Brooklyn Public Library


Dirt for Dirt's Sake: the trials of Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer"

Sep 22, 2014 5:18 PM | 0 comments

In observance of Banned Books Week, the Brooklyn Collection offers this tale taken straight from the institutional archives of Brooklyn Public Library.

On July 11, 1963 a stern memo was distributed to every library throughout the borough of Brooklyn:




The New York State Court of Appeals ruled on July 10, 1963 that TROPIC OF CANCER by Henry Miller is obscene under the New York State obscenity law.  The following action must be taken immediately:

  1. No copy is to be loaned to any branch or individual beginning immediately.
  2. No reserves can be taken on this title.
  3. Reserves which are being held by agencies for this title should be returned to the addressee through the mail with the following statement typed on the back of the postal "This reserve cannot be filled due to the decision of the New York State Court of Appeals - July 10, 1963"

After months of debate and controversy, the decision had come down from New York State's Court of Appeals: Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer was banned.  Judge John F. Scileppi called the book "dirt for dirt's sake", which is almost a compliment compared to the more strongly worded opinion from Pennsylvania judge Michael Musmanno, who in 1966 described Tropic of Cancer as, "not a book. It is a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity." 

For those who haven't read this oft-banned tome, it is a first-person account of a writer's life in Paris during the 1920s and 30s, with many frank descriptions of sexual exploits. It was because of these that the book was banned in the United States after its original publication in 1934.  It was nearly 30 years later that the book was finally published in the United States, at which point obscenity trials popped up all over the country to keep the controversial novel out of readers' hands.

As a result of the New York Court of Appeals decision on July 10, 1963, anyone distributing, selling or even -- and of particular concern to libraries -- loaning Henry Miller's risque novel would be in violation of the law.  Brooklyn Public Library took immediate action to be in compliance; all copies of the book in the system (approxmately 400 total) were sent to the office of the Assistant Chief Librarian, Margaret Freeman, and all catalog cards indexing the book were removed from files. 

Without a catalog card like the one above, users of the library would have no way of knowing the library had ever held copies of Tropic of Cancer, much less if any of them were available for reading.

Memos from branch librarians poured in from all over the borough as staff worked to track down every last copy.

Even before the ruling, the book's position on Brooklyn Public Library shelves was tenuously held (which is especially unfortunate when you consider that the author grew up in this borough, at 662 Driggs Avenue in Williamsburg).  The Philadelphia Free Library withdrew its copies from circulation in December of 1961 in reaction to maneuvers by that city's District Attorney to have circulation suspended.  Throughout 1962 complaints rolled in from patrons concerned about children finding (and being corrupted by) the book in their local branch library while a flurry of letters between Brooklyn Public Library's Chief Librarian, Francis R. St. John, and heads of other institutions throughout the country grappled with the question of how to restrict access to the book to mature readers.  A staff memo from March of that year outlined a policy whereby catalog cards and index listings of the book would be excised from the record, but adult patrons who specifically asked for the book could reserve it. 

Francis R. St. John and Margaret Freeman were asked to testify on the issue before the Kings County Grand Jury in January of 1962.  After grilling Freeman on the ins and outs of Brooklyn Public Library's collection policy, Assistant District Attorney Louis Ernst gave her a copy of the book and asked her to read aloud a passage from page five in mixed company.  Freeman demurred, with the caveat that there are many books she would not read in mixed company.  Other questions centered on whether or not the book had a plot (Freeman's answer: "No"), whether it was purchased because of the notoriety of the author (again, "No") and whether Freeman thought the book was obscene (a qualified "No"). 

Definitions of key terms, in Freeman's handwriting, presumably in preparation for her court appearance.

