Saturday, March 10, 2007

brought to you by your friendly neighbourhood librarian

I wrote another rant to the editor letter - this time to Ed magazine which is a Saturday insert of The Edmonton Journal.

This is the article that pissed me off. It's full-text here because I could not find a URL for it that did not require a subscription.

"A real page-burner: Celebrate the books that others choose to ban" by Elizabeth Withey.

You walk into the library with plans to borrow a bunch of books. The first title on your list is Catcher in the Rye. You search the fiction stacks for the J. D. Salinger classic but can't locate a copy.

"Sorry ma'am," the librarian says when you inquire. "That book is full of foul language. We got rid of it."

You're perplexed. Foul language? Strange, you think, and move on to the second book on your list, Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon. You scour the shelves. No luck.

"Sorry ma'am," the librarian says. "That book was banned. Filthy and immoral. You wouldn't like it, trust me."

Strike two. You're surprised and a little annoyed. Immoral? Says who? You shake off your frustration and start looking for the third item on your list: John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.

"We burned it," the librarian tells you. "Blasphemous and profane. Couldn't possibly have any educational benefit."

Sound ridiculous? Think again. Though all three books are available at the Edmonton Public Library, they have all been challenged in Canada in past years for precisely these reasons.
Today marks the end of Freedom to Read Week, an annual event that encourages Canadians to think about and reaffirm our commitment to intellectual freedom, which is guaranteed us under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

People celebrated that freedom across the country. The Stanley A. Milner library held a Banned Books Cafe, where people read aloud from their favourite controversial books.

Don't like it? Tough. Plug your ears.

See, borrowing books from the library is a privilege. And like with any privilege, you must respect the rules. Damage books? Scratch up DVDs? You could lose your membership.
But reading books is not a privilege. It is a right. You and I, as Canadians, may study, skim, peruse and devour any book we wish.

We have the freedom to write what we choose and read what we choose.

It is a right many take for granted.

It is a right we continue to fight for.

Books in libraries and schools across this country continue to be challenged and banned. Award-winning books. Bestselling books. Edgy, contentious books.

In 2002, black parents and teachers in Nova Scotia complained about the use of the word "nigger" in Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize- winning work To Kill a Mockingbird. They believed the derogatory word could cause black students to be mocked because of racial stereotyping. The book was withdrawn but later restored.

In 2005, a Lethbridge library patron complained about a Freedom to Read week display that included Daddy's Roommate by Michael Willhoite. Their beef? The children's fiction book had a homosexual theme and the complainant believed it was "not a proper role model for children." The book stayed in the library.

Last year, a Catholic school board in Ontario removed David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars from the school library and Grade 11 English course after it received an anonymous letter of complaint. Their objection? Sexual content. This year, the book was reviewed and then returned to the library and the English course.

Despite the ongoing complaints and scare tactics by would-be censors, we Canadians are among the lucky. In other nations, and in other periods in time, writers and readers have paid a heftier price. Many have paid the ultimate price: their lives.

Sophie Scholl fought against the Third Reich during the Second World War by helping produce and distribute leaflets for The White Rose, a non-violent resistance movement. Scholl, 21, believed in her right to express her beliefs. And she believed Germans had a right to read her group's ideas.

The Nazis thought otherwise. When Scholl got caught circulating leaflets at the University of Munich, she was arrested and convicted of treason.

They cut off Sophie Scholl's head.

Now, anyone would argue Canada is a free, progressive country. No, we don't put people in the guillotine for passing out political leaflets, or reading Sex by Madonna. But Freedom to Read Week happens for a reason. Defending the right to read is an ongoing fight. We must never quietly acquiesce. We must cherish words.

So milk that library membership. Borrow the most challenged, most divisive books you can think of, if that tickles your fancy. Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. Hitler's Mein Kampf. Alice Walker's The Colour Purple.

Maybe they'll be terrible books. Or maybe they'll be so gripping you'll forget to return them on time.

Hey, compared to the guillotine, late fines are a pretty minor price to pay.

This is my repsonse:

While it was great to see Freedom to Read Week discussed in Elizabeth Withey's ed column ("A real page-burner," March 3, 2007), I would like to address what I felt was a disservice to librarians.

In the fictitious scenarios in the article, Withey portrays librarians as the individuals doing the banning and burning of contentious books. I felt this was a rather unfair depiction. Many librarians advocate aggressively to allow the communities they serve to access all types of literature and information. Book challenges and bans frequently originate from concerned library users. The governing bodies of libraries, be they library boards or school administrations, often make the final decision "to ban or not to ban" which may result in librarians removing materials from their shelves.

From my professional experience in a variety of libraries in the Edmonton area, library staff are rarely the "bad guys" when it comes to banning books. Most of the outstanding library staff that I have worked with over the past 10 years have been passionately anti-censorship. Recently, librarians and other library professionals across North America actively protested against the banning of some of the books nominated for Canadian and American children's literature awards. While some school librarians were certainly on the side of removing the books from their libraries, many librarians favoured leaving the controversial books in their libraries and allowing children and parents to decide for themselves what is or is not appropriate. Most public libraries strive to make the diverse world of opinions and literature accessible to all their users and do not want to decide what is or isn't suitable for everyone.

Anyway, it is in both the print edition and online version of Ed. Even though I included my name with the letter, they didn't which makes the whole anonymous blog posting stuff easy.


At 8:39 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

You rock, momily! Thanks for being a tireless advocate and truth teller!

At 9:00 AM , Blogger Grenwolde said...

I really enjoyed both the original article and the your response. Our rights are only our rights if we understand them and actively protect them -- the other piece we need to do better as a society is to educate the coming generations of their responsibility understand and to uphold this social contract and thereby continue the social and political evolution of the country of Canada.

With this in mind I strongly encourage you and your readers to visit -- an unbiased, plain language, and interactive look at the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It also contains relevant case law and precedents. The website is available in English, French, Chinese (traditional), German, and Italian with 6 more languages planned.

This website is meant as an educational resource for all Canadians.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home