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Note: this post intersects with a post I wrote for Behind the Stacks on Practice, Reading, and Fake News

The last few years have seen the rise of a critical trend in librarianship towards “Freedom to Read Week”, a period when libraries typically draw attention to the everpresent threat of censorship. While an anti-censorship stance is laudable and has, generally, been part of libraries’ professed values for a long time (but not foreve), criticism has generally taken two approaches. One the one hand, saying that people should be able to read what they like is simplistic, ignores questions of power and inequality and is, quite literally, the least we can do. On the other hand, focusing on challenges to print materials (often limited to recreational print material) ignores other challenges to intellectual freedom and privacy that are arguably more important, and which libraries would do well to turn their attention to. In a series of tweets, Alan Harnum outlined the main points of this critique:

Another aspect of criticism arises in the context of academic libraries, where “freedom to read” is bound up with different questions than in a public library, or recreational-reading, context; questions of intellectual honesty, critical thinking, evaluation of sources, and of course, censorship and intellectual freedom. When my own library system tweeted a “challenges book display” which included only fiction, it led me to wonder about the broader question of “freedom to read” in an academic environment.

I find it interesting that, in an academic environment, the challenged book display would include not only exclusively fiction titles, but primarily Children’s/Young Adult titles. This is not due to any devaluation of children’s or YA reading, simply the fact that using these as examples of challenged titles is too easy. No-one but a crypto-fascist arch-conservative would advocate suppression of Where The Wild Things Are (and yes, I’m aware that this happens: there are a lot of crypto-fascist arch-conservatives out there). Anyone in a university ought to be able to successfully defend children’s and YA books against a challenge. In addition, fiction titles are generally covered by public library Freedom to Read Week approaches. It seems to me that a more productive, more fruitful, approach to Freedom to Read ideas in an academic environment would, at the very least, address the exponentially more complicated question of Freedom to Read in a scholarly context.

Because, while there can be no intellectually honest defense of a challenge of Where the Wild Things Are or - the example we used when I was in library school - In the Night Kitchen, are there legitimate reasons to imagine challenging Mein Kampf (tangent: someone on twitter recently went on a tirade which was very interesting, but which was predicated on the idea that the publication of Mein Kampf is banned in Canada, which of course it is not). The university itself is committed to intellectual freedom in the question of books it sells in the bookstore (my bookstore copy of the Communist Manifesto proved extremely important to me) and collects in the library, indeed this is enshrined in the academic freedom clause of many librarians. But in terms of reading, advocating the reading of Mein Kampf is something very different from advocating its collection, and this is something that that not many students will get to consider if we restrict Freedom to Read Week display to children’s/YA fiction, all of which can be considered innocent in a way Mein Kampf is not. Freedom to Read Week displays in an academic environment could be a teaching opportunity, but also a lesson in responsibility. With recreational reading, Freedom to Read is being free from someone else preventing you from reading. In an academic environment, I would argue, we should be promoting the responsibility to read, in the face of challenges both external and internal.

And in a way, Mein Kampf is as simple an example as Where the Wild Things Are. It is impossible not to have an opinion on Mein Kampf whether or not one has read it. But let’s imagine including, among the easier things to support, say The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Machiavelli’s Prince, and The Joy of Sex (all challenged books at one time/place or another, all of which would - nowadays would be considered at worst anodyne and at best fundamentally important to modern citizenship and social justice Now, what if we added to this collection, say, a book by (David Irving)[] whose work has been condemned as holocaust-denial, but who nevertheless had a long career as a respected historian. The fact that his work is challenged by “our side” and on solid historigraphical and scholarly grounds disturbs the simplistic view of intellectual freedom we (librarians) espouse. But it’s an important perturbation, one to be engaged with, not ignored. Evaluating Irving’s work with intellectual honesty and rigour requires reading it, whether or not we want to read it or want others to read it. Including Irving in a display of Freedom to Read Week books would be a useful, necessary, challenge not only to students, but to the librarians themselves. It mustn’t be forgotten, after all, that “challenge”, especially during Freedom to Read Week, has positive as well as negative connotations.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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