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Temporary Closures Reduce Challenges to Publications and Policies in Canadian Public Libraries in 2020 and Early 2021

by Richard Ellis

In-person visits to libraries, and hence the personal discovery of material held to be disturbing, declined but did not cease, as provincial governments curtailed many in-person public services, including libraries, in the spring of 2020 to limit the spread of SARS-COV2. The list of titles and policies is reported separately.

Last year’s report for Freedom to Read Week by Deb Thomas (The Shifting Landscape for Intellectual Freedom: Recent Challenges in Canadian Libraries) frames the state of Canadian libraries during a time of cultural shifts. It is recommended reading this year as well. Our social institutions are affected by the changes in demographics and social attitudes, and libraries are not immune to those forces.

Vonnegut in 1972 (via Wikimedia Commons)

In A Man Without a Country, Kurt Vonnegut celebrates the work of library staff during times of social turmoil in the United States with these words:

And on the subject of burning books: I want to congratulate librarians, not famous for their physical strength or their powerful political connections or their great wealth, who, all over this country, have staunchly resisted anti-democratic bullies who have tried to remove certain books from their shelves, and have refused to reveal to thought police the names of persons who have checked out those titles.

It is not clear that the individual objecting to “all the books on Scientology” in a Nova Scotia library in June 2020 is properly called a bully, but concerted social media campaigns, likely not on Vonnegut’s radar, seem to fit the bill. And yet both the individual complainant and the social media campaigners wish to prevent others from reading something, and both cite the general good as motivation.

It is clear that Canadian library staff go to great lengths to accomplish two ends. They maintain varied and inclusive collections and services and respect the individuals who question the presence of works or speakers. The questioners are a part of the community that the library serves and deserve to have their objections dealt with seriously.

From January 1, 2020, to August 31, 2021, there were 48 challenges, 34 to individual book titles, three to individual authors and one request that all works on a given subject be removed from the collection. In addition, two programs were objected to, and eight movies (either DVDs or streamed) were challenged.

In this period, there were eight complaints about Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters. In no previous survey has a single title attracted more than three complaints in a year. The work attempts to show that there is a plague of trans hysteria among young women supported by various levels of counselling and prescribing, leading to unfortunate outcomes and the diminution of parental influence and control. Aside from claims that the work is transphobic, the work has been criticized for inaccuracy in key parts of the argument it presents. It has been on The New York Times Best Sellers list and, if for no other reason, its notoriety has sparked demand in Canadian libraries.

The complaints appear to have been based on catalogue searches rather than on discoveries of the work on library shelves. Two of the complaints were related to online catalogue searches. In one case, a catalogue record was supplied by a vendor of catalogue records in error, and in another the complaint was registered on the online book catalogue’s comments form after the record of the book being on order was found. The third case was registered the day after CTV broadcast a program about the book being in another library in another province. The availability of library catalogues on the internet aids people in their search for controversial materials.

Halifax Public Libraries logo

The complaints were spread across the country, in provinces from the East Coast to the West. The controversy at Halifax Public Libraries over the book involved a petition organized on change.org and a response posted on the library’s website. In all other cases reported, individuals came forward with their concerns and were dealt with in person.

Related to gender presentation, but seen from a different point of view, are objections to drag queen storytimes. In the two incidents that were reported, members of the local community protested; in one case, they got a hearing before the library’s board. While the events went ahead and were well attended, the stress of changing attitudes in these communities was evident.

In the past, some titles have been labelled “anti-family,” although it is hard to see a bias against family relationships in the cited works. The best example for this misplaced attention is Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell’s picture book And Tango Makes Three. In the story, two male penguins in a zoo bond and hatch a donated egg. The book does not appear in this year’s report but illustrates the discomfort of some members of our communities to same-sex families.

This discomfort prompts a question. Should all families be represented, in picture books or juvenile or young-adult literature, as having parents of opposite genders? There are many kinds of families—single-parent, grandparent(s), two parents of whatever gender, multi-generational, straight or LGBTQ2AI—and libraries have chosen books to reflect these communities. Libraries understand that most children will encounter such families, if not at home, then among their friends, with little thought and no adverse reaction unless supplied by adults.

L: Yasawas, Fiji (photo by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash). R: Playbill cover for the original 1949 production of South Pacific, starring Ezio Pinza and Mary Martin (via Wikimedia Commons).