St. John was also invited to read the infamous passage from page five before the group.  When St. John replied that he didn't think that targeting discrete paragraphs was a fair way to judge the totality of a book, Ernst continued to page six and asked St. John to read from that page instead.  St. John stood his ground, and Ernst indicated that he'd go through the entire book if he had to, page by page, with St. John refusing at every turn to read aloud in polite company.  St. John coolly replied that he'd be happy to read the whole book to the Grand Jury, noting that it had taken him a full 3 hours to read it himself the night before, and that reading out loud was generally slower going than reading to oneself.  I can't help but feel a certain pride by association with St. John's maneuver; a true librarian, he was, in effect, threatening to bore the Grand Jury into submission with a marathon reading of a plotless novel.  The Grand Jury also requested a list of patrons who had borrowed the book, ostensibly so that they could be brought into court to testify.  The library resisted, citing the confidentiality of patron records, and no subpeoena was issued.

After the July 1963 ruling, once the book was pulled from shelves, indignant patrons and staff alike wrote to support their right to read what they chose.  The library was in a difficult position -- the book selection policy and mission of the institution explicity stated "It is the function of the public library in America today to provide the means through which all people may have free access to the thinking on all sides of all ideas."  To excise a book from the collection because some found its ideas challenging was against the core principles of the institution and its staff.  On the other hand, as a publicly funded entity, the library could not openly defy the law of the land.  After an uneasy year, the Supreme Court ruled in June of 1964 that Miller's book could not constitutionally be banned, decisively closing the issue and upholding American's right to read what they chose. 

Among the many opinions offered on the alleged obscenity of Miller's book and the public's right to read it, my favorite comes from Margaret Freeman, who typed this eloquent (and unfortunately undated) memo at some point during the uproar. 

Today, patrons can check out Tropic of Cancer from Brooklyn Public Library in three different languages (English, Russian, and Polish).  They can download it as an ebook and surreptitiously enjoy its lascivious passages among morning commuters on the subway or romping children in their local park.  The truly bold can hear every f-bomb and s-word in an audiobook version, voiced by actor Campbell Scott.  If you go that route, I recommend doing so in mixed company.

Williamsburg: Then & Now

Aug 27, 2014 7:06 PM | 0 comments

Our collection of photographs by Anders Goldfarb are some of the most contemporary images in our holdings aside from those taken by Jamel Shabazz. However, unlike Shabazz who captures the personalities of Brooklynites, Goldfarb mostly captures the personalities of the borough's dilapidated buildings. In a 2012 interview with Goldfarb, Peter Mattei asked: "What emotion do you feel when you see these buildings? What makes you want to photograph them?"

"It's a form of compassion I think I have for the building," Goldfarb replied, "because they're old and the old as a rule tend to perish and I feel bad for them ..."

Goldfarb's explanation certainly holds true for many an old building in New York City and debates abound on whether gentrification is driving or repulsing this movement in Brooklyn's own neighborhoods. In a city increasingly obsessed with brownstones and loft conversions, my own inclination is to err on the side of preservation: that caring for these buildings is making a comeback. Lucky for us, the Brooklyn Collection possesses some great evidence to inform both sides of the debate, so you can decide for yourself. Our collection of Goldfarb's offers a fascinating smattering of photos from pre-gentrified Williamsburg. Situating these alongside current Google images of the same addresses offers food for thought on both ends of the spectrum:

Driggs and N. 8th Street, 1998

Apparently not much has changed for this old building, including the curtains and blinds!


Driggs and N. 8th Street, September 2013


Bedford between N. 7th and N. 8th Streets, December 1997

Here the pizza restaurant remains while the liquor store has been replaced by a hat shop (established in 1895 evidently, but not at this location!).

Bedford between N. 7th and N. 8th Streets, September 2013

Intersection of Throop and Lorimer Streets Williamsburg, February 1999


Intersection of Throop and Lorimer Streets Williamsburg, September 2013


Bedford and N. 5th Street, January 1997


Bedford and N. 5th Street, September 2013


Berry Street between N. 7th and N. 8th Streets, January 1999


Berry Street between N. 7th and N. 8th Streets, September 2013


Intersection of Bedford Avenue and N. 9th Street, 1987


One of my favorite comparisons ... it seems to sum up the transition in Williamsburg between 1987 and today perfectly.

