Fall 2004 - Volume 7 Number 4
Fear of Words: Censorship and the Public Libraries of Canada
Ottawa: Canadian Library Association, 2000
"Canada is a nation of quiet censors" was an opinion expressed in 1984 in a journal of the Canadian Library Association. Public book-burnings do not occur; censorial pressure, however, is applied by individuals and groups who are equally possessed by a "fear of words."
The authors' expressed purpose in writing this book was to provide Canadian public librarians with "national information on the scope and nature of community pressures to censor materials housed in the nation's public libraries." What follows is a detailed 114-page research report, followed by 70 pages of references, appendices and other ancillary matter. Not what some would say is especially exciting stuff.
Alvin Schrader, however, does what any good researcher does: he lets the material speak for itself. There are enough quotations from people eager to be rid of any literature that might disturb their social somnolence (including dictionaries that contain "bad" words) to construct a jeremiad on the loss of individual liberty. The book is not, however, limited to a litany of bigotry. It provides pertinent documents to help justify an open society's right to read and incisive analyses of that right. Most effective censorship, it explains, is subtle and covert. So, unwanted volumes are subjected to pre-censorship and omitted because, for example, of alleged market considerations (e.g., "no gays or lesbians live around here").
As a former public library trustee, I can confirm that (at least in my municipality) only one formal request was brought to deny a book a place on the shelf. The volume concerned the widely publicized and brutal rape and murder of two young women. The "motion to suppress" the account of the crimes and trials of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homulka was defeated with only its mover (the local Mayor) standing in support.
Even more encouraging are the instances cited by Schrader such as the case of the Thunder Bay Public Library in Ontario, which responded to the controversy over the library's purchase of Madonna's Sex by forming a community-based Freedom to Read committee. Such initiatives, alas, are few. According to Schrader, public libraries commonly give "low priority … to the promotion of intellectual freedom in their communities." It would be nice to think that this thoughtful book would alert librarians and patrons alike to the need to remain vigilant in support of our collective freedom to read.
• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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