wesley Powell, published by Oxford Univ. Press. FRANK AND JESSE JAMES, based on over 25 years of research, and with detailed source notes, was never reviewed. The book is slated to go into trade paper on Feb. 15, but it remains to be seen if it will get any attention the second time around, either.

Norman Heath - 11/28/2002

The Library of Congress responded to the Poulshock fraud by placing THE TWO PARTIES AND THE TARIFF in Special Collections, where it is still to be found.

There are legitimate reasons why someone would want to research fraudulent books, and certainly they shouldn't just be hauled outside and burned with the trash. There are also good reasons why the role of referee should not be imposed on librarians; in the Poulshock case, the publishers themselves withdrew the book. I believe they even sent notices to libraries to that effect; the publisher in that case made an "official" determination on which the librarian could act. An official determination has also been reached in the Bellesiles case, one on which librarians might legitimately premise a decision to move the book to Special Collections.

It is also true that librarians willingly act as gatekeepers, when they select books and when they catalog and shelve them. Libraries do not waste their resources purchasing every available UFO/Loch Ness/Flat-Earth book, nor do they necessarily shelve such books alongside serious scientific works. Librarians make judgements all the time about whether a book is worthy or not, or what kind of book it really is, and I am not sure I see why they should be less at liberty to exercise some discretion in the case of ARMING AMERICA, which has been proven to the satisfaction of the author's employer to be something other than a credible academic work.

Norman Heath

Mike Gottert - 11/28/2002

Perhaps Bellesile's book should be moved to the fiction section.

Jon Koppenhoefer - 11/28/2002

I spent a goodly sum on this damned book. I would like a refund. Do you think the publisher owes me one?

James W. Loewen - 11/27/2002

There is one permanent fix for an allegedly fraudulent book. It works as well for a book that is "merely" wrong, not necessarily fraudulent. It is: paste a review of the book, that explains the problem, in the front of the book.
This adds information, so libraries cannot cry "censorship." It permanently enhances the book, regardless of where the library chooses to shelve it. And it may prompt a further dialogue within the pages (literally) of the book.
If no review adequately treats the fraud (or other problem), write it yourself. But remember, you need to convince the "unwashed," and take care not to disfigure the book's own words.

Robert Michaelson - 11/27/2002

As a librarian, my answer is an unequivocal "no". At the Seeley G. Mudd Library for Science and Engineering, at Northwestern University, we have creationist books; we also have pseudo-scientific tracts on race from before World War II. Even though these things are claptrap, students should have access to them. (If they don't see such things, how will they be able to understand the errors they contain?) They are also part of the historical record.

Of course some cases are so well known that they are unlikely to mislead readers, but that is never entirely true -- even today, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (for example) finds credulous readers, but as an historic document it must be freely available in libraries. I have no objection to inserting comments on the problematic nature of the contents of books such as Bellesiles's, but there is no guarantee that such comments will remain in place, or be read.

Ultimately, there is no substitute for researchers doing the work of checking for reviews and other sources relating to books they use; this of course is much easier in the online environment than it once was. Perhaps indexes (such as America: History and Life) should follow the example of the National Library of Medicine's Medline and insert links to errata in reviews of books that turn out to be misleading.

William Stepp - 11/27/2002

I see no reason why fraudulent books should be removed from libraries. Why not append a note to such books by tying it to their binding with an article about how they were exposed with references to the relevant literature? After all, no one has said that every last point in
Bellesiles' book is wrong. And removing such works would deprive future researchers in the history of fraudulent books.
One other point: there is also a Goshen, Indiana. I went to high school there. Trust me, you don't want to go there.

Bob Greene - 11/27/2002

I agree that books such as Bellesiles should be available but since it status as a dicredited fraud is now beyond dispute it has earned a special status. Would the forged Hitler diaries written several year ago by David Irving, I believe, be palced in the History or biography section. I hope not. Would Mein Kamp for that matter be in the history section. Again I hope not. Remember this book does not just contain errors. It is now beyond
dispute that portions of it were faked. That crosses the line and removes it from history and places in in the pure polemic. Polemics must be allowed, even ones based on outright lies, but lable them as such. then let the reader beware.

Kasper - 11/25/2002

devoted to Fiction. : )

Or at least some additional footnotes added, directing readers
to the websites containing the work of Clayton Cramer and James Lindgren.