Intersection of Bedford Avenue and N. 9th Street, September 2013


As the following photos show, buildings are not the only New York City relics that have endured a bit of a makeover since the 1980s and 90s:

L Train Williamsburg, January 1988

Some for the better ...

All Aboard, March 8, 2009 A. Strakey

... and some debatably for the worse.

East Williamsburg, March 18, 1989

Anders Goldfarb


Bedford Avenue near N. 9th Street, May 1995

A Look at the Year Ahead: Brooklyn Connections

Aug 22, 2014 12:48 PM | 0 comments

We at Brooklyn Connections are gearing up for our 8th year reaching out to local schools, teaching research skills and learning about local history.  With an exciting two-year, $400,000 grant from the New York Life Foundation and additional generous funding from The Morris and Alma Schapiro Fund, David and Paula Weiner Memorial Grant, The Hearst Foundation, Inc., Tiger Baron Foundation, and Epstein Teicher Philanthropies, we can continue our efforts of teaching authentic historical research to students around Brooklyn!

Students at PS/ IS 163 learned about transit history.  They wrote and performed a play about their research findings!

Thanks to our generous funders, Brooklyn Connections will be able to expand in several important ways:

*Additional staffing will allow us to serve an impressive 32 partner schools.

*Connections educators will continue to write lessons and curricula that are Common Core and AASL aligned.

*Each partner school will receive a collection of Brooklyn history books, maps and other materials, ensuring that research can take place in the classroom.

*A pilot program for selected Brooklyn Public Library branches to introduce a mini-Brooklyn Collection.

*Targeted outreach campaign to reach underserved neighborhoods including Bedford-Stuyvesant/ Weeksville, Brownsville, Canarsie, Cypress Hills, East New York, and Spring Creek.

*Connections staff will organize two teacher open houses and several free teacher workshops that will focus on developing research skills in the classroom and local history.  These sessions will be open to all New York City educators.

Teachers touring the Brooklyn Collecton

*Presentations at local and national conferences including the National Council for History Education in March.

*We will work with Pratt University to provide professional development opportunities for MLS students.

*The completion of an 8-module social movements curriculum funded by the David and Paula Weiner Memorial Grant.

If you are a teacher, school administrator, parent or other education-minded Brooklynite who is interested in bringing Brooklyn Connections to a classroom near you, please check out our website.  We are currently accepting applications for partner schools for the 2014-2015 school year.

A Digest of a Different Sort

Aug 5, 2014 1:25 PM | 1 comment

Last week I was looking for a piece of ephemera for a project packet I was creating on Brownsville when I stumbled across something different: a digest, if you will. This digest then went on to change the entire course of my day. How did one small magazine change the entire course of my day, you ask? Well, I immediately stopped looking for information on Brownsville, that's how. I spent the rest of the afternoon reading about sports, history, restaurants, and women in "The Magazine For Brooklyn, About Brooklyn, In Brooklyn."

Brooklyn Digest Magazine was a small monthly magazine published out of the old Ridgewood Times Building on Cypress Avenue. Side note: The Ridgewood Times Building is quite different as well. Built in 1932, the newspaper castle (I mean, look at those merlons!) was taken over by a public school in the 1960s and is now condos and a Rent-A-Center. Such is the way of the world, eh? Oh, if you want to see the old Ridgewood Times, we can help you with that too. 


852 Cypress Avenue - Map Data: Google Maps, 2014

I am not sure when the magazine started and I don't actually know when it ended, either. I did try to cross-reference some of the information I found in The Digest with the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, but when I searched for 'different digest' all I found was this snide looking Cream of Rice child:

Brooklyn Daily Eagle. 14 Feb 1943. 

