Libraries are being accused of offering child porn. Librarians explain why that's not true
Amid the campaigns to remove certain books, librarians explain how they choose their collections
Stroll through the stacks of any library and you're bound to find something you don't agree with. But in parts of Canada, people are campaigning to make public and school libraries remove books they claim make sexually explicit material available to minors, or even contain child pornography.
The books in question are often ones aimed at children and teens and that have content related to sexual education and/or LGBTQ and gender identity issues.
The librarians who have been tasked with selecting books and maintaining robust collections say the claim they would stock child pornography on their shelves is not true, and that these efforts seem motivated by personal beliefs.
"We make the information available. We don't force anybody to look at it," said Kay Cahill, the Vancouver Public Library's director of information technology and collections.
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The efforts to have books pulled from libraries follows similar movements throughout the United States, where there have even been laws enacted to punish libraries and librarians.
In multiple communities in southern Manitoba, individuals have made cases to municipal councils that libraries should have their funding taken away unless certain books are removed. They believe the books violate sections of the Criminal Code of Canada.
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In February, RCMP in Chilliwack, B.C., investigated and dismissed an allegation that books in school libraries contained child pornography. And a school board in Ontario's Durham region faced heated questions over the inclusion of a book on gender diversity in high school libraries during a meeting last month.
'A line in the sand'
There are around 1.8 million books at Vancouver Public Libraries' (VPL) Central Branch, according to Cahill, who along with Inness Campbell, leads the collection team for that location and 20 others around the city.
It's impossible to read every single book, cover to cover, before putting it on the shelf. But Cahill is adamant that "we don't carry illegal content, you know, that is a line in the sand."
Cahill explained VPL has a team with areas of expertise in various subjects, and they work closely with publishers and vendors, as well as rely on publishers' notes, library journals and media reports, to determine what books they should stock.
The library also looks at "developmental appropriateness" when it selects books for the children's and teens' sections, added Campbell, VPL's Collections and Technical Services Manager.
They also consider the reading level of the age group and whether a topic is "described and talked about appropriately for that age."
When it comes to material related to sexuality and gender identity, Cahill said the library won't restrict access to specific books. While there are dedicated sections for books aimed at teens, any library card holder at any age has access to the full collection.
"If you constrain offering materials around sex-ed because some people perceive it as controversial, you'll have teenagers who are going out looking for information elsewhere, possibly using unreliable sources," Cahill said.
School libraries 'an easy target'
School libraries are "an easy target" for accusations because they deal solely with young readers, said Anita Brooks Kirkland, the chair of the non-profit organization Canada School Libraries and a retired teacher librarian in Ontario's Waterloo Region District School Board.
"'Age appropriateness' is a common phrase that is used," she told CBC News.
But these charges are usually concerning books with content about sexual identity, gender identity or sexual expression — "not actual pornography," she said.
Brooks Kirkland said she and other librarians have been cautiously watching the spread of book bans and library restrictions in the United States and that it has brought "a chill into our hearts." She noted several school districts across Canada have already faced challenges.
Depending on the jurisdiction, school library staff responsible for acquiring books and maintaining collections may include teacher-librarians — teachers who have additional professional qualifications in librarianship — professional library technicians, clerical staff or even volunteers.
The guidelines for how a collection is built may be different in each province or each district, Brooks Kirkland said, but her organization provides a set of standards that can be used as a guide.
Like public libraries, she said school libraries have the same duty to provide books on an array of topics and with a range of perspectives.
Certain books under scrutiny
Earlier this spring, people in south central Manitoba urged municipal councils to reconsider funding for libraries, accusing the South Central Regional Library (SCRL) of "creating an unsafe environment" by offering access to certain sex-ed and LGBTQ books.
Two of the titles that have come under fire are books about sexuality and gender identity: Let's Talk About It: The Teen's Guide to Sex, Relationships and Being a Human by Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan; and It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing up, Sex, Gender and Sexual Health by Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley.
It's Perfectly Normal is intended for age 10 and up, while the publisher of Let's Talk About It categorizes the book for teens and young adults.
Both books contain illustrations of developing bodies and depictions of sexual activities, including masturbation, as well as chapters on safe sex, pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, sexual and gender diversity, consent and online safety.
All Boys Aren't Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto, the personal story of LGBTQ activist and writer George M. Johnson, has also come under scrutiny. The book includes descriptions of sexual activities.
"Why does council continue to fund the South Central Regional Library, which continues to purchase and distribute materials that contain child pornography and instruct on sexual touching for minors," asked Karin Banman, one of the people making a case to cut library funding at a March 14 city council financial planning meeting in Winkler, Man.
Banman and others cited Section 152 of the Criminal Code of Canada, related to the invitation of sexual touching to a person under 16 years old, and Section 163, which pertains to child pornography and the depictions of people under the age of 18 years old in "photographic, film, video or other visual representation[s]" but excludes materials that have "a legitimate purpose related to the administration of justice or to science, medicine, education or art."
According to the Winnipeg Free Press, Winkler Mayor Henry Siemens sent a letter to SCRL, on behalf of council, to raise concerns about "graphic sexual act depictions and descriptions contained in some children's books in the library," but he insisted council was not intending to get involved in library operations.
It's highly unlikely that any book on a library shelf contains content that would be considered child pornography under the Criminal Code of Canada, said Jordan Donich, a criminal lawyer in Toronto.
"The publisher doesn't want to face liability," he said. "So, I think it's safe to assume if it's [in] a bookstore or in a library, it's likely been vetted by lawyers."
He said people have their opinions, but that doesn't mean they should make child pornography accusations and attempt to use the Criminal Code of Canada as a "backdoor" to have content they personally object to be removed from libraries.
VPL's Campbell explained it's up to the parent to be a part of making that decision with their child — something that is actually stated on the back of the library card.
"We don't honestly know what's appropriate for that child, in that patron's eyes, but parents, absolutely, we want involved with their children's reading. It builds better readers," she said.
If there's something a parent has questions or concerns about, Campbell and Cahill said librarians are available to discuss why a certain book may be in the library. But they haven't had many issues at this point.
Often, people just want to "feel heard," said Campbell.