Libraries, OPL and Freedom of Expression

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By Sonia Bebbington, Chief Librarian and CEO

It’s always meaningful to recognize Freedom to Read Week, taking place from February 18-24, 2024, with activities at Ottawa Public Library (OPL). As mentioned in an earlier blog post on the OPL website, observing this event is an important reminder for Canadians to think about the fundamental importance of free expression in a healthy democracy.  

The OPL Board reaffirmed their commitment to intellectual freedom, defined as “the free and open exchange of lawful information and ideas in a democratic society, respecting individual’s rights to privacy and choice,” with a strengthened Board policy in 2022. Since then, Library staff have developed new programs, resources, and revised our practices, to ensure that all our services weave into practice this free and open exchange.  

Intellectual freedom is the cornerstone of a democratic society, and at OPL, we are dedicated to upholding this principle in all library services. We are proud to foster environments of open discussions and diverse perspectives.  

Earlier this week, the Board received a report about challenges to OPL’s collections in 2023. OPL regularly submits challenged titles to the Canadian Federation of Libraries Association’s (CFLA’s) Intellectual Freedom Challenges Survey and the Centre for Free Expression’s (CFE) Library Challenges Database at Toronto Metropolitan University, which provide a national snapshot of the nature and outcome of challenges to intellectual freedom in libraries across Canada. 

Here are some salient points from the report: 

  • Most requests for reconsideration were for items in the adult print collection published in the last five years; 
  • Clients raised concerns about racism, age-inappropriate content, promoting hatred, as well as violent, inaccurate, and objectionable content; 
  • All but one request was for OPL to remove the item; the remaining request was to move an item from the teen collection to the adult collection; 
  • All seven items were retained in the existing collection area; and, 
  • In addition to challenges received via the “Request for Reconsideration” form, OPL also received two general informal challenges to the collection. 

Last year, OPL received seven challenges to material in the collection, a number closer to the average in the last decade, following a recent spike in challenges in the previous two years (2021 and 2022). It remains to be seen if this downward trend will hold, or whether, as is happening in many other North American cities, challenges will rise. In 2022, CFLA reported the greatest number of incidents since the library industry organization began reporting on challenges in the early 2000s. Libraries are also beginning to report challenges to other library services such as policies, programs, and displays, or other actions such as vandalism or disruption of library activities. 

Free and open access to information is foundational for a healthy democracy. Free expression is not only enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but also in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While intellectual freedom alone cannot ensure full equality for all citizens, it protects against censorship, which is most often used to suppress non-dominant voices and perspectives. 

Further, intellectual freedom fosters critical thinking, which helps all citizens learn, think, and more fully participate in democracy. Opinions and ideas that we disagree with, or that are downright odious to us, don’t disappear because a book has been challenged or banned – in fact, censorship can sometimes drive ideas underground, provide added publicity, fuel polarization, stifle nuanced thinking, or fossilize our ability to exercise the strong mental muscles we need to engage critically with all kinds of perspectives.   

OPL’s commitment to intellectual freedom extends to supporting information literacy and equipping clients with the skills needed to navigate complex topics and evaluate the information they are exposed to (in books, in discussions, and online). These skills are necessary for creating an open and thoughtful environment that allows for a diversity of thought, opinion, and expression. Public libraries, and their spaces, services, and collections allow individuals to explore different perspectives, understand historical contexts, and develop their own opinions on their lifelong learning journey. 

What can you do to show your support of intellectual freedom? Get a Library card! Having and regularly using a library card is a great way to show your support for OPL but also for the important role that public libraries play in society, during Freedom to Read Week and all year long. I also recommend reading something new. Ensure you’re not stuck in an echo chamber by engaging with content you’ve heard you might not agree with- and decide for yourself. Start the conversations about difficult topics with young people early (OPL has tools for support); there are even books in our collection to support you having awkward family conversations over your next holiday dinner.  

Lastly, and most importantly, get involved in events next week: you can join us for talks by celebrated Canadian writers about the world of information and the risks of censorship, in person or online. You can also browse the OPL Book Sanctuary collection at the Main branch or online; this North American movement includes many other libraries who have similarly declared themselves a place where endangered books are protected and made accessible. Also online, starting next week, you can watch video clips about intellectual freedom.   

We are fortunate to live in a community that supports – and celebrates – freedom to read. Happy (early) Freedom to read week, and don’t forget to stop by your local branch – or check us out on social media – for displays, giveaways, and more! 

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