By Liane Belway
In Canada, we enjoy the freedom to read what we choose, so much so that we may not always consider how important this right is, or whether it could be interfered with in a country such as ours. After all, our intellectual freedom is guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Yet, freedom to read can never be taken for granted. Even in Canada, books and magazines are frequently challenged in libraries and schools, and these pressures affect the right of Canadians to decide for themselves what they should or should not read. Freedom to Read Week encourages Canadians to talk about and celebrate our intellectual freedom. Each year, Canada’s Book and Periodical Council ensures that this event raises awareness of Canada’s often little-known history of censorship and book banning, and the battles fought to keep books on the shelves of schools and libraries. Nationwide events throughout this week help raise awareness about the importance of protecting our right to read.
The right to intellectual freedom means that each person has the right to choose what to read, within the limits of Canadian law. Challenging a book’s right to be on a shelf and available to readers involves more than a personal expression of taste or the choice not to participate in a conversation about controversial issues. It is an attempt to limit public access to the works in schools, libraries, or bookstores, often for political or moral reasons, and prevent others from reading them. Libraries have a core responsibility to protect the freedom to read and are required to have library policies reflect this duty.
Each case is different, and libraries respond differently, according to their mandate and their responsibilities to users. Most public libraries have intellectual freedom policies in place to deal with individual concerns while protecting the collective right to read, for example by shelving according to age appropriateness, while the mandate of many school libraries is mainly to support the curriculum for the school’s relevant age group. At Library and Archives Canada, our mandate is to acquire, describe, and make accessible all Canadian publications to readers and researchers from Canada and around the world.
Not all challenged books wind up being banned. When a famous author like Margaret Atwood has a book like The Handmaid’s Tale challenged, the result is often greater media attention, increased sales, and more readers. Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women was challenged decades before she won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
However, the process of trying to ban a book can have a more insidious effect, especially in school and public libraries. A children’s book with a controversial reputation can simply be dropped from reading lists and curricula to avoid confrontation. When books with themes like that of Maxine’s Tree, a picture book with an environmentally friendly message, are challenged, sometimes the challenge is denied, as in this case from 1992, where the book was allowed to remain in elementary schools. Today, we take for granted picture books that teach kids about the environment, or same-sex families, or different religious views, or any number of topics, but this was not always the case.
Who knows how many such books were not purchased (or not written) over the decades because of a culture of banning? We like to think that, today, we are more open to the views of others. Nevertheless, as Canadians, we should remain aware at all times of how valuable our right to read is and should protect this right for ourselves as well as for other readers.
Liane Belway is a librarian in the Acquisitions section of Published Heritage at Library and Archives Canada.
For more information, check out Freedom to Read Week online.