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Rare book libraries helped Natalie Zemon Davis overcome oppression

Natalie Zemon Davis; drawing by David Levine

Natalie Zemon Davis; drawing by David Levine

Earlier this summer, The New York Review of Books featured a post on their blog by historian Natalie Zemon Davis entitled “How the FBI Turned Me On to Rare Books.” In the story, Zemon Davis shares her experience with challenging the constitutionality of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the early 1950’s and the consequences she faced due to her activism.

Zemon Davis had researched for and helped write a pamphlet entitled Operation Mind, encouraging protests of the committee’s planned hearings in Michigan. Her involvement and that of her husband, the treasurer of the campus organization that paid for the pamphlet’s printing, resulted in seizure of their passports by the FBI. This was an especially devastating event for Zemon Davis, as she had been working on her PhD thesis on the Protestant Reformation which required additional research at archives in France.

But she didn’t let it hold her down.

As Zemon Davis bravely declares, “The FBI could keep me from France, but not from the New York Public Library or the Folger or the other great rare book collections in the United States.” She used these collections to complete her research and even after receiving her passport back in 1960, continues to incorporate materials from U.S. rare book libraries in her research to this day.

Check out Zemon Davis’s full story here: How the FBI Turned Me On to Rare Books.

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