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On Monday, March 9, Toronto City Librarian Vickery Bowles gave a speech to the Empire Club - formed to ensure the maintenance of the “imperial bond” between Canada and Britain amid anti-British sentiment in the early years of the 20th century - in which she argued that the reaction against TPL’s room rental to Meghan Murphy was “shutting down” voices. In a column for the National Post, Chris Selley - who has weighed in before on this issue, quoted Bowles as follows:

I consider myself a social justice warrier… My passion for librarianship is my commitment to equity and inclusion, and to the marginalized communities. And you support those communities by supporting intellectual freedom and free speech - because it’s those voices that are so often being shut down.

I believe that when I stand up for free speech, allowing Meghan Murphy (to speak), I’m standing up for the transgender community and the LGBTQ community, because I’m making sure that voices are not being shut down.

Leaving aside for a moment, the contradiction between what Bowles says she is doing for marginalized communities and what those communities themselves say she is doing (i.e. it’s easy enough to let people speak when you don’t have to listen to what they say), I want to touch on some of the discursive elements at play here. I’ve previously written about Bowles’ odd and unprompted move from “intellectual freedom” discourse to “free speech” discourse, but what I want to touch on here is the discourse of censorship that surrounds this issue.

The Vancouver and Toronto Public Library reaction against renting space to Meghan Murphy was never an intellectual freedom issue, and it was never a censorship issuem but due to the discursive power of the public library as state apparatus, the Chief Librarians very often are the ones in control of the narrative. We saw this in Winnipeg Public around security screening, where it took a well-organized group experienced in research and communications (Millennium4All) to challenge the library’s and the city’s portrayal of the screenings and the justification for them. The Chief Librarians made this an intellectual freedom and censorship issue, and those of us who criticize the libraries have had to conform to that discourse, but in reality this has nothing to do with IF or censorship.

In what follows, I will base the argument on library collections, as that is the foundation and recurring touchstone of intellectual freedom absolutist arguments. I believe basing a concept of intellectual freedom purely on the model of collections is a mistake, but as I will I hope demonstrate, even that basis undermines IF-absolutist arguments.

In the history of intellectual freedom in libraries, two ideas are prominent: that libraries are capable of representing all points of view in their collections, and that anything not collected in a library is by definition unavailable for public access. Neither of these ideas is correct, and both are based on pre-industrial conditions of information scarcity which no longer apply (if they ever did). For reasons of space, budget, and labour-time, libraries can’t collect everything, even if they did not have policies that explicitly exclude some material. Collection development policies always exclude material: some libraries might exclude zines, others might exclude self-published racist rants from a community member. Indeed, collections development prides itself on being selective and from a practical perspective, it cannot be otherwise.

One could argue that things like approval plans and demand-driven acquisition moderate policy-based selection, but selection in general still takes place: whether that’s the market-based selection of what gets published and what does not, or the patron-driven selection at point of need. As usual with much of the intellectual foundations of librarianship, the idea that libraries are not selective is based on a spurious abstract concept of free, frictionless access to resources, and this abstraction is disproved by actual collection development practice.

On the other side, when a member of the public challenges a book, IF-absolutists call it censorship, but when the same book is weeded from the collection according to policy, that is normal collection development practice. Libraries never collect everything or manage to represent all points of view; and indeed, they don’t want to. If we hold on to outdated manuals on health or medicine, presented without context, we are putting our communities at risk.

Now, IF-absolutists argue that any such contextual pointers are censorship, because context can, will, and must affect the free choice of a reader. This “free choice” is however, as I have pointed out before, part of the liberal illusion of the self-created, self-driven, isolated individual towards whom society can only ever be antagonistic (see J.S. Mill’s On Liberty for the classic statement of this position). One of the reasons IF-absolutists have such a hard time understanding and committing to the idea of community is that their entire intellectual toolkit is based on this kind of corrosive individualism.

