In late July, Cambridge University Press settled a U.K. libel suit brought against it by Saudi businessman, Sheikh Khalid Bin Mahfouz. Bin Mahfouz had disputed statements in Cambridge's 2006 book, Alms for Jihad: Charity and Terrorism in the Islamic World, by J. Millard Burr and Robert O. Collins, that he had been involved in financing terrorist groups. A press release by Bin Mahfouz's lawyers at Kendall Freeman announced that, in addition to publishing a comprehensive apology, paying substantial damages, and pulping unsold copies of the book, "Cambridge University Press is taking the almost unprecedented step of . writing to over 200 libraries worldwide which carry the book telling them of the settlement and asking them to withdraw the book from their shelves."
Two weeks later, Cambridge Intellectual Property Director Kevin Taylor followed through with a letter to libraries known to hold the book, asking them to remove it. Cambridge, apparently recognizing that librarians would almost certainly not comply, included an errata sheet with the letter. If libraries would not remove the book, Cambridge insisted that they insert the errata page. Alms for Jihad quickly disappeared from U.S. bookstores and online suppliers. What about the shelves of U.S. libraries?
Cambridge guessed right-librarians did not remove the book. To the contrary, they seem to have gone out and bought up the last elusive copies. More copies of Alms for Jihad were on library shelves in mid-September than before Taylor sent his August 15 letter. U.S. holding libraries range from Harvard and Yale to Dearborn's Henry Ford Community College.
The American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom issued a statement encouraging librarians to stand firm. "Libraries," ALA noted, "are considered to hold title to the individual copy or copies, and it is the library's property to do with it as it pleases. Given the intense interest in the book, and the desire of readers to learn about the controversy first hand, we recommend that U.S. libraries keep the book available for their users."
A quick poll of library directors at Michigan academic libraries brought similar responses: We paid for the book, we own it, we're going to keep it. "The book itself," one director noted, "has now become part of the conversation." A commentary had become an artifact. These librarians were affirming the profession's commitment to preserving and disseminating the "Great Conversation" of recorded knowledge. Academic libraries don't adjudicate debates, but on their shelves preserve and foster them....
Librarians have been taking steps to protect this suddenly rare book. Charles Hamaker, Associate University Librarian at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, reports that "my library, like many academic libraries, has placed Alms for Jihad in a reserve collection to keep it available for current and future users." The University of Michigan recalled its two circulating copies and put both on reserve-housed, as an added precaution, in separate locations. A search of their online catalogs reveals that Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, as well as the University of California-San Diego, have also placed their copies on reserve. Ohio State and Cornell put Alms for Jihad in non-circulating rare book collections. Prudent moves: the $30 book now has a market value of more than $500.
Jonathan Rodgers, head of the University Michigan's Near East collections, reports that the message traffic among Middle East Librarians Association members has been uniformly supportive of protecting copies and resisting any request to return the book. Riedlmayer of Harvard and others believe it would be reasonable to insert the errata page. But the consensus view among U.S. librarians is to resist any request to remove Alms for Jihad from library shelves.
No librarians interviewed objected to Cambridge University's settling the lawsuit. Some accepted the firm's explanation that the book contained erroneous statements which defamed Bin Mahfouz. Most understood Cambridge's reluctance to spend money on a suit it was likely to lose. Cambridge, too, recently announced plans to expand sales in the Gulf region and perhaps feared that any defense of the book would alienate potential customers.
But librarians do object to the terms of the settlement. Cambridge University Press is the self-described "oldest printer and publisher in the world." Yet this distinguished firm agreed to a virtually unprecedented insult to free inquiry: a request to academic libraries to be complicit in the suppression of a published work. Some wondered if Cambridge's request might portend more aggressive attempts at redress in future cases. In previous suits no settlement had included an attempt to suppress library copies. Some also worried about the potential chilling effect of these cases on lesser publishers who may become reluctant to accept manuscripts on terrorism issues.
While questions are regularly raised about books in school or public libraries, challenges to books in academic collections are rare. A request to remove a book initiated by its publisher is virtually unheard of. ....
If the Cambridge edition of Alms for Jihad has now become rare, its contents will not be so for long. Authors Burr and Collins have re-secured their copyright to the manuscript, and several U.S. publishers are interested. Soon an even wider circle of readers will have the opportunity to evaluate the authors' arguments for themselves-without having to travel to New Zealand.
Published on Political Correctness Watch, Oct 10, 2007