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Last Modified: August 12, 2022
Censorship in Alberta Libraries, Beyond the Stacks with Jessie Bach
Censorship in Alberta Libraries

by Jessie Bach

Earlier this year, in Ridgeland Mississippi, the Madison County Library System’s funding was withheld by the town’s Mayor who objected to “homosexual materials” held by the library. In Llano County, Texas, a librarian alleged that she was fired after she refused to remove books about gender and race from her library branch’s collection. Displays celebrating Pride Month and Women’s History Month have been removed from libraries in a Lafayette, Louisiana library system. Like so many things going on in the world, Canadians, and Albertans, often assume that it “couldn’t happen here.” The reality is, though, that materials in our local libraries are challenged all the time.

This is evident in a running list kept by Edmonton Public Library (EPL) on their website of all the challenges they receive to library materials, the nature of the complaint, the library’s response, and the final decision. In accordance with their Customer Complaints About Library Materials Policy, every written complaint received by EPL is investigated, and since July 2020, they have posted information regarding fifteen titles that have been challenged. The nature of the complaints ranges from concerns about pornographic content and demonic depictions, to the inappropriate age classification of a title, and culturally derogatory content. Of these fifteen complaints, the majority were maintained as-is in their current collection, following the library’s investigation. Some of them were moved from their original children’s, juvenile, or teen collection to a more appropriate age range. None were removed from the library entirely.

In fact, since the EPL list begins in 1998, I found only five instances where titles had been removed from the library collection. Most recently, in May 2019, a book on soap-making was removed because it contained incorrect instructions for mixing lye and water that could have resulted in serious injury—yikes! Another was removed in 2014 when it was found to have been mostly plagiarized from Wikipedia articles. In 1999, a title about Kosmos 954 was challenged by a family member of someone involved in the infamous incident that left radioactive debris scattered in the Northwest Territories. In the end, this book was removed from the library—not as a result of the challenge, but because it was too damaged to circulate further.

How Do You Spell Abducted by Cherylyn Stacey book cover
Book cover for How Do You Spell Abducted? by Cherylyn Stacey, Red Deer Press, 1996

I was curious whether any books by Alberta authors or publishers had been banned, challenged or censored and came up with just one recorded instance from 1996. Alberta PC MLA Julius Yankowksi claimed that How Do You Spell Abducted? by Edmonton author Cherylyn Stacey, a book about parental abduction, was “hate literature against men” and should be banned. He went as far as suggesting the book’s publisher, the Red Deer Press, should have its annual grant from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts rescinded. In the following couple of years, the book went on to sell about twelve thousand copies.

Most Alberta libraries have a policy on the books that lays out their commitment to intellectual freedom. These policies often state that the role of the library is not to be a supervisor of public morals, and that individuals and parents must judge for themselves what is appropriate for them and their families. They also emphasize the duty of the library to obtain and hold quality materials that explore diverse topics and opinions. Here’s an example from the Olds Municipal Library’s Censorship and Intellectual Freedom Policy:

“If the Olds Municipal Library is to fulfill its obligation to its community it must include materials of varied points of view, even those which may be regarded by some as controversial. The Library will provide, as much as possible, materials on all sides of controversial issues, including representation of unpopular or unorthodox positions without censorship or bias.”

Library policies also regularly contain procedures for how to formally challenge library materials, and how that challenge will be handled by the library. In most of the policy documents that I have read, patrons who wish to have an item removed from the library will be asked to begin the official process by completing a form. This form asks some standard questions about the patron’s contact information and the title, author, and other details about the item in question. They generally also include questions about what the patron has found objectionable within the material and what action they would like the library to take in response. In the forms provided by EPL and the Olds Public Library, there are also questions that try to dig a little deeper, like: What do you believe is the overall theme of this material? What are some good or positive things you found in this material? What other material of greater value would you recommend in place of this work? And my favourite—Have you read, viewed, or listened to the entire work?

Once the form has been submitted, the protocol is to remove the challenged title from the shelves while a formal review is conducted. Library staff conduct research about the work, looking at things like book reviews, any awards the work has received, the reputation of the author and publisher, and library circulation and use statistics, among other factors, before deciding whether any action should be taken. The patron who made the challenge is then notified of the outcome of their complaint.

Some attempts at censorship of library materials come through less official channels. At the Morinville Public Library this spring, library staff discovered that a popular children’s book had been returned to the library with words blacked out inside. In response, library employee Amy Maxwell created a video explaining why that’s not OK, and how to bring a challenge to the library administration using their Request for Reconsideration form. In my time as a librarian, I have also heard about books that have been damaged, stolen, or hidden—either by deliberately mis-shelving them in the library collection (in one example, a patron repeatedly removed the bible and other books about Christianity from the non-fiction section to fiction) or stuffing them behind furniture.

Our libraries advocate every day for free and unencumbered access to a wide range of diverse materials, and for the intellectual freedom of all Albertans. This advocacy effort comes to a head every February when public libraries in Alberta celebrate Freedom to Read Week. Libraries hold events, create displays, encourage patrons to borrow banned books, and speak to local media to highlight the importance of intellectual freedom and citizen’s right to read. This past Freedom to Read Week, the Drayton Valley Library held a contest called Get Caught Reading where patrons were encouraged to submit photos of themselves reading a banned book to become one of the library’s “most wanted.” At the Okotoks Public Library, staff created an annotated display of books from the library’s collection that had been banned in certain regions or from school curricula, to encourage patrons to check them out and read them. Resisting and addressing censorship is ongoing work for libraries, but this yearly event provides an opportunity to shine a spotlight on the issue.

The Canadian Federation of Library Associations (CFLA) promotes intellectual freedom as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and their Statement on Intellectual Freedom has been adopted by many Alberta libraries. I’d like to encourage you to follow the link and read the whole statement. This is my favourite part:

“Libraries have a core responsibility to safeguard and facilitate access to constitutionally protected expressions of knowledge, imagination, ideas, and opinion, including those which some individuals and groups consider unconventional, unpopular or unacceptable. To this end, in accordance with their mandates and professional values and standards, libraries provide, defend and promote equitable access to the widest possible variety of expressive content and resist calls for censorship and the adoption of systems that deny or restrict access to resources.”

A mis-shelved copy of the bible or defaced children’s book may seem insignificant when we turn our attention to the censorship crisis going on in the United States. The responses that we as library professionals have to these small attempts to restrict our freedom to read set an important precedent. It is up to Alberta libraries and library professionals to continue to defend our intellectual freedom and follow the policies and procedures designed to resist attempts at censorship.

Beyond the Stacks is a column about libraries in Alberta and the useful and necessary services they provide.

Photo of Jessie Bach, author of this articleJessie Bach grew up on a family farm in Southern Alberta, and is a life-long library user and book lover. She has a degree in history from the University of Saskatchewan, and a Master of Library and Information Studies from Dalhousie University. Jessie has worked in archives, academic libraries, corporate records management, and now public libraries. Her current role is Bibliographic Services Manager at Marigold Library System where she manages the team that does acquisitions, cataloguing and processing of library material for Marigold’s thirty-six member libraries. She currently lives in Calgary with her partner and, in true librarian fashion, four cats. Jessie likes to read (of course), knit, consume way too many true crime podcasts, and lift weights in the gym. 

Feature image credit: Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash