Robert O. Collins: Libraries are refusing to pulp his book despite please from Cambridge press

Historians in the News

In 1989, former Conservative Party chairman and retired British officer, Lord Aldington, won a libel suit against Count Nikolai Tolstoy for allegations of complicity in war crimes which Tolstoy had made in his 1986 book, The Minister and the Massacres. Following up on his U.K. court victory, Aldington had his lawyers write to "… public libraries throughout Britain threatening further legal action if they continued to make [the book] available …. Even today, the book is virtually unavailable in Britain …."[1] Out of print, it is easier to find in New Zealand libraries than in the U.K.[2]

András Riedlmayer, a bibliographer at Harvard's Fine Arts Library, sees a family resemblance between the Tolstoy case and the current dust-up about Alms for Jihad. In both cases, an attempt was made by influential elites to intimidate libraries into suppressing a book.

In late July, Cambridge University Press settled a U.K. libel suit brought against it by Saudi businessman, Sheikh Khalid Bin Mahfouz. Bin Mahfouz had disputed statements in Cambridge's 2006 book, Alms for Jihad: Charity and Terrorism in the Islamic World, by J. Millard Burr and Robert O. Collins, that he had been involved in financing terrorist groups.[3] A press release by Bin Mahfouz's lawyers at Kendall Freeman[4] announced that, in addition to publishing a comprehensive apology, paying substantial damages, and pulping unsold copies of the book, "Cambridge University Press is taking the almost unprecedented step of … writing to over 200 libraries worldwide which carry the book telling them of the settlement and asking them to withdraw the book from their shelves."

Two weeks later, Cambridge Intellectual Property Director Kevin Taylor followed through with a letter to libraries known to hold the book, asking them to remove it.[5] Cambridge, apparently recognizing that librarians would almost certainly not comply, included an errata sheet with the letter. If libraries would not remove the book, Cambridge insisted that they insert the errata page.

Alms for Jihad quickly disappeared from U.S. bookstores and online suppliers.[6] What about the shelves of U.S. libraries?

Cambridge guessed right—librarians did not remove the book. To the contrary, they seem to have gone out and bought up the last elusive copies. More copies of Alms for Jihad were on library shelves in mid-September than before Taylor sent his August 15 letter.[7] U.S. holding libraries range from Harvard and Yale to Dearborn's Henry Ford Community College.

The American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom issued a statement encouraging librarians to stand firm. "Libraries," ALA noted, "are considered to hold title to the individual copy or copies, and it is the library's property to do with it as it pleases. Given the intense interest in the book, and the desire of readers to learn about the controversy first hand, we recommend that U.S. libraries keep the book available for their users."[8]

A quick poll of library directors at Michigan academic libraries brought similar responses: We paid for the book, we own it, we're going to keep it. "The book itself," one director noted, "has now become part of the conversation." A commentary had become an artifact.

These librarians were affirming the profession's commitment to preserving and disseminating the "Great Conversation" of recorded knowledge. Academic libraries don't adjudicate debates, but on their shelves preserve and foster them.

On the substance of the Bin Mahfouz case, librarians had mixed views. One former library director observed that, to agree to such dramatic settlement terms, Cambridge must have concluded it was "dead-on wrong." Others were not so sure. "The … reaction of CUP to the pressure brought forward by Mahfouz," observed Mark Herring, Dean of Libraries at Winthrop University, "only serves to show just how powerful and influential money is, even in the face of intellectual freedom."

Others found it significant that the U.S. authors of Alms for Jihad were standing by their scholarship.[9] Bin Mahfouz had not brought action against them. Moreover, while the Saudi businessman has, since March 2002, initiated or threatened suit 36 times,[10] he has taken legal action only in the U.K., where libel cases favor the plaintiff. The matter, in the view of many librarians, remains a legitimate topic for examination.

The examination will go on not only in U.S. colleges and universities. Copies of Alms for Jihad are in the collections of many federal agencies, including the Library of Congress, the Department of State, Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, FBI Academy, the Air Force and Naval academies, and U.S. Special Operations Command. Did Cambridge send letters to federal libraries, too? If so, a search of the WorldCat database reveals that they aren't removing the book, either. It's hard to imagine Nancy Pelosi pressing Congress to surrender its copy, never mind Condoleezza Rice or Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Librarians have been taking steps to protect this suddenly rare book. Charles Hamaker, Associate University Librarian at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, reports that "my library, like many academic libraries, has placed Alms for Jihad in a reserve collection to keep it available for current and future users." The University of Michigan recalled its two circulating copies and put both on reserve—housed, as an added precaution, in separate locations. A search of their online catalogs reveals that Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, as well as the University of California-San Diego, have also placed their copies on reserve. Ohio State and Cornell put Alms for Jihad in non-circulating rare book collections. Prudent moves: the $30 book now has a market value of more than $500.[11]...

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