As Rodgers and Hammerstein put it:

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

(South Pacific)

Similarly, books such as Wings of Fire: The Poison Jungle, by Tui Sutherland, and the documentary Drag Kids face objections for their LGBTQ2AI protagonists, although it is unclear in the latter case that the kids are engaging in more than elaborate dress-up.

And then there is the request that all the works of J.K. Rowling be removed from an Ontario public library, not for their content, but for the author’s comments in the media on transgender issues. Those comments were just as irrelevant to the thousands of young readers who found the Harry Potter books engrossing as J.R.R. Tolkien’s highly prejudicial remarks on Esperanto were to the readers of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Sex in various forms has been a recurring theme of complaints in past surveys, and a lively interest in it continues. Perhaps not surprisingly, there were more complaints about youngsters reading about sex than about depictions of sex per se. Seven complaints requested librarians to move or reclassify materials rather than remove them entirely; the complaints echoed a patron of an Alberta Public Library who wrote in 2011:

These books are inappropriate in general and display a bigoted and hateful view of religion and theistic viewpoints. They encourage rebellion, and violence towards parents and authority figures. They encourage the Occult and Satanism. They should be burned … or at least moved to the Adult section …

The complainant felt that the adult collection was a suitable alternative to a bonfire in the town square.

Only two incidents involved too much sex per se, and they were linked to depictions of violence. Sex’s sometimes companion, violence, was also a part of this year’s roster. Aside from the three complaints about Marvel and Marvel-like comic books and graphic novels, there was one complaint about a true-crime account of the search for a serial killer and one complaint about a children’s book that referred to spanking.

Racism and racial stereotypes featured in several complaints. The complaint concerning Hergé’s Tintin in the Congo was quite straightforward, but complaints about the movie Blazing Saddles and the book The Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike, by Charlotte Gray, proved somewhat difficult to pin down. Similarly, the picture book Turtle Island, by Kevin Sherry, which has seemingly little to do with the First Nations’ belief that North America is Turtle Island, is a meditation on loneliness and friendship.

Two conservative works faced challenges: Hillary’s America, by Dinesh D’Souza and Canada in Decay, by Ricardo Duchesne. A complainant described the latter work as “xenophobic.”

The works at the centre of some complaints defy categorization. A librarian interceded with prison authorities when an inmate requested a copy of Anton LaVey’s The Satanic Bible, which draws heavily on the writing of Ayn Rand. Her works are found in most library collections.

The Story of the Little Mole Who Went in Search of Whodunit, by Werner Holzwarth and Wolf Erlbruch, is a picture book that traces the mole’s adventures through woodland scats.

The objection that the self-improvement book You Can Heal Your Life, by Louise Hay, is not accurate may reflect the complainant’s experience, but applying that criterion to a library’s collection of similar titles would be one way to free up shelf space and disappoint other readers who would react differently to titles of this sort.

The blanket removal of books by Daniel Amen and by Stéphane Bourgoin as well as all books about Scientology was suggested at various libraries.

The Read Woke Campaign, the brainchild of Cicely Lewis, a school librarian who wished to see more racial diversity in children’s literature, was the target of one complaint. Lewis earned the 2020 School Librarian of the Year award from the School Library Journal for promoting books that reflect the daily lives of young people of diverse racial backgrounds. Representatives of the theme are titles such as The Proudest Blue, by Ibtihaj Muhammad, the story of a girl who wears a blue hijab to school, and Don’t Touch My Hair, by Sharee Miller, which celebrates the character’s massive black curls. Read Woke does not have a canonical list of titles, but some of the titles often associated with the project deal with asserting equality and others focus on the history of racialized groups in North America. It is probably these titles that the complainant wished to be balanced in the collection.

It is important to note that the complainant looked for more rather than less information and that the librarian pointed out materials in the collection that met the need. The episode brings us back to Vonnegut and the rest of his comments on libraries. Following the quotation cited above, he continued with words equally applicable to Canada:

Cover photo, East York Public Library Annual Report 1995. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House, the Supreme Court, the Senate, the House of Representatives or the media. The America I loved still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.

Richard Ellis is librarian emeritus at Memorial University in Newfoundland and Labrador. He is also a member of the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Canadian Federation of Library Associations–Fédération canadienne des associations de bibliothèques.

Featured image: Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash