British Columbia

UBC prof helps create an online database of banned books

A life-size replica of the Athenian Parthenon made of “banned books” stands as a towering art installation in Kassel, Germany. And now a UBC Prof. has helped create Die Kasseler Liste — an online searchable database of the world's banned books.

Harry Potter has made it into the searchable list of censored books across the world

The Parthenon of banned books installation in Kassel, Germany, extends into the online world with a searchable database of 125,000 books. (Heinz Bunse)

A life-size replica of the Athenian Parthenon made of "banned books" stands as a towering art installation in Kassel, Germany. The Parthenon of Book resides in the same spot where Nazi-sympathizers burned 2,000 prohibited books in 1933. 

Now, with the help of a UBC professor, the project has resulted in Die Kasseler Liste — an online searchable database of books that have been, or currently are, banned or censored somewhere in the world.

Florian Gassner, senior instructor of German and Central, Eastern and Northern European Studies at UBC, first joined the project to provide his academic support. 

"We recruited a team of a dozen students and spent the next six months accompanying the construction of the Parthenon," said Gassner in a conversation with CBC On The Coast's Jason D'Souza. 

Tip of the iceberg

While the installation houses 70,000 books, the online database has so far logged 125,000 titles that bear the infamy of being censored or banned. 

But according to Gassner, this is only the tip of the iceberg.

"We are tapping into available resources where countries or communities have reached a point where they talk openly about censorship," explained Gassner. 

"But if you go into countries where, to this day, there are limits on the freedom of expression, probably just the act of compiling a list of censored books would again bring the censors to the fore." 

Harry Potter, censored

Gassner and his team's search into the trove of banned books sometimes contained surprises. Fairy tales of The Brothers Grimm, which gave the world Hansel and Gretel and titles such as Harry Potter have made it onto the list of banned books. 

Parents in the U.S. forced school libraries to take Harry Potter out of circulation, said Gassner. (CBC)

Gassner had to explore the complexities of what is and what is not considered censorship, even with something as innocuous as Harry Potter. 

"Parents in the United States forced school libraries to take that book [Harry Potter] out of circulation because they didn't want to have their children exposed to it," said Gassner. 

"So, the question here is: is that censorship, or is this parents exercising their rights to determine what their children are exposed to?"

Challenges of verification

The process of verifying whether a particular book was banned, or simply ran out of circulation, proved to be a challenge for the team. 

"We often imagine there's a dark room with a couple of people in there. Everybody's smoking cigars and they're drawing up a list," said Gassner. 
But it's usually more complicated, as Gassner explained how censorship played out in former East Germany.

"They officially did not censor any books. They just manufactured situations where the printers ran out of paper or libraries suddenly stopped stocking it," said Gassner.

So when somebody contributed to the Parthenon with an explanation of why they thought the book was censored, Gassner's team had to track that down. 

"Often, it took several days to verify a single item," said Gassner. 

The Die Kasseler Liste is open to contributions from the public.