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Archives showcasing once-banned books

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Exhibition curator, Tracey Clarke, takes a look at 'The Housekeeper's Daughter', at the new exhibition, 'Banned' at the National Archives cafe.

Exhibition curator, Tracey Clarke, takes a look at 'The Housekeeper's Daughter', at the new exhibition, 'Banned' at the National Archives cafe. Photo: Rohan Thomson

The cafe at the National Archives of Australia has been taken over by the harlots and floozies of pulp fiction but also the lasting characters of literary classics once deemed unfit for public consumption.

A collection of once-banned books - at the time seized by customs after their owners furtively or innocently tried to bring them into Australia - has been brought out of the vault at the Archives to reveal the mores of society at the time. Or at least those of the censors and ministers who deemed what Australians could or couldn't read from the 1930s to the 1970s.

The exhibition Banned shows examples of titles that were considered blasphemous, indecent or obscene during much of the 20th century. Visitors can also read the original musings of the Literary Censorship Board as its members debated the merits of questionable publications.

One of the books on display at the National Archives of Australia in the new exhibition Banned.

One of the books on display at the National Archives of Australia in the new exhibition Banned. Photo: Supplied

On the banned list are classics such as Lolita, Lady Chatterley's Lover and The Catcher in Rye but also the racy titles of pulp fiction such as Road Floozie, My Gun is Quick and The Villain and the Virgin.

Archives curator Tracey Clarke said the Commonwealth Customs Department, which prohibited the importation of the banned books, kept a reference library of the outlawed titles, which conservatively numbered 15,000 books, magazines and comics. The list ranged from the Kama Sutra to The Wonderful World of Barry McKenzie.

The system changed in the early 1970s when publications were no longer banned but in some cases restricted, an example being sealed adult magazines.

The Archives keeps the banned books in its collection but for conservation reasons cannot display the original publications in the brightly lit cafe. Staff instead trawled bookshops, garage sales and websites to present examples of the outlawed books.

Ms Clarke said the Literary Censorship Board was established in the 1930s to provide advice on what books should be banned but often the customs minister at the time ignored the advice and banned a book in any case.

An example was the American classic Peyton Place by Grace Metalious, about the salacious goings-on of small-town in New England. The board debated its merit with one member determining that it was ''unfortunate that Mrs Metalious is so flustered with sex for she often writes well, though the style has a lush over-ripeness'' while another thought the sex, violence and ''bestial behaviour'' took ''their place in the story with complete naturalness and verisimilitude''. The board advised in 1957 that Peyton Place be released in Australia but the minister banned the book and it was not released until 1971.

The system was overhauled after the customs minister at the time banned literary icon The Catcher in the Rye in 1957 without reference to the board, only for a copy to be found later in the Parliamentary Library.

The United States ambassador had also presented books to foreign countries ''as an example of his country's fine literature''. ''It was quite a national embarrassment for Australia,'' Ms Clarke said.

* Banned will be on display at the National Archives throughout this year.

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