Blasphemous, indecent or obscene

Media release: Wednesday, 23 January 2013

A collection of banned books has come out of the vault at the National Archives of Australia to provide visitors with a glimpse into the minds of mid-twentieth century censors.

Now on show at the National Archives in Canberra, the café display Banned reveals how much Australian society has changed in the past 60 years, with modern readers sometimes at a loss to understand why certain books were ever locked away from view.

Popular and pulp fiction with lurid covers and titles such as Road Floozie, Hotel Wife and Crimes of Passion were often seized by Customs officers without a second glance. But books that today are loved as literary classics, by writers such as Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, D.H. Lawrence and Honoré de Balzac were also deemed as unsuitable for Australian minds from the 1930s to the 1970s – because they were considered blasphemous, indecent or obscene.

National Archives curator Tracey Clarke says it remains a mystery why some bans were imposed.

'For example Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell, was banned before the Literature Censorship Board came into existence,' she said. 'When it came to the notice of the board in 1953 they were puzzled as to the reason and lifted the ban immediately.'

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger was banned by the Minister for Customs in 1957, without being referred to the Literature Censorship Board.

'It caused national embarrassment when a copy was found in the Parliamentary Library and it was discovered that the United States ambassador had presented copies of the book to foreign countries as an example of his country's fine literature,' said Tracey Clarke.

It was only after this embarrassment that the censorship system underwent a big overhaul, with the banned list being reviewed and, for the first time, made public. Before this, even booksellers weren't privy to the list and often ordered books that were popular overseas, only to have them seized by customs officers on their arrival.

For conservation reasons, the original books are not on display in the brightly-lit café area, but National Archives staff have scoured bookshops, raided garage sales and trawled through ebay to find copies for visitors to flick through and read the once banned publications. They've also provided copies of censorship documents which provide an insight into why some were deemed unsuitable.

The display Banned will be on show throughout 2013. A blog links readers to digitised documents held in the National Archives collection at: http://blog.naa.gov.au/banned/2012/12/05/welcome/

Contact information

  • Elizabeth Masters (Media Officer)
    t (02) 6212 3957 m 0417 247 157 e elizabeth.masters@naa.gov.au
  • Shaun Rohrlach (Director, Communications and Programs)
    t (02) 6212 3990 m 0434 664 621 e shaun.rohrlach@naa.gov.au
Copyright National Archives of Australia 2014