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Public Libraries Rise to Meet 21st-Century Challenges

by Vickery Bowles

This article was adapted from a speech that Vickery Bowles gave at Glad Day Bookshop in Toronto on February 27, 2019, during Freedom to Read Week.

To the Members of the Toronto Public Library Board: In our annual report of a year ago we presented a statement of our faith in the public library as the pivot of democracy. That faith remains. It can be restated by saying that if a community is permitted to think (and democracy rests its case on this) it must have books; and books mean libraries; and libraries, for most of us, mean public libraries. We still believe with full sincerity that the job of book provision for the fundamental purpose of making it possible for ourselves to think, to think with intellectual honesty, to think with informed minds, remains the primary job of public libraries—even in war time. Without this the rest becomes futility.

—Charles R. Sanderson, Reading in Toronto 1942: Being the Fifty-ninth Annual Report of the Toronto Public Library Board for the Year 1942

In the midst of a world war being fought to protect democratic freedoms, Chief Librarian Charles Sanderson wrote about the enduring role of public libraries as the pivot of democracy. In 1942, making books freely available supported intellectual freedom. So much has changed between then and now. In the fast-paced world of the 21st century, intellectual freedom becomes even more complex. While books are still essential, the Internet offers a wealth of information, the media deliver news as it happens, publishers and producers of content proliferate, and algorithms segment and filter people’s online experiences. And with this complexity, more challenges to our democratic values appear throughout the world.

Sanderson speaks to the important role of public libraries in making it possible for us to think with intellectual honesty and informed minds, even in wartime. In the digital age, public libraries have core capabilities and responsibilities to respond to intellectual freedom challenges.

Stadsbiblioteket, Stockholm, Sweden (photo by Susan Yin, Unsplash)

Public libraries are well positioned to provide leadership in their communities and beyond because they help democratize the modern world, support literacy and a literate population, and offer free and open access to diverse information and ideas. To walk into a public space—to freely attend a program, use a computer, use the study and lounge space, borrow a book or conduct research on any topic with the support of professional staff—is one of the most significant acts of intellectual freedom imaginable.

In his book Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life, sociology professor Eric Klinenberg recognizes the important role of libraries as a shared, equitable public space that bridges divides and promotes civic engagement. “The accessible physical space of the library is not the only factor that makes it work well as social infrastructure. The institution’s extensive programming, organized by professional staff that upholds the principled commitment to openness and inclusivity, fosters social cohesion among clients who might otherwise keep to themselves,” he writes.

Challenges to intellectual freedom are on the rise. They happen not only on university campuses, where controversial speakers are challenged, but also to journalists who face opposition to a free press and to the users of social media platforms that collect and use personal data. Libraries also regularly face intellectual freedom challenges. They affect not just physical books and other materials in our collections, where libraries historically have faced the most challenges. Challenges also affect meeting spaces rented by outside groups to host controversial speakers and events, library programs whose speakers or topics some find offensive, and content found on the Internet on library computers.

Added to this complexity is a different kind of challenge to the core principles of intellectual freedom: the proliferation of misinformation that is so easily distributed on digital platforms. Perhaps an even more significant threat is artificial intelligence; its machine-learning algorithms shape not only people’s online experiences but also opinions, beliefs, judgments and—perhaps—even election results.

So how do public libraries respond? They review policies that support intellectual freedom within the context of the freedom of expression provisions in Section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The public libraries also review the policies to make it clear to the public that

  • objections from customers about news or magazine articles that are part of an online subscription cannot be considered; instead, library staff may inform the publisher of the concerns or consider a different subscription service;
  • the Internet is unregulated; it conveys information and opinions that range from reliable and authoritative to controversial or extremely offensive; and
  • challenges to library programs and community room bookings are covered by the same intellectual freedom principles that cover collections.
Printed copy of The Charter of Rights and Freedoms: A Guide for Canadians.

Protection of data privacy is an issue everywhere. Public library leaders focus attention on data privacy and cybersecurity in public libraries to protect library data as well as teach data privacy as part of digital literacy.

Libraries also develop programs that address the importance of civil debate in a democratic society. At the Toronto Public Library, we talk about the library as a civic commons where people may come together as Torontonians, but also as global citizens, to discuss and debate issues. We have, for example, developed an 18-month series of programs called On Civil Society. We challenge participants to get out of their bubbles to think about and explore issues from others’ perspectives.

Public libraries are also expanding their digital literacy offerings to respond to developments in artificial intelligence and machine learning to help people understand how algorithms shape their digital privacy, online experiences and access to information. Public libraries are a trusted community resource, so they are ideally placed to give judgment-free guidance on the evolving complexity of digital environments.

These activities and approaches are not what many people think of when they consider the public libraries’ support of intellectual freedom. In Sanderson’s day, the job meant making books freely available to all. In the 21st century, the job is more complex. It is even more critical for all of us to stand up for intellectual freedom in other ways. We must maintain our faith in the core values of free expression and personal privacy.


Vickery Bowles is the city librarian of the Toronto Public Library. She is also the board chair for the Urban Libraries Council which has its headquarters in Washington, D.C. She has defended intellectual freedom while responding to challenges to collections, room bookings and programs. In 2018, she was awarded the Ontario Library Association’s Les Fowlie Intellectual Freedom Award.

Reprinted from Freedom to Read Kit 2020.