There was quite a bit of pearl-clutching recently when it was announced that the Peel District School Board (PDSB) had begun to weed its libraries by removing all books published before 2008. Like a good garden, libraries do need the occasional weeding. The question is, of course, what’s a weed?
Recent news of challenges to books in school and public libraries remind us that book challenges are not uncommon in Canada and, in most cases, are dealt with by the library staff. When the public does hear about a book challenge in a school library learning commons, it is usually where the school policies were not followed and the decision to remove the challenged item was carried out by school officials working outside the bounds of the book-challenge procedures.
Freedom of Expression is an important foundation of a democratic society and protected as a “fundamental freedom” in Section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Yet, in both countries, free expression is being used paradoxically to justify censorship. A disturbing recent example is the enactment of Texas House Bill 3979: “An Act relating to the social studies curriculum in public schools.”
When there is a news report about books being challenged in a school library learning commons, it is often because the item was removed at the direction of the school or district administration following a parent complaint about a specific book and that the proper ‘Request for Reconsideration’ process was not followed.
I want to first address the fundamental role and value of the public library in Canadian communities – its “value proposition,” grounded in intellectual freedom – and then make a case for intellectual freedom as the institutional soul of the public library. I will review the complexity of intellectual freedom as a boundary and balancing issue and comment on hate speech as a particularly contentious example, concluding with a call for the public library to brand itself as an intellectual freedom champion. (i)
In 2019, we seem to have crossed a professional threshold where discourse is still possible and ongoing but, like many other instances in our everyday lives, it is becoming politicized and polarized around rigid presumptions of someone’s opinion being right and the opposing viewpoint being wrong. There is no place for a middle ground discussion.