Waltham Public Library

Caution: Long winded post ahead.

 

Waltham, Massachusetts is known for several things. The textile mills kick started the industrial revolution in America. It gained the nickname Watch City from the Waltham Watch Company. But this story is about neither. This is about sex, censorship, and how I got banned from the Waltham Public Library.
 

Subscription libraries in the city started as early as 1798 with the Waltham Social Library. Other organizations carried on the tradition until 1865 when the collection was given to the city to establish a free public library.
 

 

A local businessman, Francis Buttrick, bequeathed $60,000 in 1884 to construct a new library building. This took a few years but in 1915 the current Library was complete. At the dedication, the library board chairman said:

A public library should be something more than a mere repository of books. ... It must be an active force in the community. It must give, as well as receive. The question is not what can we do for the library but what can the library be made to do for us?

The architecture of the building was praised for its simplicity of brick and limestone with a spacious interior. And the staff seemed to take pride in their mission. For example, when a patron's card expired during the 1930's, Librarian Leslie Little would send out a postcard that said:

If you will come to the Library we shall be glad to issue you a new card. The Public Library is the People’s University. If you do not find books on the subjects in which you are interested, please let us know and we will endeavor to supply you.

The People's University! I love it! But by the time I visited, things were going downhill.
 

 

I lived in Waltham from 1977 - 81 (5th to 8th grade). My library card was a small square of paper with a metal tag, the same technology that was put in place in 1958 (you can see Mayor Rhodes above getting card number A-1). It wasn't my first library or first card, but it was the first library I could walk to by myself. Which I did frequently.
 

Each visit, I entered the foyer and made a left turn into the childrens' wing. An avid reader, I needed books with more depth. So one day I made a right turn to enter the adult stacks.
 

"Young man?"
 

Busted. I was told by the stern librarian at the circulation desk that I was not an adult and would I please confine myself to the childrens' section for my borrowing needs.
 

Okay, I exaggerated. I was 'banned' from the adult section of the library. Still, that got me mad. I was way beyond the kids books. And when adults tell kids not to do something, oh that just makes kids want to do it soooo bad.
 

Now, I'm sure you're wondering: Where's the SEX part?
 

In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled each community could set its own standards for obscenity. In August of that year, Dr. William F. Luder, a professor at Northeastern University and resident of Waltham, raised hell at the library. He had discovered several obscene materials and he wanted them taken off the shelves.
 

Never mind that his own book, One Pearl of Great Price, had quite explicit content. His explanation: "The scenes involving perversions do not promote them, but are designed to reveal their depravity." Yeah, right.
 

The items that offended Luder were a sociological text titled Group Sex, an issue of Show magazine, and Beyond the Resurrection, an SF novel by Gordon Eklund
 

When the library refused Luder's demand, he went to the press and the City Council. Battle lines formed in town. A local Monsignor called for heads to roll. The Universalist minister declared he'd rally clear-thinking troops to defend free speech. The local paper sided with Luder. The City Council blustered.
 

The Library Director equivocated. The sociological text, he admitted, was an "X-Book" and should have been in a special reference section and not on the open shelves. The issue of Show was distasteful, but not obscene. And nobody could figure out why Luder was in such a tizzy about Eklund's novel.
 

The books stayed. But the Director was quoted as saying the library had always had a conservative approach with materials, much more so than neighboring towns. He pledged to continue that policy. So who won?
 

It got me thinking, all these years later, about my experience in 1977. Had the events in 1973 reinforced a culture of conservatism in the library? Or maybe I just looked particularly childish that day. I must admit, it was a few years before I dared step over that magic barrier into the adult section. No one stopped me.
 

 

I'd like to finish on a positive note. The Waltham Public Library today is wonderful. The gardens on the property are beautiful. The renovations of 1994 rejuvenated the old while adding greatly needed improvements.
 

And while I was sifting through the archives, I saw many people of many cultures and abilities taking advantage of the People's University.
 


 

Sources:
The News-Tribune
- articles by Elizabeth D. Castner August 2 - 6, 1976
- articles by staff writers, August - December, 1973
 

The Architectural Record, April 1916, Serial No. 211
- "The Public Library At Waltham, Mass. And the Carter Memorial Hospital at Lancaster, Mass. Loring & Leland, Architects" by Martin Mower
 

Waltham Public Library Archives
- Library card expiration notice postcard dated November 1, 1932
- Staff manual c. 1976

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