Many readers and contributors of the Hack Library School blog are passionate about librarianship and committed to providing enriching and rewarding experiences to their patrons. Those of us in the library and archives professions may feel proud for how we go above and beyond the usual service to help people fulfill their information needs. But, really, how far would you go?
Would you go to jail? Jiří Gruntorád, director of the Libri Prohibiti in Prague, was imprisoned for four years for his involvement with banned books. Listening to his lecture I was inspired and awed by how many people risked their freedom and even their lives to write, publish, copy, and distribute books, magazines, and journals under a regime that viewed these acts as traitorous to the Communist cause.
I was at the Libri Prohibiti, or the Library of Banned Books, as part of the Prague Summer Seminar offered by the University of North Carolina along with the Charles University of Prague. The seminar offered lectures and tours in library and archival topics as well as other places of interest in Prague and the Czech Republic. While I enjoyed every lecture and place we visited, the Libri Prohibiti was an unexpected treasure. Libri Prohibiti has an amazing collection of samizdat and exile literature that were banned under Czechoslovakia’s Communist regime.
Between 1948 and 1989, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia) was under Communist rule and was part of the Eastern Bloc countries in the Soviet sphere of influence. Following fledgling reforms and loosening of restrictions known as the Prague Spring in 1968, the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact nations invaded and occupied Prague to crush reforms. Among the harsh measures enacted were censorship and the blacklisting of writers deemed hostile to the regime. From 1968 to 1989, when the Velvet Revolution ended Communist rule, the creation, possession, and dissemination of banned materials were crimes.
Mr. Gruntorád told us how writers circumvented this censorship by publishing their works through unconventional means. These works are called samizdat, a term for self-published. Samizdat came in many forms. One common method was to type the work on a typewriter with up to 15 carbon papers to make copies. The thin sheets were then bound into books. Other methods included photocopying (often done surreptitiously at work) and the use of screen printing for graphics. Samizdat came in many genres and forms- literary fiction, children’s books, comics, periodicals and journals, and travel guides. Samizdat also included foreign authors prohibited by the Communist regimes. The smuggled works would be copied and passed around to trusted friends.
Other exile literature was published by western sources with the goal of being smuggled back behind the Iron Curtain. Many of the works created specifically to be smuggled into Czechoslovakia were pocket-sized and easier to hide.
Samizdat were created across the Iron Curtain nations and the Libri Prohibiti’s collection of over 40,000 works includes books and periodicals from East Germany, Poland, and Russia. Mr. Gruntorád passed around books and magazines of various genres and types and allowed us to hold and examine these pieces of samizdat and exile literature. It was hard to believe that thirty years ago we would’ve have been risking arrest and prison for the simple act of holding these samizdat in our hands.
While the harsh censorship of books and periodicals during this part of the Czech Republic’s history seems unimaginable in the United States (and hard to fully comprehend even while surrounded by such books), attempts to ban and repress books occur every day across the country. The Libri Prohibiti is a testament to the power of the written word and the bravery and resilience of those who subverted a regime’s efforts to keep that power from its people.
All photos were taken by the author.