White House library’s ‘socialist’ books were Jackie Kennedy’s


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When conservative Rob Port took a tour of the White House this week, he was scandalized by the books he found on shelves in the White House library. ‘Photo Evidence: Michelle Obama Keeps Socialist Books in the White House Library,’ he blogged. He took a photo of the books in question, which includes ‘The American Socialist Movement 1897-1912’ by Ira Kipnis (1952) and ‘The Social Basis of American Communism’ by Nathan Glazer (1961).

Well, it was a first lady who put those books there, the Washington Post reports, but it wasn’t Michelle Obama. It was Jacqueline Kennedy, who was known for the care and attention she gave to outfitting the White House; she hired Yale’s librarian to stock it for her.


The books Port photographed have been sitting in the library since 1963. The library came into being during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. In 1961, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy asked Yale University librarian James T. Babb to oversee a committee that would select books for the library. In 1963, 1,780 were placed on the shelves.

The Washington Post went to a document from the White House Historical Assn., ‘The White House Library: A Short Title List,’ in which Babb wrote:

It is intended to contain books which best represent the history and culture of the United States, works most essential for an understanding of our national experience. The collection has to be strictly limited because the attractive library on the ground floor of the White House has shelf space for only twenty-five hundred volumes. Authors, with few exceptions, are citizens of the United States; fiction and poetry by deceased writers only have been included.

At this writing, there are more than 200 comments on the blog, which include a fair share of side discussion on George Bush’s Harvard MBA and the location of Barack Obama’s birth. But few were on point: One posted a link to a photo of books in the White House Library during the Bush administration, which included ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X.’ Another wrote, ‘These are history books, not how-to books.’

Which is the point that’s being missed: owning a book means an intellectual curiosity, not blind allegiance to what’s inside it. We have a history of reading to understand and learn. The American Library Assn. has a seven-point statement on the Freedom to Read, which begins:

The freedom to read is essential to our democracy. It is continuously under attack. Private groups and public authorities in various parts of the country are working to remove or limit access to reading materials, to censor content in schools, to label ‘controversial’ views, to distribute lists of ‘objectionable’ books or authors, and to purge libraries. These actions apparently rise from a view that our national tradition of free expression is no longer valid; that censorship and suppression are needed to counter threats to safety or national security, as well as to avoid the subversion of politics and the corruption of morals. We, as individuals devoted to reading and as librarians and publishers responsible for disseminating ideas, wish to assert the public interest in the preservation of the freedom to read.


That was originally written not in response to this latest to-do, but in 1953, in the heat of the McCarthy Era. Which is long over, right?

-- Carolyn Kellogg