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Do we need warning labels for lies in the libraries?

By Linda Gorman
web posted April 22, 2002

Arming AmericaIn September 2000, publishing house Alfred A. Knopf handed professional librarians a knotty problem. It published Arming America, a book in which Emory University professor Michael Bellesiles outlined research supposedly showing that guns were rare in America from the Colonial period to the Civil War. The book was awarded Columbia University's Bancroft Prize in history in April 2001, and immediately appeared in library collections around the country.

As it turns out, Arming America is a lie. Many of the records cited by Bellesiles do not exist. He misrepresented the content of those that do exist and routinely distorted quotations taken from other historical sources. Bellesiles has also been unable to explain why probate inventories done by other researchers, notably Gloria Main of the University of Colorado, and James Lindgren of Northwestern, reach the opposite conclusion.

Had Arming America been true, it would have radically altered current understanding of the Second Amendment and strengthened the case for gun control laws. Legal debates over the proper interpretation of "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed," focus on the definition of Militia and what the Founding Fathers considered "arms." Gun control activists have been put on the defensive by a growing body of scholarly literature showing that the 18th century Militia more or less included "the people at large" and that those who wrote the Constitution clearly understood arms to mean firearms. Bellesiles "proved" the opposite, which may explain why the book received such lavish praise.

More guns, less crimeThanks to the politicization of swaths of American scholarship, readers searching for truth on today's library shelves will likely find them mined with deliberate falsehoods. The Colorado Alliance of Research Libraries' Prospector database, which includes holdings in Denver Public Library and the Jefferson County systems, shows Arming America on the shelves of 11 member libraries. Only nine have John R. Lott's 1998 More Guns, Less Crime. As widely reviewed as Arming America, it argues that individual gun ownership deters crime. Though Lott has been personally vilified for the conclusions reached in his book, his scholarly conduct is not at issue. Regis University finally did buy the 2000 edition of Lott's book, but as of March 2002, nothing by John R. Lott is even listed in the web version of the University of Northern Colorado's library catalog.

In the past, professional librarians in charge of non-fiction collections used by the general public aimed to build and maintain authoritative, wide-ranging, non-fiction collections. Prior to the collapse of scholarship, and possibly as late as the 1960s, this was a relatively straightforward task. Truth was a generally accepted absolute worth searching for, scholars were fairly scrupulous, and scholarly associations placed more importance on the search for truth than they did on supporting any particular party line. Publishers concerned with maintaining a reputation for quality output also monitored the quality of information presented in their books.

Should professional librarians be concerned with the veracity of the books on their non-fiction shelves? Suppose Arming America is the book a student chooses for a high school history class book report. Does it matter that his intellectual development may be shaped by a deliberate lie? Known hoaxes include Bellesile's Arming America, Forrest Carter's The Education of Little Tree, Mike Davis' City of Quartz, Alfred C. Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, Rigoberta Menchú's I, Rigoberta Menchú, Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa, Alex Haley's Roots, and Binjamin Wilkomirski's Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood.

The Education of Little Tree, billed as an autobiographical account of growing up with Cherokee grandparents in the 1930s, is in fact an exercise in creative writing by Asa Carter, a speechwriter for George Wallace. City of Quartz details how Los Angeles power elites zoned the minority poor out of the city. Unfortunately, as Kenneth Lee, writing in the May/June 1999 The American Enterprise makes clear, much of what author Mike Davis put in the book simply isn't true. Rigoberta Menchú made up great chunks of her life story, including her brother's death and her childhood poverty. Kinsey faked data about sexual behavior, Margaret Mead was hoaxed by teenagers, Alex Haley compiled Roots from other sources, and Binjamin Wilkomirski was never in a concentration camp.

Librarians aren't the only ones who need to keep a sharp eye out for frauds. In Autumn 2001 and Summer 2000, The Education of Little Tree was required reading for courses at Regis and CSU in teacher training and landscape analysis. City of Quartz was required in a Fall 2000 course at CU on the American West. It was a secondary reference for students in an advanced American History course at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs in Spring of 2001.

Dr. Linda Gorman is the Director of the Independence Institute's Health Care Policy Center and a longstanding Senior Fellow with the Independence Institute. Reprinted with the permission of the Independence Institute.

Buy John R. Lott's More Guns, Less Crime at Amazon.com for only $9.60 (20% off)

Other related articles: (open in a new window)

  • A lack of reverence for truth by Charles Bloomer (January 21, 2002)
    Charles Bloomer says that contemporary liberals have little use for the truth. The cases of Michael Bellesiles and planted lynx fur are ample proof of that
  • A historian's shot in the dark by Dr. Michael R. Bowen (November 12, 2001)
    Dr. Michael R. Bowen has little time for Michael A. Bellesilses and his book Arming America which purports to destroy the commonly held belief that America has always been an armed nation
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