The Ascendant Influence of Critical Theory at the CFLA-FCAB National Forum

November 2023

On May 17, 2023, the Canadian Federation of Library Associations-Fédération canadienne des associations de bibliothèques held its National Forum as part of the all-virtual Manitoba Libraries Conference. This was only the second such event after the first Forum in Regina in 2018, as plans for a biannual Forum were derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Billed as “a half day of discovery and discourse to inform national policies and practices regarding the current moral panic facing libraries”, this year’s event focussed on intellectual freedom challenges to library content and programs, in particular materials and programs related to LGBTQ+ themes. (Full disclosure: I was Ontario representative on the CFLA board 2018-2022 and was Chair in 2021-2022). 

The keynote speaker was Dr. Lucy Santos Green, Director of the School of Library and Information Science at the University of Iowa. In her engaging talk, she presented her view of the current information ecosystem as one where the barriers to participation, expression, and engagement have never been so low; where user-friendly online tools, ephemeral ownership, and AI have opened the field of information to many contributors. She suggested that in this context, librarians are now playing the role of “information mentor”, helping users find the tools they need to access and express their stories in this new “participatory culture”.

This led to the crux of her argument, which is that in this new reality, certain vaguely-defined interests are threatened with a loss of power and this has led to the “moral panic” in the program description. Her analysis of the concept of moral panic was systematic and historical. She talked about how all moral panics start with a minor concern about a social trend, but blow it up into hostility towards a particular marginalized group, leading to disproportionate attempts to regain control (such as book bans). So far, so good, but the conclusions she then drew veered sharply into critical social justice theory and away from intellectual freedom values.

In any moral panic, she argued, there is always a “folk devil” seen as worthy of blame for the situation, and in this case, librarians themselves are in that role, because they have “woken up” to the realization that they are not and cannot be neutral, that they need to disrupt the oppressive structure of the “well-behaved white ladies” that dominate the profession.  Simply because they have welcomed certain groups (such as the LGBTQ+ community) into the new participatory culture, they are now demonized as “groomers” and “pedophiles” by what she called “patriarchal” elements, from conservative parents to populist politicians. In short, she declared, no one wants to actually call for LGBTQ+ people to be erased; instead they simply transpose their hatred to the proximate cause, the librarians. 

To her credit, Dr. Santos Green did admit that moral panics are not the purview of only one political view, and provided many historical examples from various parts of the spectrum, such as “parental advisory” music labelling spearheaded by Tipper Gore, the wife of US Democratic Vice-President Al Gore. She also insightfully identified the fallacy of “age-appropriateness” as used as a weapon by the book-banners—that it often refers to adults’ comfort with a topic rather than a child’s readiness to engage with it. 

But when the ensuing discussion directly addressed intellectual freedom in libraries, her argument deepened its slide into anti-humanist and anti-Enlightenment rhetoric. In response to a question (from a friendly host) about the balance between intellectual freedom and the rights of library employees to be free of oppression, Santos Green opined that intellectual freedom and neutrality should not be conflated, that if an employee’s humanity is being dismissed by a library resource, they cannot stand by and be neutral. In other words, their right to be “safe” trumps the right to information access and expression.

In reference to controversial room rentals, she went on to express concern for the position of certain library staff forced to work at an event at which their existence is being denied, seeming to suggest that the renters (which she called “capitalists”) be charged for the staff time in order to dissuade them from renting and even suggesting that rooms be booked in blocks to prevent certain rentals (“they can’t rent a room that’s not available, can they?”). More broadly, she was very clear that library leaders—white library leaders, in particular—need to be held accountable for their racial and other microagressions and be made aware of their position of power and privilege.  Santos Green excused her generalizations by saying that the profession is manifestly largely white and female; at one point she seemed to suggest that any men in the mix were there because they were simply handed jobs due to their gender. 

The Forum was, according to the description, “designed to blend an informative session with roundtable conversations that will result in the development of a CFLA-FCAB Task Force and key actions for the CFLA-FCAB member organizations”. However, in the last hour, the hosts announced that instead of initiating breakout rooms for smaller conversations, they would engage in further discussion with the speaker with input from participants in the Zoom chat.  Without the opportunity for open discussion or alternative viewpoints, the program was too one-way to be characterized as a true policy forum. Whether or not it will lead to follow-up action for CFLA, it would seem that the Forum was designed to privilege a burgeoning view of intellectual freedom as being of value only for accepted “progressive” viewpoints, a view that has become more influential as the makeup of CFLA’s board evolves. 

But if the Forum program did not make that explicit, the intentions behind it may have been betrayed by the conference closing keynote two days later. Billed as a conversation exploring “different perspectives on the concept of Intellectual Freedom within the librarianship discipline” between library scholar (and Forum planner) Sam Popowich and Manitoba Library Association president Melanie Sucha, the conversation was uncritical, almost fawning, and heavily weighted towards only Popowich’s perspective, a self-described Marxist theory under which intellectual freedom is replaced by “intellectual responsibility”, where equity and inclusion are dominant. Responding to a question about how to deal with conservative-minded library employees, Popowich, admitting that he was coming across as authoritarian, asserted that libraries are duty bound to keep to their commitments as “progressive institutions”.  He even criticized Dr. Santos Green for not specifically naming the interests she claims are losing power—calling that a “neoliberal” move. In short, the conversation reinforced the notion, now ascendant in the profession, that intellectual freedom is valued only for some political viewpoints and not others.

Let me be clear: the “moral panic” described by Dr. Santos Green is a significant concern and threat to libraries. While certainly controversial, books like Maya Kobabe’s Genderqueer: a memoir do not constitute Criminal Code obscenity or child pornography and librarians should not be subject to harassment or violence for such choices. But our defense of these choices needs to be grounded not in progressive activism but in viewpoint agnosticism. We select a wide variety of materials that respond to community needs, user demand, and in this case, current social trends. And in return, we ask that no individual or group, progressive or conservative, be able to limit what others can access. This is the only way to avoid being caught in our own hypocrisy trap if the next book-banning push is against conservative-minded materials. Remember, it’s a fight for our fundamental freedom to read, not a fight against the patriarchy, or capitalism, or “well-behaved white ladies”. Let’s keep the cultural Marxism and the woke racism out of it.

This article was originally published in the Heterodoxy in the Stacks Substack and is reprinted here with permission of the author.