I'm sure with a bit more digging I'll be able to find more information as to The Digest's specifics. I'll keep you posted. 

I do know that the Brooklyn Collection has four issues in the ephemera files: July, September, November of '46 and January of '47. Each issue was ¢15 or you could pay $1.50 for a year's subscription.

As expected, the stories and articles inside revolved around Brooklyn. These little booklets had their work cut out for them, as Brooklyn was and is a pretty big borough. As you'll see, they did a decent job covering all of their bases: 

You've got your feature!

In November of 1946, Gene Tierney was hot. Brooklyn born with a "love for fresh paint and gasoline," she was all over the silver screen and Brooklyn couldn't have been prouder. Below is a photo of Gene from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle's portrait collection. She was a looker, no joke.  

Brooklyn Daily Eagle. "Gene Tierney." Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.

In January of 1947 the feature was funnyman Mickey Rooney (who was also adorable, am I right?).

You've got your sports!

Some of the sports columns detailed past games or future matches, while others were just lists of incredibly relevant and helpful facts. Apparently the average speed of a hockey puck is 88 miles per hour. Golly gee, thanks Different Digest!

You've got your history!

The Digest had stories about old Brooklyn and some old Brooklynites: Coney Island, the Battle of Brooklyn, Whitman, Gershwin. One of them, coincidently the one about Walt Whitman, was written by George Wakefield, the former head of General Reference at the Central Branch of BPL (hey, that's where I work!) and, at the time of writing (July of '46) he was the Branch Manager at the Bedford Branch.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle. "Bedford." 195-?. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.

George Wakefield is pictured here with his colleagues at the Bedford Branch. He is the gentleman in the back on the left. 

You've got your humor!

From a section entitled "In Brooklyn It Happened."

Wild Bill Ames, the mimic-king from Ridgewood, tells of the nun who found a hundred dollar bill on Central Avenue. Not wishing to keep the money, the sister approached an ill-shaven character leaning against a poolroom window, handed over the large bill and said, "God Speed!" The next day the ill-kempt man knocked at the convent door, and when the Mother Superior opened the door the individual gave her $800. While the mother looked at him in astonishment, the man ejaculated, "Give this to Sister Francis; tell her that 'God Speed' paid seven to one." 

You've also got some pretty fantastic cartoons scattered throughout. In light of all we know about the Gowanus, this one is pretty spot on. 

Now that's a merman any Brooklynite could love!

The editors of The Digest felt that Brooklyn had long been glossed over by travel guide writers. The September '46 issue contained a Brooklyn Pocket Guide:

(FYI - Baedeker is this guy.)

The Pocket Guide touched on a variety of topics including but not limited to:

"The Geography: Brooklyn is a territory bounded on the west by a huge body of water described as the East River and on the north by a place known as New York City." 

"The Topography: The region's terrain is moderately level excepting the Myrtle El and Ebbets Field. The site of Coney Island, however, is never on the level." 

"The Geology: The striking aspect of the territory of Brooklyn is the number of underground chambers known as subways, generally used to quarter drunks and other such nondescript characters as Giant's fans who've fallen asleep coming from the Dodger game." 

"The Language: Philologists maintain that the greater part of the population by and large speaks two languages - English and Doubletalk. A strange and somewhat fictitious dialect has emerged for which a Bronx publisher has printed a "Brooklyn-English; English-Brooklyn" dictionary."


And, finally, you've got your ladies!

Brooklynology has reported on many past beauty pageants: grandmas, babies, beer. Beauty was big in the 1940s and 1950s and, what with the wars and the sailors and the like, finding a pinup girl in the middle of The Different Digest didn't surprise me. As expected, these girls were quintessential Brooklyn and each one of them came equiped with her own "Zoot Suitor from Brooklyn". 

Miss January - February 1947

Miss November 1946

Miss July 1946

These sweet, silly little monthlies were clever and, I assume, well-liked by their readers. Aside from the aforementioned sections, there were also restaurant guides and reviews, short stories, poems, and editorials.

