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Cambridge University Library says it is not actually ‘blacklisting’ problematic texts

The library’s decolonising drive has sparked controversy, but the media has been too hasty to paint it as a censorship initiative


Cambridge University Library is being accused by media outlets of blacklisting books deemed harmful or offensive, as part of a decolonisation initiative.

An article published in The Sunday Telegraph reported that academics at Cambridge are being asked to identify works that librarians can label “problematic”.

Concerns have been sparked for how this could threaten academic freedom, but new information suggests these fears have been misplaced.

While the labelling of problematic texts has been painted as a kind of “blacklist”, a university source has told The Tab: “the memo actually related to work on how the library service makes clear to readers why it is important it collects material that some might deem offensive.” The aim of the drive is therefore not to censor, but to clarify which texts are studied in spite of problematic sentiments the University might not hold itself.”

Image credit: Esther Knowles

A communication, published in The Sunday Telegraph, shows the University Library informing the colleges: “We would like to hear from colleagues across Cambridge about any books you have had flagged to you as problematic (for any reason, not just in connection with decolonisation issues), so that we can compile a list of examples on the Cambridge Librarians intranet and think the problem through in more detail on the basis of that list.”

The University Library, which holds approximately nine million books and prides itself on keeping a large proportion of its material as open access, has faced complaints of censorship as a result of this published excerpt. One critic has referred to the decolonising drive as “sinister”, but the rumoured intention to “blacklist” books, which has sparked these criticisms, has been denied by the Library itself.

A Cambridge University Library spokesperson has said: “Cambridge University Libraries do not censor, blacklist or remove content unless the content is illegal under UK law. We engage in dialogue with colleagues to help us continue to have open and honest discussions with readers about what we collect and why.”

Image credit: Iris Tromans

The Cambridge University Libraries Decolonisation Working Group, which has been in operation since September 2020, works not only to “commission specific decolonisation projects and activities” but “to provide more strategic direction for decolonisation work within library/archive collections.” The call for academics to flag problematic works is its latest attempt at ‘strategic direction’, but this should not be confused with “blacklisting”, an accusation the University Library fervently denies.

For more information on how Cambridge University Library is working to decolonise its collections, see its website.