Word Warrior

Alvin M. Schrader in Conversation with Julie Payne

IN 2015, ALVIN M. SCHRADER marked the fortieth anniversary of the year that he embarked on his career as a librarian and educator. During those four decades, he has been a passionate advocate for the role of the library as a vehicle for free expression, an outspoken critic of Internet filtering and an ardent spokesperson for the inclusion of LGBTQ materials in library collections.

Schrader is the co-author of Challenging Silence, Challenging Censorship: Inclusive Resources, Strategies and Policy Directives for Addressing Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Trans-Identified and Two-Spirited Realities in School and Public Libraries and author of Fear of Words: Censorship and the Public Libraries of Canada. Currently the chair of the Canadian Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Advisory Committee, Schrader has also been the organization’s president and has represented Canada at international free expression initiatives.

In September 2015, Julie Payne talked with this year’s champion of free expression.

Q: Can you tell us about where you were born and raised?

A: I was born in Bentley, Alberta, and grew up on a farm until grade 8. The nearby village must have been only 300 to 400 people, but I thought they were so slick and sophisticated. It was a happy childhood, though farm life tends to be a little lonely. I was the oldest of three boys and was working—driving the tractor—by age five.

Q: Why did you want to be a librarian?

A: After university, and after five years of managing office
space for the Ontario Government, I landed on librarianship as a career, for one wrong reason and a couple of right reasons. I wanted to get away from bureaucracy (wrong), have more of an intellectual life (right) and help people (right).

Q: What would you like Canadians to understand better about the role of the librarian?

A: The role of the librarian in finding information for people. Librarians are the experts and they spend their days searching for reliable information for people. Today, everyone thinks they are an expert searcher. But there is a broadening awareness of libraries as places of community connections.

It is puzzling and frustrating to me, but frequently encountered, that few people identify libraries as free expression vehicles, indeed, as even remotely connected to free expression. Certainly not to human rights. But this is our own failure, unfortunately. We do not make much effort to make the connection clear between free expression and the central role of libraries in creating access to the world’s cultural expression. There is a deep disjunction among libraries and free expression, human rights and democracy. It should be part of our “brand” but something’s missing.

Q: How are libraries adapting to the digital age?

A: I was surprised at the speed in which librarians embraced it, especially considering that in its early days it was very clunky technology.

Q: You were the president of the Canadian Library Association (CLA) and the Library Association of Alberta. What did that work involve?

A: At the CLA it was a steep learning curve. I was president from 2007 to 2008. There were a number of issues: policy-level changes at the federal government and changing funding support; the library book rate (the special library rate for shipping of books between libraries) under siege; and the struggles to maintain a national association surfacing and intensifying.

Q: Out of all your work on free expression, where do you think you’ve made the most impact?

A: Hard to say. I hope I had an impact on more than one generation of librarians in their formative years of education as professionals. My book Fear of Words is still referred to today. I’ve been an advocate. I’ve been an outspoken critic of Internet filtering software programs and their exaggerated claims about protecting children.

One of my proudest achievements: we have a revised intellectual freedom statement for the CLA. The last time it was reviewed was in 1985. With a large amount of input, our Intellectual Freedom Advisory Committee has spent the last year reviewing and redrafting it. It was unanimously approved by the Executive Council in September 2015. The statement looks extremely different from the 1985 version and strongly references the Canadian Charter.

Q: Can you tell me about your work on Fear of Words?

A: The book was based on research from the late ’80s, so a pre-electronic era. It’s the only national survey of the extent to which public libraries were subjected to pressure to censor or restrict access. The CLA does an annual national voluntary survey, which was started by Dr. Toni Samek and which I still work on with Donna Bowman. It is not nearly as comprehensive, though it does give us a bit of a barometer.

Lightning Round: Alvin M. Schrader

  1. Favourite word: “Compassion”
  2. Least favourite word: “War”
  3. A word you hope people would use to describe you: “Honest”
  4. A sound you love: “Water falling”
  5. A sound you hate: “Motorcycles”
  6. What profession other than yours would you like to attempt: “Lawyer”
  7. What profession would you not like to do: “Police officer”
  8. What famous person from history would you invite to dinner: “John Milton”
  9. Favourite place on earth: “Honolulu”
  10. Favourite banned book: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Q: You are known for your work on Internet filtering, which is something that most people don’t know much about. What should Canadians know about Internet filtering?

A: In the same year, 1997, the CLA and the American Library Association adopted policy statements on Internet filtering.
I drafted the one for CLA and it is overdue for another review. A lot has changed.

What the Internet filtering software programs claim to do is protect children from offensive images/websites/information. And it’s all automated. But this is an impossible task, to control human language at that micro level. Filters will always block some constitutionally protected speech. For instance, certain filters for sexually explicit information will block “breast chicken” or “breast cancer” or any word with “sex” embedded within.

One of the most amusing examples was the story of U.S. politician Dick Armey, who was a great supporter of filtering. Then he found out that his own website was being blocked.
Many of these Internet filtering companies are started by conservative people, some with religious ties. They embed American ideologies and values, so sex is a huge no-no, violence not so much. You don’t even know what categories they are blocking. For example, most of them have a category to block affirmative LGBTQ information. Some of them have 20 or 40 categories that they block, and it’s very hard to find what categories some are blocking or what words they are using, because they consider those to be corporate secrets.

But they do not relieve educators or parents of supervision, particularly of younger children.

Q: You have said, “I was born a criminal, and remained a criminal for 25 years.” Can you tell me about that?

A: “Queers” were considered to be a prime national security risk. The state and all of its institutions had declared their hatred of me and made my very existence a crime against so-called nature. [I had] 36 more years of this outlaw existence before I was judged fit for full secular equality, full citizenship in Canada. I refer to two pieces of legislation: Bill C-150 in 1969, which amended the Criminal Code and decriminalized homosexuality, and then the Civil Marriage Act in 2005, which gave same-sex couples equal access to marriage.

Q: You’ve written about including LGBTQ resources in collections. Have there been improvements over the years?

A: Librarians reflected prevailing ideologies of the day and did not collect materials in these areas. Now they are getting much, much better. The Toronto Public Library is a world leader in this area. And there are some very courageous small libraries that support LGBTQ services and collections across Canada.

Q: What books are on your bedside table?

A: I read children’s and young-adult books that are challenged, so for many years my reading lists have been made up of those titles. I just finished a wonderful memoir by Arsham Parsi, Exiled for Love: The Journey of an Iranian Queer Activist. I’m also reading Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian, which is outstanding.

Q: Any last thoughts?

A: I want to acknowledge the support of my life partner of 23 years, Tony Thai, who has inspired me to sustain my advocacy for free expression, both by his encouragement of me and by his always present example as a boat-person refugee from Vietnam who has lived and escaped the terror of repression and lawlessness.

Alvin’s Accolades

1997: Award for the Advancement of Intellectual Freedom in Canada, presented by the Canadian Library Association (CLA)

1998–2004: Canadian representative to the Freedom of Access to Information and Freedom of Expression Committee (FAIFE), created by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA)

1999–2000: Member of the American Library Association’s (ALA)
first Core Values Task Force at the invitation of the ALA president

2001–02: Chair and member of the Internet Manifesto Work Team (IFLA)

2009–present: Convenor of the CLA’s Intellectual Freedom Advisory Committee

Since 2009: Professor emeritus, University of Alberta

2013–present: Adjunct professor in the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services, University of Alberta
Author of Fear of Words (1995) and Challenging Silence,
Challenging Censorship (2007)

Reprinted from Freedom to Read 2016.