What would today's Brooklyn Digest Magazine look like? Inevitably we'd have new faces and new topics, but surely the spirit would be similar: a cheekiness, a boldness, and a wealth of artistic talent. 

I do know one thing for sure, there are still smoking longshore(mer)men in the Gowanus.

Don't believe me?

I'll bet you two wooden nickels and a bottle cap. 

The Quiet, Colorful Moments of Irving Herzberg

Jul 14, 2014 4:33 AM | 2 comments

Irving Herzberg (1915-1992) is perhaps best known for capturing personal, candid moments. The Brooklyn Collection houses Herzberg's life's work; over 2,300 images of day-to-day Brooklynites: a woman with her tired baby, a man looking at totem poles, and children stuffing their faces with cotton candy. The Brooklyn Collection also has some amazingly terrifying photos of the plane crash that shook up Park Slope in the winter of 1960 and a wealth of photos that he took of Brooklyn's traditionally closed Hasidic community. Herzberg spent 10 years, Sunday after Sunday, sitting and talking with leaders in the community developing a relationship that eventually granted him access that few photographers have been given. You can view more photos from Hasidic Brooklyn here and here.

His images are chiefly black and white, sometimes quiet, and often personal, yet much of his work has a humor and lightness as well. It would be hard to take photos of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club without having a sense of humor.

Yet, to me, Herzberg's most personal work was never framed for exhibitions at galleries or museums. His most personal work sits in a tiny archival box in the 'map room' next to my desk. It is one thing to take the photo, another to be the subject. Along with the photos from the Hasidic community, the plethora of shots from Coney Island and the subways, the Brooklyn Collection has over 200 small color Kodachrome slides taken in the early 1950s. They are personal photos from vacations and holidays; his own quiet moments.

It was so enjoyable going through each of the small slides, each one taking me back to a time when each photo was precious. You couldn't delete the ones that were blurry or crop out the man unabashedly photo-bombing your beach day family portrait. You had 36 photos and you had to make them count. What's more, you couldn't document every moment of Thanksgiving or Instagram the turkey on your plate. You took one. That one photo encompassed all the memories from that one day.

Below are a smattering of Herzberg's images from that tiny box, all of them taken with a photographer's keen eye for composition and color.

For some of the photos, the aim of the photo was clearly art.

A longtime Coney Island resident, others showcase the diversity of Herzberg's favorite subject: Brooklyn.

- These ladies are lunching, for real -

- These kids are lunching, for real, too -

Many of the images are from a trip to the beach. With few exceptions, none of the slides have any acknowledgement as to their subject or the date. A few have 1954 written on them, others 1952. This beach adventure happened sometime in the early 1950s. The coloring on the Kodachrome slides is fantastic, something that many an iPhone app has attempted to emulate. There is nothing quite like the real thing, though.

- Herzberg's wife and son - 

The box contains so many memories. All of them are lost on me, as I wasn't there, but by using my imagination and my own sense of nostalgia, I can almost picture the corresponding memories. Below are photos of Herzberg's family: his son, daughter, and wife.

- This is one of my favorites -

We all have a family photo where no one is doing what they were supposed to do. Dad is looking down, mom has her eyes closed, Grandpa fell asleep, etc. The Herzberg family has one too. These photos are always the most honest, as how often are families truly quiet and still, smiling and facing forward? The posed photos, of course, get the frame; the others get deleted or stuck in a box under the bed. We're pulled to remember the good things, the smiling, happy, posed things.

But who is to say that a photo of sleeping grandpa isn't a good thing? That distracted dad isn't something to be remembered? The photo below is another one of my personal favorites.

Finally, these gems. Herzberg took two photos in this same spot, one with his color Kodachrome film, and another with his standard camera. Yes, he is in a lawn ornament display.

 - A selfie, pre-selfie -

As always, Mr. Herzberg, thanks for sharing.