Preserving Our Free-thought Heritage Redux

Timothy Binga

The CFI Libraries Keep Growing

When I began working at the Center for Inquiry Libraries back in 1996, I was not completely sure what freethought was. I had a few notions, but I had never read a formal definition. I discovered a possible reason that I didn’t know much about freethought in an article that Gordon Stein, former library director here for the Center, wrote for the Spring 1994 Free InquIry entitled “Preserving Our Freethought Heritage.” His thesis was that freethought material was becoming more scarce because libraries were not inclined to save it: free-thought is a controversial movement, and many libraries do not collect controversial material, even in this day and age. Stein also mentioned that religious relatives of freethought book collectors often destroy the materials. I, too, have witnessed this firsthand. He observed that freethought materials were also becoming more and more scarce in the used book-stores he frequented.

Stein noted that even among libraries that did save freethought materials, none were doing so in an organized fashion. The two collections mentioned in his article, aside from the Library of Congress (which acts as a copyright depository and not in a collection development framework) were the University of Wisconsin collection of British freethought materials and the Irving Levy collection at the New York Public Library. Both these collections were very specific in scope, with Wisconsin collecting British free-thought material and the Levy collection consisting of several hundred bound freethought pamphlets.

Several freethought collections have developed since Stein’s article. Emmett Fields has begun his Bank of Wisdom Project, which places freethought materials on CD-ROMs and makes some rare materials available electronically. He has five CDs out already, and these include “The Works of Robert Ingersoll”; “An Introduction to Freethought,” which contains over twenty-five rare freethought works by various authors; a CD that contains a biography and the works of Thomas Paine; “Facts about Freethought,” which contains nine more books about freethought; and a CD about the Bible and freethought.

These CD-ROMs are in Adobe Acrobat format (PDF) as actual scans of the pages, which makes it a little more difficult to conduct a search for a particular passage or quote than straight electronic text. This drawback is small compared to the monumental advance that Fields is making in preserving these rare works.

The Labadie Collection at the Harlen Hatcher Library at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) also contains freethought materials. The primary focus of this collection is now called “Social Protest” materials. The collection is heavy on anarchist literature, but also includes labor history, socialism, and other areas “to the extreme Left and extreme Right.” There are some freethought materials here, but not a large amount and mostly as it applies to the subject strengths of the collection.

The Internet Infidels ( also are preserving freethought by having e-texts of various historical as well as modern freethought works on their Web site. There are other collections worldwide that include freethought, such as the South Place Ethical Society collection, located in Conway Hall, London; the American Atheist collection in New Jersey; and other various private collections. Observers say the Conway Hall collection includes about ten thousand items, many of which are not catalogued in a meaningful way. This is being rectified, from what I have been told, but it is a slow process.

Since we acquired Gordon Stein’s personal collection (which numbered over eight thousand books, about one-quarter of which are catalogued to date) on his death in 1995, we have done considerable work to make the resources of the CFI Libraries available to serious researchers. We have recatalogued the existing collection of materials (which numbered about 14,000 in 1995) to bring the bibliographic information up to current international library standards. We also sharpened the focus of each separate collection, removing ancillary items and placing them into a general collection. The library stacks area is filled to capacity, and we are now working on an expansion project to add space for up to fourteen thousand volumes of books. A new Archives Room is being planned as well, but the space may be completely filled by the time we have completed the project. Also, we are working on collecting materials for CFI–West and CFI–Metro New York and are in the beginning stages of planning for the collection at the newest Center, CFI–Florida.

Our biggest achievement to date is the creation of our Web site, Making the Libraries’ catalogue available via this Web site is a major milestone. The catalogue can be searched by any Internet-connected computer and is updated on a daily basis.

Another important aspect of the CFI Libraries is that we are cataloguing materials that are not available anywhere else in the world. Normally, we use a bibliographic utility called OCLC, which allows us to get bibliographic records from other libraries throughout the world from a shared database. However, since many of our items are so unique, they have never been catalogued before, and we must catalogue these items completely ourselves. When getting records from OCLC, cataloguing usually takes about five minutes from start to finish. When creating records from scratch, some books can take as long as an hour to catalogue, and then need to be entered into our catalogue electronically, or into OCLC and then downloaded here. Because we are the only libraries cataloguing these items with any regularity, we are considered experts and have occasionally been contacted by other libraries for advice.

Another area of concern in saving freethought materials is conservation and preservation. Older, disintegrating mate-rials must be repaired, or the medium must be changed to save intellectual information. Again, Emmett Fields is doing this work with his Bank of Wisdom project. But he cannot do it alone. There may be materials he does not have or that cannot be scanned into computers. A long-term goal would be to convert the materials that cannot be repaired into digital records or to microfilm them if they cannot be scanned. But we must do this systematically, and we need to look at what materials there are and prioritize the books, taking the materials in the most danger of being lost and converting them first. We cannot do this without the knowledge of what free-thought materials are still left. Also, there is great expense in scanning or microfilming the materials.

Our plans at the Libraries are to get at least 95 percent of the books catalogued, get the periodicals into our system, and begin classifying archival materials. After this is completed, we will start looking at digitizing the materials. As books need repairs we will make them. If we cannot, we will look at other means to save the information, whether it be photocopying for eventual scanning or microfilming.

Looking Ahead

The Center for Inquiry Libraries are filling up quickly. As stated earlier, we are ready to expand, and we are still accepting materials, whether books, periodicals, or papers. We are also looking for microfilm and microfiche. We also encourage financial donations to help offset the expenses of cataloguing materials.

We also encourage any local groups and organizations that are part of the freethought movement, whether they are atheist, rationalist, agnostic, or secular humanist groups, to consider sending us a complete set of their newsletters. We have been adding to our newsletter collection over the years from the groups associated with the Council for Secular Humanism, but we are keeping a history of the whole movement and would like to preserve the materials of those groups not associated directly with the Council. Another reason to consider sending us your newsletters is that it is always a good idea to have off-site storage in case anything happens where the newsletters are stored now. We can help preserve your history as well as ours by having a set here.

One final method to help preserve freethought materials is to have a will that indicates what you want done with your belongings after you pass away. As stated earlier in this article, many freethought items are lost because, once a freethinker dies, religious relatives may destroy the works because they do not agree with their content. Also, let the place where you want the materials to be sent know ahead of time that this is your wish. If you leave a will designating the CFI Libraries or some other facility to preserve the items, you will be helping future generations learn about the free-thought movement.

As you can see, we are making progress here at the Center for Inquiry Libraries. The Internet Infidels and Emmett Fields are also preserving materials for future generations. In time, let’s hope that we will not have to worry about the preservation of freethought materials because they will have become so very common.

Timothy Binga is director of Information Technologies and director of the Center for Inquiry Libraries in Amherst, New York. You can reach him by e-mail at

Timothy Binga

Timothy Binga is the director of the Center for Inquiry Libraries, which contain one of the largest collections of Little Blue Books in the world, and various other publications and artifacts from the Hal Verb Collection. Cataloging and arranging of these materials is under way, and plans include placing this collection within CFI’s new Rare Book Room.

The CFI Libraries Keep Growing When I began working at the Center for Inquiry Libraries back in 1996, I was not completely sure what freethought was. I had a few notions, but I had never read a formal definition. I discovered a possible reason that I didn’t know much about freethought in an article that …

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