Librarians fight battle for intellectual freedom

Virginia McCreedy (left). digital and information services coordinator and Lynne Russell, director, of the Port Moody Public Library with some of the books Canadians have wanted banned from their public libraries. The display is for Freedom to Read week. - DIANE STRANDBERG/THE TRI-CITY NEWS
Virginia McCreedy (left). digital and information services coordinator and Lynne Russell, director, of the Port Moody Public Library with some of the books Canadians have wanted banned from their public libraries. The display is for Freedom to Read week.

Two gay dads.

A school for wizards.

A claymation man and his dog.

These are among the topics that have prompted challenges by patrons of materials in their local libraries.

And that’s why public libraries, seen as calm refuges from our media-saturated, crazy-busy lives, are on the front lines of the battle for intellectual freedom — people’s freedom to choose a book, magazine, DVD or other material.

Although they draw the line at materials that violate the Canadian Criminal Code, librarians in Port Moody, Coquitlam and Port Coquitlam are staunch defenders of freedom of expression in Canada.

And next week they will be letting people know where they stand during Freedom to Read Week, Feb. 23 to March 1.

“It’s a major push everywhere for libraries,” acknowledged Lynne Russell, library director at Port Moody Public Library. “Intellectual freedom is our core value, it is something that all libraries are passionate about.”

Although the internet tends to grab headlines for offending the bounds of good taste, libraries have their challenges, too, and it’s surprising the subject matter and sheer number of books, DVDs and magazines that people don’t want on the shelves.

In 2012, for example, there were 73 challenges at Canadian public libraries, over half over DVDs.

Banned Books

The Canadian Library Association tracks challenges to public libraries and publishes lists of books and other materials that individuals or groups would like to see banned. The debate is often muted, however, hidden behind closed doors because challengers don’t want controversy.

The lists show everything from J.K. Rowling’s popular Harry Potter novels to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale have been challenged in Canada for being offensive. But these books stay on the shelves even if the stories they tell are disturbing.

Todd Gnissios, executive director of Coquitlam Public Library, says it’s common for materials at his library to be challenged. The collection is large and diverse, reflecting the city’s growing, changing population. Many non-English titles are available, as well, and it’s this diversity as well as the library’s effort to offer wide-ranging viewpoints on various topics that results in some people being offended.

“One of the critical things that we ask is, ‘Have you read it? Have you watched it.’ And it’s quite surprising how often they say, ‘No.’”

All the Tri-City libraries, including Coquitlam’s, must adhere to policies and criteria when acquiring new books or materials for their collection. Books are chosen to reflect the city’s demographics and offer varying points of view or contain subject matter that may be offensive to some while being interesting to someone else.

If patrons don’t like what they see, they can put their concerns in writing. But those can often be resolved in a conversation.

“At the information desk, that’s where we get a lot of questions,” said PMPL’s Russell, who said an understanding is usually reached once the challenger realizes they are asking the library to trample on Canadian values of intellectual freedom and freedom of expression.

For example, the library didn’t back down when someone took exception to The Georgia Straight alternative newspaper being on the shelves because children could get access to it. PMPL stood firm, saying parents are responsible for their children and their choice of reading material — it says so right on the library card.


Russell said a popular Wallace and Gromit DVD — about an animated inventor and his pooch — was recently challenged at PMPL because of ideas and images that might be scary to a young child. The parent was encouraged to do the research themselves on materials they sign out before they show them to their kids.

But a questionable book may be moved if it’s deemed inappropriate following a thorough review, although sometimes, society’s values change to accommodate topics that were once taboo.

That was the case with the children’s book Daddy’s Roommate, about gay marriage. Although popular, it was once challenged at PMPL. Now, many children’s books are on the shelves portraying different types of families.

“Once you start to discriminate for content, it’s very hard to draw the line,” explained Russell.

Still, defending intellectual freedom and freedom of expression can sometimes put libraries in an awkward situation. Patrons’ tax dollars pay for collections and they have a right to complain. But librarians argue backsliding is dangerous and future generations will repeat mistakes of the past if they don’t have access to difficult material, such as fiction that contains racism or history books and political treatises that don’t challenge common assumptions.

Coquitlam’s Gnissios said when someone challenged a non-fiction book on this history of torture on the basis of violent images, the book was reviewed by staff but stayed on the shelves. In another instance, a book written in Farsi was kept despite concerns about its portrayal of Arabic women.

And while the internet is taking most of the flack for being offensive these days, libraries remain in the forefront of protecting these important freedoms as they attempt to balance freedom of opinion and expression with public sensibilities.

It’s a role Tri-City librarians take seriously, said Gnissios.

“If my library can’t offend you, we’re not doing our job.. How do we grow unless you see something your are challenged by?”

• Read what local libraries are up to in Books Plus, a regular column in the Tri-City News.

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