February 25-March 8 is Freedom to Read Week. Check out www.freedomtoread.ca for more information.
Should library collections reflect community values? Should groups with extreme political views be permitted to use library meeting space? Are accuracy and truth important factors in selecting library materials?
It is comforting to think that truth and accuracy can be readily determined through diligent fact-checking, but the reality is more complex.
Consider, for example, a book about that is claimed to mischaracterize the beliefs of a particular cultural group or community. While sympathetic to the issue of cultural appropriation and misrepresentation, I would question whether or not we can precisely circumscribe the beliefs of a community of individuals, and why we should not consider unorthodox beliefs, even unpopular beliefs, as also potentially belonging to the community in question.
Furthermore, even where there is a strong consensus that a particular book’s presentation of facts is inaccurate or misleading, these misrepresentations can themselves illuminate certain beliefs or prejudices that were in circulation at the time of writing. That is, they reflect meaningfully on the author and the society in which he or she lived.
Exposure to a diverse range of ideas is an important aspect of becoming intellectually and socially mature. It is not enough to be told the “right way” to think. The human mind is driven by curiosity and will inevitably seek out alternatives. Indeed, we must explore and ultimately discard many alternative ways of thinking in the process of developing our own intellectual and social identity. For this reason, library collections and policies should always prioritize diversity over “community values”.
Toronto Public Library recently succumbed to public pressure by enacting a meeting room booking policy that prohibits bookings whose “purpose…is likely to promote, or would have the effect of promoting, discrimination, contempt or hatred of any group hatred for any person on the basis of race, ethnic origin, place of origin, citizenship, [etc.]”.
In my opinion, the mission of the library is not to endorse particular ideas, but to provide access to a wide range of ideas. Insofar as TPL’s new policy places the burden on library staff to distinguish between approved ideas and non-approved ideas, the policy is contrary to the mission of the public library.
Censorship does not eliminate ideas, but only forces ideas underground where they gain even more cachet than if they were examined in the light of day. In the long run, convincing others of the truth of your point of view is a more effective strategy than censoring one’s opponents.
Librarians are frequently pictured as humble folk who love books and quiet places. Perhaps it’s time to revise this image.
Just think of us as your friendly, neighbourhood “intellectual freedom fighters”. After all, who else is going to stand up for your right to free access to information and to voice unpopular opinions?
Aaron Francis is the Chief Librarian at Creston Valley Public Library. He is currently reading The Wanderers by Meg Howrey.