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This is part three of a series of blog posts written in response to Meghan Murphy’s room booking at Toronto Public Library. Read part one and part two.

The debate around Toronto Public Library’s room rental to Meghan Murphy continued over the long weekend, and today TPL responded with a new statement. I don’t normally do this, but I think it will be useful to critique specific phrases in the document. To be honest I’m too tired of this argument to do anything else. Because public libraries don’t recognize legitimate critiques of their intellectual freedom positions, they rely on tired old tropes and positions, expecting the public to take them at face value, when the public conversation has already moved on.

While TPL encourages public debate and discussion about differing ideas, we also encourage those with opposing or conflicting viewpoints to respectfully challenge each other’s ideas and not the library’s democratic mandate to provide space for both.

I don’t know if this is clumsy phrasing or not, but the sentence actually encourages people not to challenge “the library’s democratic mandate”. Coming from a state institution, the injunction not to challenge the library is extremely worrying. If we take the “democratic” nature of Canadian society and public libraries for granted, the right to critique and challenge is one of the most sacrosanct values of democracy, even liberal-bourgeois democracy. There’s something strangely authoritarian about a public library telling people not to challenge it.

As a public library and public institution, we have an obligation to protect free speech. When Toronto Public Library (TPL) makes meeting rooms available to the public we serve, we need to make them available to all on an equitable basis.

As usual, the fact that the library is embedded in capitalist social relations means that it picks and chooses the kind of “equity” it recognizes. Toronto public library room rental fees range from $23.24/hour to $156.86/hr. The “equitable nature” of room rental is decided by TPL (not its community) on a financial basis. While it’s nice that TPL charges less for non-profit than commercial renters, it’s still the case that this excludes groups that may want to use the room but can’t afford the rate. Additionally, “A valid credit card is required to book a room”, further adding to the non-equity of room rentals. TPL clearly feels it can pick and choose the criteria for room-rental “equity”.

TPL reviews the stated purpose of each third-party room rental request to determine if it is in compliance with our Community and Event Space Rental policy and the purpose of this room rental is, “To have an educational and open discussion on the concept of gender identity and its legislation ramifications on women in Canada.” The speaker for this third-party room rental event has never been charged with or convicted of hate speech as defined in the Criminal Code of Canada.

My old friend, positivism. Positivism in natural and social science holds, essentially, that only something that positively exists counts as evidence. This raises the question of where you look for such positive phenomena. In this case it means taking the room rental request at face value, and never looking at additional evidence (in order to come to what you might “reasonably believe”). So while it might be the case that Twitter banning Meghan Murphy has no immediate implication here (since, as the statement points out, Twitter is a private corporation), it’s understandable that people would expect TPL to look beyond the words used in the room rental for the broader context and background. Indeed, as a librarian, I would expect TPL to have started with this kind of contextual research.

The event organizers are also contractually obligated not to violate TPL’s policy.

As I wrote in a previous post, the contract is the only thing sacred to a capitalist organization. It stands to reason that it is the only thing TPL will count on.

Libraries have always been committed to supporting vulnerable communities by welcoming and creating space for different perspectives, rather than through censorship.

This is another sentence that is difficult to parse, but perhaps it was written in a hurry. However, there is a body of literature that belies the idea that “libraries have always been committed to supporting vulnerable communities”. Indeed, we don’t even have to look far back into the history of libraries to show this (although we could). All we need to do is to point to the fiasco of the racist security policies implemented at Winnipeg Public Library earlier this year. I find it dreadful that this statement can appear in a 21st century public library; libraries need to become more familiar with their own histories, and less concerned about their communities challenging their “democratic mandate”.

One of our core responsibilities is 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. Another is to make available our public spaces and services to individuals and groups without discrimination.

Except, as we’ve seen, financial discrimination, which is a cornerstone of capitalist social relations.

The community is asking us to censor someone because of the beliefs they hold and to restrict a group’s right to equitably access public space and we cannot do either.

This is the heart of the matter, I think. The community is not asking the library to censor anyone. Indeed, by framing Meghan Murphy’s event simply as a room rental which TPL neither supports nor condemns, TPL admits as much. If the room rental is a value-free contractual exchange, then at most TPL would be not entering into a contract, not censoring. The library can’t have it both ways: if it’s simply a contract, then no-platforming cannot be censorship; if it’s censorship, then it is not merely a contractual relationship. Also, in an age of information abundance, surely the library has a responsibility to distinguish between those who already have a platform to spread their ideas (such as a podcast) and those who genuinely rely on the library as a place to air any of their ideas. Indeed, I think this would be a self-fulfilling policy: insofar as we do not know someone’s ideas, they should be aired and, if necessary, challenged; in so far as someone already has a platform, we neither need to nor want to hear their views again.

We would also suggest that engaging in respectful civil discourse with people of opposing views may be a more productive strategy than abstaining from public library events.

Back to liberal dogma. As I’ve argued in my book, people are dying and time is running out. The bourgeois insistence on endless debate, discussion, consensus-building, etc, is deplorable in the face of both these phenomena.

Going back to the question of positivism and the lack of awareness of social and political context, by doubling down on the concept of “Free Speech” in this statement, TPL must recognize how they are discursively aligning themselves with the alt-right. And whether the library wants it or not, the alt-right will weaponize that discursive alignment. Libraries need to overcome the naive innocence with which they approach the social world, or they will rapidly find - as Vancouver Public and Winnipeg Public have - that they have lost the trust of those communities it is their “democratic mandate” to support.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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