Questions or Conformity? Reading Rights for the Right to Learn

April 2023

The Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS) sponsored a panel discussion on the topic of intellectual freedom and libraries in the Canadian context. The panel discussion took place in person at the Beeton Hall Events Centre at the Toronto Reference Library in Ontario and the recording can be found on the SAFS YouTube page.

The panel discussion was arranged in order to explore known concerns around intellectual freedom in Canadian libraries and to seek public input on what concerns there are for or against maintaining the strong support for intellectual freedom in libraries that is currently the purported practice for any library that endorses the Canadian Federation of Library Associations (CFLA) Statement on Intellectual Freedom and Libraries. Endorsing this statement means that libraries commit to upholding intellectual freedom and this will be reflected in their collections and in the use of their spaces.

The panel consisted of academic librarians Robert Thomas (University of Regina) and Joanna Szurmak (University of Toronto Mississauga), Todd Kyle (CEO of Brampton Public Library) and me, Amy Girard, a library worker from the Lower Mainland area of British Columbia. Journalist Anthony Furey was the moderator.

Intellectual freedom has traditionally been championed by libraries in North America since the McCarthy era and yet, in Canada, there has been an increase in library workers advocating to restrict intellectual freedom, which is of concern considering the rise in requests for restriction of intellectual freedom by the public. If library workers and the public are both actively asking for restrictions to the right to access information in our institutions (public libraries, school libraries and academic libraries) then it is necessary to mobilize people to advocate for intellectual freedom and educate about why it is necessary in a strong democracy. Without a public debate we may find that we lose a key pillar in a democratic society: the library. Why would a diverse set of citizens continue to pay taxes to fund libraries if they no longer see themselves reflected in the library and cannot access what information they want at the library? What use is a school library if it cannot meet the demand of its students for the books they are interested in and provide the material teachers need to educate their students? How can academic libraries survive if they no longer contain material that is relevant, broad, and thorough? Narrowing the informational role libraries play will narrow the utility of libraries and then we may see funding dry up and libraries ceasing to exist.

The panel discussion highlighted current movements by library workers to restrict intellectual freedom, including active censorship evidenced by a letter written by library workers across Canada to the CFLA, admonishing the CFLA for statements the organization made in support of keeping challenged books on the library shelves and allowing challenged speakers to rent public library spaces. Further evidence can be seen in the CFLA’s 2021 intellectual freedom challenges survey which set a record for the most intellectual freedom challenges initiated by library workers in the history of the survey. Additionally, the panel showed how silent censorship (reminiscent of “The Fiske Report”) is still occurring in today’s libraries despite the known issue of the too common tendency of library workers to use their roles to censor books (and speakers).

Regarding public censorship of material and speakers in libraries, the discussion touched on the necessary topic of Drag Storytime events sponsored and hosted by public libraries and the protests that are occurring at these events. Considering that the top two most challenged books in the CFLA 2021 Intellectual Freedom Challenges Survey were Irreversible Damage by Abigail Shrier and Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, one might conclude that this conflict was foreshadowed by the survey. Irreversible Damage could easily be the most cited book by activists for transgender inclusion as one that should not be on library shelves (although it would be hard to know this as typically those activists refuse to name either the book or the author when discussing it - engaging in the cancellation they desire via leading by example). Gender Queer could easily be the most cited book by activists for child protection as one that should not be on library shelves (in this case the activists not only name the book and the author but also can be found displaying pictures from it).

These efforts by parties at polar ends of the ideological spectrum to cancel books and speakers capture the politicization of libraries that the panel discussed. Both parties are using libraries as their platform for censorship, and it has become a public opinion battle. Given that libraries are overtly political in their choice of what programs they sponsor, what books they feature, and what displays they set up, one could say that libraries have invited this culture war into their institution.

If people who would ask the library to promote their own values and beliefs had been told right away that the library was supportive of the diversity of values and views that the entire public holds and would not take a side, it is quite possible that they would have turned and left. Everyone knows that a key way to prevent a fight is to not engage. So, what responsibility will libraries take regarding the outcome of taking a political stance? Will they acknowledge their role in providing a fertile ground for these culture battles? Will they learn that a key way to diffuse the situation and let children and adults enjoy the books, programs and materials they want at the library, without walking through protestors or enacting overtly zealous bylaws, is to take the stance of intellectual freedom for everyone?

The absurdity of the fact that the opposing sides label themselves as fighters for “transgender inclusion” versus fighters for “child protection” should be the tip off that something has gone amiss in the stacks at the library. Surely, these are not mutually exclusive stances. Perhaps if the libraries had embraced a diversity of ideas and opinions in their collections, programs, and speakers, the public would have had a chance to engage in the discussion more fully and come to a more informed conclusion and nuanced understanding of how to support the wide diversity of people in our communities. As Megan Lonsinger wrote for Heterodox: The Blog, “To support academic freedom is to support the full, equitable participation of all students in conversation, collaboration, and — yes — disagreement with one another and their instructors. The principles of academic freedom must be defended not irrespective of the diversity of identities or ideologies on campus but because of this diversity.” This easily translates to intellectual freedom. There is a diversity of opinion in all cultural and ethnic groups. None are a monolith. We can only support the entire community by allowing everyone to access their Canadian Charter-protected rights of conscience and religion; of thought, belief, opinion, and expression; of peaceful assembly, and of association. If we do not support the entire community, then there will be a divide and this divide appears to be becoming a chasm. Democracy is about setting policies that enable us all to live together. It is crucial that libraries again claim their place in our Canadian democracy as institutions which support all citizens and provide a place to come together.

I encourage the readers to write their library boards and express their desire for a commitment to intellectual freedom. We can no longer assume that this value will continue to be supported by our libraries. Libraries need to hear that their patrons value intellectual freedom and they cannot know this unless people speak up. The voices for censorship are loud and centered in our news cycles. These are not the voices of the majority. The majority is known to be central in their politics, but as we all know, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.