June 22nd, 2018

Library Chat: The importance of Freedom to Read Week

By Medicine Hat News on March 2, 2018.

Freedom to Read Week, Feb. 25-March 3, recognizes the need for vigilance against efforts by governments, or other bodies for that matter, from undue influence over what we read. If left unchallenged, this type of censorship, frequently deployed by illiberal states of the past and present, can have a damaging effect upon our thoughts.

The library recently hosted the author Marina Nemat who, along with many of her peers, was imprisoned, raped, and tortured by the Islamic Republic of Iran. These so-called radicals — often merely intellectually precocious teenagers — were subjected to inhumanities for “crimes” such as reading and/or possessing books banned by the regime. Although we’re certainly free from this type of overt censorship in Canada, there are still pressures with the potential to constrain our constitutionally enshrined freedom of thought.

These pressures must be guarded against regardless of whether they are direct — a community member or group challenging our decision to make material they find objectionable available — or subtle: self-censorship in purchasing decisions driven by an aversion to adverse reactions.

Despite progress towards widespread acceptance of the LGBTQ community, there are still objections from social conservatives over the inclusion of material relevant and representative of their lives. Recent examples include the films “Stranger by the Lake,” a winner at Cannes, and “Cold Fear: Gay Life in Russia.” There has been an increase in the number of challenges from progressive quarters as well, e.g., “One Man, One Woman: A Catholic’s Guide to Defending Marriage” by Dale O’Leary was challenged in 2016.

Materials are often challenged for language that was acceptable if not commonplace when written, as seen by the frequent challenges to “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” for racial slurs, or authentic to the story’s setting: “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie comes to mind. As someone who believes that history is best told by those who lived it, I’m concerned with primary sources being avoided for the sake of modern sensibilities.

There is also the open question as to whether libraries have a duty to include “trigger warnings” on their material. Despite the legitimate arguments for this, and a genuine desire to avoid subjecting anyone to foreseeable mental distress, an overzealousness here could scare people away from material that could enrich their lives.

Fortunately, MHPL fully embraces the Canadian Federation of Library Associations statement on intellectual freedom and libraries, which asserts that “all persons in Canada have a fundamental right, subject only to the Constitution and the law, to have access to the full range of knowledge, imagination, ideas, and opinion, and to express their thoughts publicly.”

We are committed to reflecting the diversity of thought within our community. As such, the Torah, the Holy Bible, and the Qur’, along with holy texts fallen from a different tree, coexist peacefully in the 200s; Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” shares space with Marx’s “Das Kapital”; Noam Chomsky stands in opposition to Henry Kissinger; Alan Dershowitz and Norman Finkelstein opine on Israel; President Trump is both celebrated and reviled; and so on and so forth.

Although we certainly have books that I personally disagree with or outright reject, I, and my colleagues as well, are cognizant of our own fallibility in these matters; as John Stuart Mill wrote in “On Liberty,” “[a]ll silencing of discussion is the assumption of infallibility.” As always, if you would like to suggest a purchase, you can submit a request at https://mhpl.bibliocommons.com/.

Keith McLean is acting head of non-fiction services at the Medicine Hat Public Library.

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