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History is what hurts. - Fredric Jameson

I somehow missed Richard Beaudry’s post post on the Ryerson CFE site last December. In the post, Beaudry asks “What is it about Meghan Murphy that is polarizing some librarians and academic librarians as well as some library associations in Canada and why is this happening now?” Assuming the question is posed in good faith, the answer has to do - as so many answers do - with the problem of history. (Full disclosure: Richard Beaudry was [and I assume still is] the chair of the CFLA Intellectual Freedom committee, from which I stepped down last autumn as the TPL event blew up).

To begin with, Beaudry’s contention that “discourse… is becoming politicized and polarized around rigid presumptions of someone’s opinion being right and the opposing viewpoint being wrong” is itself ahistorical. Many centrists enjoy the language of “becoming” because it positions contemporary events as radically new and absolves them of responsibility for an understanding of history. “Polarization” is in fact the norm in class societies: the hegemonic ideology of bourgeois capitalism is incommensurable with positions of emancipation and social justice. Less abstractly, it is important to remember, as Toni Samek reminds us, that we have been here before. Professional debates around intellectual freedom, social responsibility, and justice recur periodically in librarianship. Often, as in the heated Berninghausen debate of the early 1970s, rhetorical positions get quite heated. To say that they are somehow only now becoming polarized shows an ignorance of the history of the profession, as well as the wider political history of late capitalism. The debate between an absolutist IF position and social justice is not simply a disagreement or a difference of opinion, it is a contradiction that arises out of the nature of bourgeois society. Following Lukacs, I would argue that such contradictions are not amenable to argument and knowledge, but only to fundamental social change (which, of course, can and must be influenced by argument and knowledge).

Ignorance of history is also evident in Beaudry’s uncritical repetition of TPL’s view that the Feminist Unite rental did not contravene TPL’s rental policy. Following the Kulaszka memorial, for which TPL also came under fire, TPL changed its rental policies precisely to make the bar lower than illegality to deny a room rental. Many, many critics of TPL’s rental to Feminist Unite pointed this out, and to my knowledge no-one at TPL ever addressed the fact that the changed TPL policy allowed the library to deny a rental to Feminist Unite.

Here is where I must ask myself ‘Why Meghan Murphy and Why Now?’

Beaudry makes no mention of the Kulaszka memorial, nor does he mention protests over the same speaker renting a room at Vancouver Public Library earlier in the year (except once in passing), the subsequent banning of VPL from Vancouver Pride, and the community reaction against room rentals to transphobic speakers. Nor does Beaudry mention the attempt in 2018 by the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom to explicitly name “hate groups” among those to whom libraries are legally obliged to rent space. This change was approved and then rolled back amid professional pushback and the work of ALA councillors. It is this historical throughline that makes renting space to this particular speaker such an important touchstone of professional debates right now. The fact that the same speaker continues to gain publicity and leverage the trust placed in public libraries (at VPL again, and at Seattle Public) indicates that this history is far from over. It is vital to understand the historical aspect of these debates, if only so as not to wonder idly “why Meghan Murphy and Why Now?”

With respect to the two other events Beaudry describes in order to wonder why librarians are not crying foul, I hope to dispense with these in short order. Regarding Holodomor denial in Edmonton : as a Canadian of Ukrainian descent who grew up in Winnipeg, a city which boasts a long history of radical-left Ukrainian internationalism and the most virulent Ukrainian nationalism, I learned early that it is foolish if not outright dangerous to take a position on Ukrainian history. “History is past politics, politics is present history” and there are few places this is more true than in Ukraine. The debates around Ukrainian history and the political reality of Ukrainian-Canadians is much more complex than the libraries’ role in platforming transphobia. I should also add that the question of academic freedom is currently coming to a head at University of Alberta (and other universities in Canada). Just because you don’t see academic librarians weighing in in public about it (yet) doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. There are many different ways to engage, and we are not required to be consistent simply to satisfy the whataboutery of the CFE.

(To be fair, the whataboutery works both ways: where is the CFLA or CFE statement criticizing Winnipeg’s draconian security policies? Or does intellectual freedom not pertain to the marginalized populations of downtown Winnipeg?)

In terms of the BC school situation, I would again point to history, as well as geography. The room-rental issue is a national one - indeed, it is international now that SPL has gotten involved - and as I have pointed out it has a long history. There is a threshold to be reached before something impinges on the national or international professional consciousness. That many librarians in Canada or the US are unaware of things that are happening in BC schools should not really be surprising. Again, we can’t weigh in on everything.

As Jameson has pointed out, an awareness of history is one of the main casualities of neoliberal cultural logic. Public libraries and their defenders have refused to respond to specific criticisms: that refusing a rental is not censorship, that they are not legally obliged to rent space to anyone, that they are placing intellectual freedom above all their other professed values, that they are causing harm (not just offense) to marginalized communities. It is hard not to see this willful ignorance of recent history as just another deflection of the criticisms being made.

The documents released under FOIA have indicated the extent to which TPL was unwilling to abide by its own policy or to listen to critics of its position. The board meeting at which the TPL board made trans people relive trauma in public was not just a farce, it was completely inhumane. The reliance on authority (such as that of the CFE) to shore up an untenable intellectual freedom absolutism is, to my mind, an indication of the bankruptcy of that position. If it is true that Edmonton Public Library “instructed” (chilling word) a board member to resign, it simply underlines the fact that what is at issue here - as in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Halifax - is not intellectual freedom, but the authority of constituted power in the form of libraries as state institutions, public librarians, and academic think-tanks.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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