April 24, 2018

Libraries After Charlie Hebdo : The Threat of Violence, the Fear of Self-Censorship


The front cover of Charlie Hebdo‘s January 2015 edition. (Headline translation: “All is forgiven.”)

On January 7, two masked gunmen forced their way into the Paris offices of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 people and wounding 11 others. The perpetrators, who identified themselves as belonging to Al-Qaeda’s faction in Yemen, led police on a manhunt across Paris, and were found and killed two days later. The tragic chain of events shocked and horrified the world, but also served as a cogent reminder that many of the materials safeguarded by librarians and archivists represent ideas that hold powerful meaning for people, and can even move them to violence.

Charlie Hebdo is a political magazine, and the murders were considered a terrorist attack—France’s worst in 50 years. Religion is often a target of the magazine’s irreverent humor; its pointed satire skewers not only Islam but Catholicism and Judaism, as well as France’s far-right politics, stance on Israel, and popular culture.

The magazine had been the target of violence before. In 2012, after publishing an issue that claimed to have been guest edited by the Prophet Mohammed himself, titled “Charia Hebdo,” its offices were firebombed and its website hacked. Among the murdered were economist Bernard Maris, columnist Elsa Cayat, cartoonists Georges Wolinski and Jean Cabut, and editor-in-chief Stéphane Charbonnier, the magazine’s best-known cartoonist, who drew under the pen name Charb. He was under police protection at the time; one of the two law officers killed was his bodyguard.

Although since that time no public or academic libraries have received threats, the danger presented by the Charlie Hebdo attack may have more wide-ranging repercussions. Peter Hart, communications director of the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), suggested that one possible reaction among the library community is that “people will just make the assumption: ‘remember what happened in Paris, we have to be extra careful to not do anything that could provoke that kind of vicious and despicable attack.’ And that’s a dangerous moment to be in, because you have to look at those things as remarkable outliers and tragedies. If lightning hits a forest and a tree falls down, that doesn’t mean you go out and chop down all the trees because you’re worried about the next lightning strike.”


Although written texts often evoke strong, sometimes contentious reactions, political cartoons and caricatures can be equally incendiary. According to Barbara Jones, executive director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) of the American Library Association. (ALA), “Cartoons are a particular problem in our office—graphic novels and books with cartoons often get [verbally] attacked.”

In 2005 the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a collection of 12 editorial cartoons by different artists, most of them depicting Mohammed, creating an image of whom is considered blasphemous by many in the Islamic tradition, though Persian and Turkish Muslims have a tradition of artwork depicting Mohammed that goes back hundreds of years. Jyllands-Posten had printed the cartoons, it said, to further dialogue, but the final product was offensive to many Muslims. Protests occurred in a number of Muslim countries, many turning violent. Embassies were attacked, some 200 deaths were reported, and in 2010 four men were convicted of planning a terrorist attack against the newspaper in revenge for the cartoons’ publication.

The cartoons were reprinted in newspapers and magazines worldwide, including Charlie Hebdo in 2006, an act criticized by then-president Jacques Chirac as a “manifest provocation.” When Yale University Press published a book on the subject in 2009, The Cartoons That Shook the World, it included none of the cartoons themselves (and removed several other images of Mohammed as well, including a 19th-century engraving by Gustave Doré from The Divine Comedy).

Yet the cartoons did indeed open up a dialog. The controversy spurred the Danish Royal Library to conduct an internal evaluation of its collection policies, concluding that coverage of Muslim communities and ethnic minorities in Denmark needed to be increased. In 2008 the Royal Library met with several Muslim organizations. At this meeting, Steen Bille Larsen, assistant to the Royal Library’s director general, told LJ, “it was discussed how to intensify the acquisition of written cultural heritage from Muslim organizations and from leading spokesmen and religious persons in Denmark. In the discussion the Royal Library underlined that a national library has obligations toward the whole nation. Therefore the activities of the library have a wide range: from collecting and preserving the output from Muslim organizations to collecting and preserving the original drawings of Danish cartoonists in the Museum of Danish Cartoon Art. The result was very positive and after the library received several prints that were not already in the collections.”

In fact, the incident helped promote the inclusion of comic art in libraries worldwide. “An argument comes up that cartoons and graphic novels aren’t really worthy of being in library collections,” said Jones. “In the 21st century, that just is not true. As we saw with Charlie Hebdo…some of the most profound work is best done as illustrations, and we urge libraries to collect graphic novels and cartoons.”


