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These books seemed to be about a life he had never encountered - a life where there were no barracks, no strict-regime camps, no brigade leaders, no armed guards, no security officers, no systems of internal passports, and none of the sufferings, anxieties, and passions that made up the lives of everyone around him.

Vasily Grossman, Everything Flows.

The schedule for this year’s Alberta Library Association conference is up, and I see that Pilar Martinez, CEO of Edmonton Public Library, and Jim Turk, Director of Ryerson’s Centre for Free Expression are on the road again. Last September, Pilar convened a panel at EPL with Jim Turk, Toni Samek and Gail DeVos, moderated by Alvin Schrader on Intellectual Freedom. I wrote about that event in a blog post, where I said that the whole experience of was demoralizing.

In January of this year, Jim Turk received the Les Fowlie Intellectual Freedom award at the Ontario Library Association Superconference. He was also on the Intellectual Freedom Spotlght panel with - again - Pilar and Micheal Vonn, entitled “What is Hate Speech, and What Do We Do About It?”

And so again, in April, Pilar and Jim - along with Dale Askey (full disclosure: Dale is my boss) and Christina de Castell, are holding a panel discussion on “Social Responsibility & Neutrality in Libraries” at the Alberta Library Association Conference.

Now, I don’t want to prejudge the ALC panel, but I do want to point out the extreme homogeneity of voices in all these panels. By my count the panels have consisted of:

  • Two Directors in intellectual freedom organizatons (Ryerson’s and the BC Civil Liberties Association).
  • Three urban public library CEO’s.
  • The chief librarian of a large academic library.
  • The chair of a library school.

Gail DeVos and Alvin Schrader are a bit of an outlier here, as they are not (currently) at the top of a hierarchical organization committed to a single particular interpretation of intellectual freedom. This interpretation - the liberal interpretation - is currently being heavily challenged not only in librarianship (by #critlib among others) but in wider society, especially around the idea of deplatforming right-wing speakers and ideologues. No wonder Pilar and Jim feel the time is ripe for a liberal intellectual freedom roadshow.

As people are pointing out right now, we’ve stopped hearing from Milo Yiannopoulous since he was successfully deplatformed. Media outlets are refusing to share the Christchurch murderer’s “manifesto”, and many people are pointing out how much that screed owes to the proliferation of far-right, anti-semitic, Islamophobic, white-supremacist information in the last few years (content warning). Deplatforming works, and surely the suppression of the most vile right-wing, white-supremacist material will go unlamented except by those who want to murder with impunity.

Toni Samek noted at the EPL panel that such debates pitting social responsibility against intellectual freedom recur approximately every thirty years. But such recurrence should not make us complacent about it. Capitalist crises recur at approximately the same rate, but only the most hardened apologist for human misery would suggest that this should be a reason not to worry too much about crisis.

The homogeneity of the panelists leads them to put something like this in their ALC panel description: “But with everything going on in the world around us, can we be truly neutral?” This question is painfully outdated. A quick survey of articles, blog posts, panels, and keynotes in librarianship over the last few years shows that the starting point for a discussion of social responsibility has to begin with a complete disavowal of the notion of neutrality. The demoralization I felt at the EPL event was primarily around the safe comfortable moderateness of the terms of the debate. If the ALC panel is going to talk (yet again!) about “whether libraries are neutral” then I am fairly sure the panel will do a disservice to the profession and to the conference attendees. There are dozens of alternative voices who could have posed a real challenge to this idea, voices who are not embedded at the top of systems of power - could none of them be found to participate? Or is that somehow outside the purview (or comfort zone) of the Jim and Pilar Roadshow?

Or is it that the point is not to debate the question of intellectual freedom or neutrality at all, but to present a common front, to reinforce the standard professional discourse of liberal hegemony? The homogeneity of the panels suggests that radically different points of view are not of major concern or interest.

At the OLA Superconference, I presented a critique of the mythological connection between libraries and democracy, and I argued that the usual liberal bromides and platitudes are based on a presumption that people aren’t dying and that we have all the time in the world for reasoned debate and arriving at consensus. Climate change is putting hard limit on the time we have left, and - sadly - the fact that real human lives are being wantonly destroyed is brought home again and again and again. Yesterday’s white-supremacist attack against Muslims in New Zealand demonstrates yet again that liberal platitudes like intellectual freedom, free speech absolutism, pluralism, and tolerance are not fit for the current social and political conjuncture.

The time for platitudes is over, the time for asking whether libraries are “neutral” is long over. The time for new voices in the intellectual freedom field has come. I realize that the convenors of these panels - whether Pilar Martinez or someone else - have no requirement to include alternative, diverse, challenging voices, but the panelists and convenors must be prepared for criticism from those of us who see an absolute liberal intellectual freedom as intimately linked with the murders that took place in Christchurch yesterday.

Intellectual freedom is an abstract impossibility, designed to keep people (classes, races, genders) in their place. The politics of the current conjuncture are shifting beyond liberal hegemony and the time has come to demolish the criminal laissez-faire complacency of intellectual freedom and, as I have written elsewhere to replace a discredited “intellectual freedom” with a committed intellectual politics. That is, if we actually want to prevent more racist crimes, more white-supremacist murders, from taking place.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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