Book battles

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Freedom to Read Week is an occasion to remember that battles are still being fought to keep Canadian public libraries free of censorship, say organizers. 


Freedom to Read Week, a Canadian celebration of intellectual freedom, calls attention to the quiet battles being fought to keep public libraries diverse and free of censorship.

Throughout the week, from February 23 to March 1, people are encouraged to consider the freedoms that can be easily taken for granted.

The organizers, the Book and Periodical Council, an umbrella group for associations involved in book publishing, and the Freedom of Expression Committee, hold community events to raise awareness about how swiftly books can come under attack and disappear from shelves.

Across the nation, there are citizens and parents who continue to mount challenges to pull books off shelves or reclassify them. They often raise concerns about  age inappropriateness, sexual explicitness, violent depictions and profanity in books, reports the Canadian Library Association (CLA).

In 2012, the CLA recorded 73 challenges to books, magazines and other materials.  DVDs were the main source of complaints at 56 per cent, followed by books at 38 per cent. Library policy entertains challenges in the spirit of open dialogue, but reserves the right to resolve the issue as it sees fit.

Overriding public interest to protect freedom of choice is weighed against objections of a few. The public library’s responsibility to represent a broad diversity of opinions takes precedence.

“We treat challenges respectfully,” says Jane Pyper, city librarian for the Toronto Public Library. “They may find a book offensive. We respect their right not to read it, but it doesn’t extend to other people.”

In recent years, best-selling books became targets of parental objections, including Harry Potter for its portrayal of magic, Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass for its atheist themes and Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia for its use of the words “pervert and “see-through blouse.”

There are some instances where, because of context, libraries decide to re-shelve a book under a different genre to reflect changing sensibilities.

The Story of Little Black Sambo, a children’s book by Helen Bannerman published in 1899 about a little boy who bravely evades the wrath of hungry tigers, was re-classified as a historical picture book. “It was very popular but [it] depicts black children in a subservient, stereotypical way,” explains Pyper. “We’ll sometimes move [books], but it’s still accessible.”

Should parents be allowed to influence what books libraries can carry? Are there ever any justifiable reasons for banning a book? The Origami asks Freedom to Read Week’s Franklin Carter, an editor and researcher, why the freedom to read is an inalienable right.

Q: What do we potentially miss out on when books are banned or challenged because they are deemed racist or culturally offensive?

A: The first casualty of a book ban (or a magazine or newspaper or website ban) is freedom of choice. Readers have one less book to read. They are deprived of a source of ideas, images and information.

If censors succeed in banning many books, then they narrow freedom of choice even more. They deprive readers of many ideas, many images and more information. In the worst-case scenario, readers are left with little to read and little to think about. They are left ignorant.

The second casualty of a book ban is discovery. Readers are deprived of the opportunity to see for themselves what’s in the book. They are deprived of the opportunity to enjoy and think about the book. They cannot draw their own conclusions about it. They also cannot discuss the book intelligently with other people.

A few Canadians periodically condemn books as “racist” or “culturally insensitive.” They demand the removal of these books—To Kill a Mockingbird and The Satanic Verses come to mind—from public libraries and schools. They don’t trust readers to think and behave properly after they’ve been exposed to these books.

Canada’s would-be censors are entitled to their opinions and feelings, but I cannot think of a single valid reason to surrender my freedom of choice and my freedom to read just to satisfy them. I also cannot think of a single valid reason to surrender the freedom of choice and the freedom to read of my fellow citizens.

The pro-censorship crowd is free to complain, but they are not—and should not be—free to dictate what other people may read or think or discuss.

Q: Are there ever instances or exceptions when banning a book (for children) may be viewed as socially responsible? 

A: The short answer is no.

Parents are responsible for raising and educating their children, so parents decide what books and magazines to bring into the home. Parents also decide what books and magazines to keep out of the home. Because parents are usually mature adults who know their children well, parents are best qualified to determine what their children should read.

However, parents do not have the right to determine what other parents’ children should read. The Browns may not determine what the Smiths’ children read—in the Smiths’ home, in the public library and in the public school. The Smiths decide what their children read in the home, and professional librarians decide what books and magazines go into the public school or library.

Adults can discuss what children should read, and children can make their reading preferences known. In any community, honest disagreement is inevitable. And if an adult book—let’s say The Joy of Sex—finds its way into a child’s hands, then an adult can put the book on a high shelf. But a ban is never necessary.

Q: How do you balance the parent’s responsibility to decide what’s appropriate with the freedom to read?

A: I really don’t think there’s much of a conflict. If there is a conflict between what a parent thinks is appropriate and what a youngster wants to read, the conflict will resolve itself when the youngster becomes a teenager. He or she will visit the adult section of the public library and read without any parental supervision.

Q: Movies and television shows are classified/have a rating system. What makes books different?

A: I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about TV show and movie ratings.

The movie industry rates TV shows and movies to give viewers a sense of what to expect before they watch a show. But I’m not sure that ratings are necessary. If people want to learn about a TV show or a movie, they can read the critics’ reviews. They can watch the TV ads and trailers.

Books aren’t rated, but even if they were, I doubt that they need to be. If people want to decide whether a book is worth reading, they can read the critics’ reviews (if any have been written). They can read the back-jacket copy. They can randomly select a passage inside the book and read it. These options should be enough.

Q: What should we take time to reflect on during Freedom to Read Week?

A: We should celebrate the freedoms that we have: freedom of choice, the freedom to read and the freedom to think. We should also celebrate our freedom of expression: freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the freedom to create and view art.

We should also consider the threats to those freedoms in Canada and around the world.

Q: Is the situation deteriorating: Are we losing more freedoms? Or are there battles that are being won and on what fronts?

A: By world standards, Canada is still fairly free and open. Authors freely write and publish. Journalists freely report the news and express their opinions. People visit well-stocked bookstores, newsstands and libraries. Canadians are not arrested, imprisoned or executed for doing any of these things.

But Canadians also live in a country where

  • citizens occasionally try to ban publications from local schools and libraries;
  • customs officers seize or destroy “hate propaganda” and “obscene” literature largely in secret;
  • wealthy individuals occasionally launch meritless libel lawsuits to financially ruin their critics;
  • human rights tribunals in Western Canada fine and gag people for peacefully expressing unpopular opinions about ethnic, racial, religious and sexual minorities;
  • the federal government shuts down numerous federally-funded research libraries;
  • private companies and government agencies—some of them foreign—secretly monitor and record electronic communications.

The last point is particularly important and pressing. How free can we be to express ourselves on our cellular phones and on the Internet when we know that large, well-financed and opaque bureaucracies are vacuuming up our private data: e-mail, digital images, Word Processing files, spreadsheets, Internet searches, online purchases and lists of family members, friends and business contacts? The computer technology is tailor-made for a police state.

We no longer live in a Canada where government officials confiscate and destroy risqué novels such as James Joyce’s Ulysses or D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. But if Canadians wish to remain free, we must identify the threats that exist now and effectively counter them.

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