In the past decade, publishers have found themselves on the defensive over divisive material. Several have acquiesced to demands that they pulp or withdraw books considered offensive. In 2007 Cambridge University Press was sued by Saudi businessman Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz over his family’s portrayal in Alms for Jihad, an exploration of the connections between Islamic charities and terrorism. The publisher agreed to pulp all unsold copies, even going so far as to ask libraries to either insert an errata slip in their copies stating that bin Mahfouz “was never alleged to have been involved in embezzlement, money laundering, or the various other criminal offenses alleged against the B.C.C.I.” and that he “paid no personal fine,” or to remove the book from their shelves entirely.

Libraries responded by placing the book on hold or behind the reserves desk, and the OIF issued a statement saying, “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.”

Similarly, in 2014, Penguin Books India made the decision to withdraw University of Chicago professor Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History, and destroy all remaining copies for sale in India, under pressure from Hindu nationalists. While the book was the number one bestseller in India in 2009, and was named a National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) finalist in nonfiction that year, its exploration of themes of sexuality and gender in Hindu mythology offended many Hindus, and NBCC was forced to hire extra security at readings and awards events due to threats of violence.

At press time, however, Farrar, Straus Giroux reported no negative feedback on its publication of Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, a dark fictional imagining of an Islamist-governed France that has proved controversial overseas. Houellebecq’s caricature appeared on the cover of Charlie Hebdo published just before the massacre, with the headline “The Predictions of Wizard Houellebecq.”


In France, librarians took to social media after the incident, tagging blog posts and tweets on the subject with the hashtag #bibenaction. In response to LJ’s recent opinion piece, Nathalie Clot, Director of Public Service Documentation at the Library of the University of Angers in France’s Loire Valley, described her library’s actions:

“First, we tweeted a link to our catalog entry for Charlie Hebdo on the library’s Twitter feed. Second, when the names of victims were made known, the libraries posted a selection of the journal archives, and books by Cabu, Wolinski and Bernard Maris. Almost all the documents were borrowed in 24 hours. The day after, we posted the front pages of all the newspapers. Third, as head librarian I wrote an editorial on the library site saying: ‘The Ducks [French slang for newspaper] always fly higher than the guns.’” A minute of silence was held throughout France on January 8, and Clot described how some 200 students gathered at the library around an original drawing by victim Georges Wolinski, and photograph taken of him. “I nearly cried,” she recalled “when I said that only photographers can shoot a dessinateur.”

Direct threats to public or academic libraries are unusual, but not unheard of, and are usually aimed at books rather than people. A 2006 incident of arson at the Chicago Public Library’s John Merlo branch, for instance, reportedly targeted its LBGT collection. Page removal is even more common. In 1993 at the University of British Columbia’s Main Library, an unknown person ripped out numerous book pages referring to Nazism, many of them from irreplaceable books; damage was estimated at $10,000.

However, with the recent events in Paris comes a new level of worry for those who safeguard books and artwork—and with it a potential for self-censorship—that the NCAC’s Hart feels could be even more detrimental than any perception of threat.

The danger, he said, isn’t so much that librarians can expect violence, but that they may make decisions out of fear. “It does weigh on the minds of librarians whether or not stocking a particular title is going to invite that kind of controversy, and the easiest way to avoid that is to make sure you don’t carry anything controversial,” he told LJ. “I would assume [after Charlie Hebdo] that calculation is going to weigh heavier on people’s minds, and that’s a real threat to free expression.”

He understands why librarians might feel concern, but added, “The important thing to remember is that this is one tragic incident based on a long history…. My hope is that people will be able to take a deep breath, and we can hopefully have some serious and productive conversations about how free speech and safety can somehow coexist.”

Librarians are accustomed to arguments involving challenged books, or certain kinds of content, “but it’s very different to have these discussions when people feel like their lives are at sake,” he explained. “That’s a much more harrowing kind of experience. Hopefully…people over the weeks and months to come will remember that there have been threats in the past, there have been controversies in the past, and that the ability to have a rational and productive conversation is how we’ve been able to move through these things. And that shouldn’t change.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.



  1. Peter Spence says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful and responsible comments. It’s increasingly important for libraries to provide a balanced approach to the provision of information and to ensure that a fair approach to responsible self-censorship is maintained.