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Censorship of Library Materials

Historically, public libraries have faced ongoing issues of censorship and  challenges to library materials, however during the past 2 years, the number of incidents in North America has increased expediently. In 2021, the American Library Association reported that 1,597 formal challenges or removals of books took place, most of whom were written by or about Black or LGBTQIA+ people and targeted teenage audiences. And it goes further than that. In Llano Texas, for example, books including Maurice Sendak’s “In The Night Kitchen” were removed  from public library shelves and the head of the town’s governing body, Ron Cunningham, questioned whether the town should even have libraries. One state legislator has proposed a law charging librarians who purchase such materials with criminal sanctions.

Many American institutions and individuals are fighting back. The Brooklyn Public Library has just counteracted the bans on certain books by inviting anyone in the U.S., aged 13 to 21 years, to apply for a digital  library card. This gives teens and young adults, regardless of their location in the U.S., access to the library’s entire ebook collection, including these banned items. Called “Books Unbanned”, this initiative confronts “an increasingly coordinated and effective effort to remove books tackling a wide range of topics from library shelves”.

Oh well, we say: This is Canada, we are different (meaning ‘better’) than the U.S., we are less rabidly political, less divided, less angry, more open to social change, less racist and so on. Or we may think: this kind of action happens more in school libraries. Public libraries face less scrutiny. Won’t happen here.

Don’t bet on it. This April, the Durham District School Board (Ontario) pulled The Great Bear by Cree author David A. Robinson, who incidentally has won  2 Governor General Awards, from school library shelves. This decision was a response to concerns raised by Indigenous families in the district.  Sadly, I think the Board and senior HR staff thought they were doing the  right thing to avoid Indigenous children being triggered by the book.

Because of the swift reaction to the news, the school board is reviewing the decision but the issue is still in limbo there.

The Director of the Haliburton Public Library recently removed Mein Kampf from the open shelves to keep it in his office—because of a challenge to the book. He seemed to think that was a reasonable compromise. Is it?

This might be a good time to look at your library’s policies and procedures to see if they need updating or improving. If you refer to national organizations’ statements re freedom to read or intellectual freedom, remember the Canadian Library Association no longer exists. The Canadian Federation of Library Associations has position papers and briefs on Intellectual Freedom. The B.C. Library Association’s Statement   of Intellectual Freedom is also important. There are others I have missed.

Issues are much more nuanced these days—with challenges coming from surprising sources. We need to talk about this stuff and to look at  what we do when the local paper’s headline reads: “Pornography in our library” combined with a letter or interview with an outraged local  resident. Oddly enough, rather than fear these controversies, they can be great opportunities for us to declare our values and responsibilities.

And finally, librarians and library staff sometimes quietly censor materials that might cause problems. We need to talk about that. Board members need to be part of this conversation, understand the issues, know the policies and be prepared to withstand the pressures and indignation from those who would ban books. It’s not always easy.

(From the archives: written May 2022 by your Boundary representative, Mary )