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A New Zealand library’s refusal over the summer to carry Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls has received renewed attention, earning a signal boost from Neil Gaiman and a stern denial from the National Library of New Zealand that it had anything to do with the move.
The story illustrates the strange and unenviable predicament of libraries in countries with censorship laws: If they submit the material for government review in hopes it will be cleared, they risk triggering a ban; however, if they don’t submit a potentially objectionable book, they risk later being found in violation of the law.
Here’s what happened in New Zealand: Over the summer, cartoonist Dylan Horrocks reported he had asked his local library in Auckland to purchase a copy of Lost Girls. The library refused, and he posted its response on his Facebook page:
Thank you for your suggestion to purchase ‘Lost Girls’ by Alan Moore. Due to the depictions contained within this graphic novel we have been advised by the Office of Film and Literature Classification that we may be at risk of prosecution if we made the book available to customers. As a result Auckland Libraries will not be purchasing copies of this title.
As it turns out, Stuff.co.nz reported this week, the library had purchased a copy in 2008, at a patron’s request, but removed it from shelves after concerns were raised about the content.
As Casey Gilly explained in a post on the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund website, New Zealand has a censorship law that restricts publication of certain types of material “likely to be harmful to society if made freely available.” The law explicitly states:
Publications that promote or support, or tend to promote or support certain activities, such as the sexual exploitation of children, must be banned.
Because Lost Girls depicts the youthful sexual exploits of three characters from children’s literature — Wendy from Peter Pan, Alice from Alice in Wonderland and Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz — the library felt it would be subject to such a ban.
The library could submit the book for review to the Office of Film and Literature Classification, but as regional resource manager Louise LaHatte explained, if it did so and the book was ordered banned, the library could be viewed as complicit in censorship—or even prosecuted for distributing banned material.
The story bubbled up again with the Stuff article, which was picked up by numerous newspapers and websites, and then received additional attention on Twitter from Horrocks and Gaiman, who has almost 2 million followers. In that article, LaHatte again raises the concern that if the censorship board did find the book objectionable, that would mean the library had broken the law.
While that’s legitimate, given the subject matter of the book, it’s worth remembering that in 2006, publisher Top Shelf presented Lost Girls to the Canadian Border Service Agency, which is notorious for confiscating comics as innocent as Sailor Moon at the border. However, in this case, customs cleared the graphic novel for import, saying the sexual depictions were “integral to (the) development of an intricate, imaginative, and artfully rendered storyline.”
The Stuff article initially stated incorrectly that Lost Girls was pulled by the New Zealand National Library, which issued a rather testy denial:
In fact, as National Library never owned a copy of the work, it was never in the National Library Catalogue.
National Library was not involved in any decision to remove the work from any other catalogue.
National Library does not restrict access to its holdings except under law. Where publications are classified National Library records the classifications and stores material in such a way that it can meet the requirements of the law.
National Library was not approached by the Sunday Star-Times or by Stuff before the story was published.
(via The Comics Reporter)