Turning now to the idea that information not provided by a library, or not represented in its collections, is by definition unavailable to the public, this idea rests on two outdated assumptions. In the first place, in pre-modern libraries (monastic libraries, for example), printed information was indeed rare enough that a library could endeavour to collect everything (at least, everything written in a language the monks could understand, everything not offensive to God, the church, or the state, etc - even here, selection applied). But materially, and in principle, collecting everything was in theory possible. In the second place, with the advent of capitalism, the expansion of reading to poorer classes, and the commodification of knowledge, libraries reconsidered themselves as “free” (to taxpayers) portals to otherwise unaffordable or inaccessible material. In that world - pre-internet, pre-globalization - it was difficult to disseminate ideas. This process was gradually getting easier, of course: the printing press helped, as did newspapers, radio, and television, but while the production and dissemination of content was made cheaper, easier, and faster, access to such content lagged behind. Additionally, costs associated with access to information (e.g. the cost of a television) remained significant, and so libraries were still able to position themselves as providers of free access to (selected) material, and there was still a kernel of truth to the idea that there was an obstacle to information access outside of libraries.

This has all changed. The virtualization of information production, the reduction of the myriad physical kinds of information to bytes, means that most information is available through the same modality: images, moving images, sound, text, all of this is available online. There is, of course, a vast wealth of physical material not available online, just as there continues to be a digital divide operating at many different levels, but when we are talking about people’s voices - as Bowles’ is - it has never been cheaper, easier, or faster to get one’s viewpoint out on the web, and it has never been easier to get access to it. Indeed, libraries do have a structural role in providing that access, as long as they allow walk-in use of library computers (which they do for the time being, though this too is currently under threat). Such access is a social good, but it invalidates the argument that if libraries don’t rent a room to someone, providing a platform for them to speak, then that person effectively silenced.

(There is a deconstructionist argument to be made here regarding the metaphysics of presence, but I’m not sufficiently well-versed in deconstruction to make that argument).

Ironically, then, the libraries themselves have made access to everything online so easy that they undercut their own argument about censorship. No-one but an IF-absolutist thinks that anyone is being censored when there is no obstacle to their ideas finding an audience. Meghan Murphy, who runs a website/blog, and clearly has no trouble finding audiences, is not being silenced, her voice is not being “shut down”, if libraries don’t rent space to her. All that happens is that the trust the public holds in libraries - the trust they place precisely in our selectivity and our evaluation of information - is leveraged by corrosive perspectives. Again, the abstract ideal of “free speech” confronts the reality of evaluation and selection: if libraries don’t evaluate and select the information they choose to showcase, then what is the point of a library?

In fact, in a world where speech and its dissemination are effectively free, the library’s role as evaluator and selector becomes even more crucial. The liberal view that arguments and opinions must only ever be countered by other arguments and opinions ignores the material power difference between speakers, a power difference libraries could choose to rebalance, but only by giving up the classical liberal view that only speech, ideas, argument matter. By effectively erasing material power, oppression, harm, by making discourse only about ostensibly equal (because immaterial) ideas, speech, and opinions, libraries are unable to recognize real harm, real oppression, real inequality. This inability leads them to abdicate their role as selector and evaluator, without seeing that this simply allows the voices, ideas, and opinions of the more powerful to exercise control and reproduce oppression.

By making the discourse about intellectual freedom, free speech, and censorship, the libraries compel their critics to accept the terms of the debate or risk appearing as champions of unfreedom, silencing, and suppression. This is another example of unnuanced, black and white, oversimplified argument that classical liberalism, with its insistence on isolated, unrelated, entities and concepts, supports. I suppose I should be grateful that Chris Selley acknowledges “the library’s doctrinaire, classically liberal stance on speech”, since - because liberalism is the taken-for-granted common sense of bourgeois society - Chief Librarians and other defenders of absolutist-IF never acknowledge it.

It is important to challenge the unquestioned common-sense of these debates, whether that be the sudden elision of intellectual freedom with free speech or the presumption of censorship. These debates are not really about IF, and they definitely aren’t about censorship. Rather, they are about choosing political commitments in the recognition that neutrality is an illusion. What Bowles can never seem to understand is that there is no possibility of representing every perspective - not in collections, not in room rentals - because social power, exclusion, and oppression are real. By denying her own political commitments - or by paying lip service to them, as she did in her Empire Club speech, without understanding their contradictory consequences, Bowles’ is playing into the hands of right-wing antisocial exclusionary ideologies. When comprehensive collection or platforming is impossible, evaluation and selection are deeply and fundamentally political. This political dimension is always present, and since the Chief Librarians of many different systems have demonstrated that, far from remaining impartial, they have in fact chosen a side, they are going to have to live with the political consequences.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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