Did you know that through the mid-twentieth century, Australia had one of the highest rates of censorship of any country in the English-speaking world? While it’s difficult to be absolute in such comparisons, Professor Nicole Moore (UNSW) lays out a compelling case in her book, The Censor’s Library: Uncovering the Lost History of Australia’s Banned Books, including examples of books Australia banned that even the hard-line regimes of the Catholic Republic of Ireland and Apartheid South Africa let through.
Until the 1960s and early 1970s, up to 90% of Australia’s reading was imported, Prof Moore says. This includes works by many Australian writers who were first published by British publishers. The amalgamation of an import culture, isolation and powerful Customs laws left over from Federation made it easier for Australia to maintain strict censorship.
‘The great majority of Australian censorship occurred through the Department of Customs,’ Prof Moore explains, ‘which under its legislation still has control of all imports. Customs had expansive control over what we could read – and by far the great majority of banned publications, again 90-95%, offended on the grounds of obscenity. The representation of sex outside marriage, mention of birth control, mention of toilets or personal hygiene, swearing, inter-racial sex, juvenile sexuality, and especially any and all representations of homosexuality or non-heteronormative identities and practices – these were some of the red flag issues that would see the clerks on the “dirty books detail” swing into action.’
Prof Moore has spent her academic career bringing to light hidden parts of Australian literary history from her work on censorship to her current work on the licensed ‘warts and all’ biography of Dorothy Hewett. It should come as no surprise, then, that when she was offered the role of Associate Dean for Special Collections at UNSW Canberra, she jumped at the opportunity.
One of Prof Moore’s favourite pieces in the Special Collections is the notebook Dame Mary Gilmore used when she served on Australia’s film censorship board through the late 1920s and early 1930s—recording Dame Gilmore’s concern at a tendency to show romantic leads kissing.
As part of the collection of papers from the provocative, charismatic writer Frank Hardy, UNSW Special Collections holds his writing chair, another of Moore’s favourite pieces in the Collection. ‘It’s a cracked vinyl swivel chair held together with tape. A hugely evocative object, testifying to many years of hard graft.’
If you haven’t heard of the UNSW Special Collections at ADFA, their holdings include unique manuscript materials and rare books in Australian literature, theatre and film – this is one of the best collections of contemporary Australian literary manuscripts in the world - as well as military history. You can explore them here, and if you’re a researcher or student in Australian literature or defence studies, you can make an appointment with their archivists to visit the next time you’re in Canberra. The archivists on staff will also digitise suitable materials for those unable to visit in person.