Nfld. & Labrador·Opinion

Banning a book: Why the freedom to read can't be taken for granted

Today is the first day of Banned Books Week. As Andie Bulman writes, challenges often happen when someone hears of a book they would prefer didn't exist.

You might be surprised by authors whose work has been challenged

Libraries are great equalizers. They function as public places where anyone can access information or entertainment no matter their social or economic status, writes Andie Bulman. (Submitted by Andie Bulman)

This column is an opinion by Andie Bulman, a writer in St. John's. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.


I usually write from my perspective as a chef, but I also have a master's degree in library and information studies (MLIS). That very expensive piece of paper is covered in dust, stuffed in a box and stored under the stairs.

Spoiler alert: it wasn't the career for me. All the same, the library remains one of my favourite places.

While finishing up my degree, I wrote a very terrible, precious and convoluted academic paper on how libraries function as tools for democracy.

My thesis may have been wordy, but the idea rings true.

Here it is: libraries are great equalizers. They function as public places where anyone can access information or entertainment no matter their social or economic status.

But things can go awry when books are banned, challenged or censored. Those actions can threaten the special place that libraries hold.

Reader 'told me to put it in the garbage'

On that note, Banned Books Week, an annual event that celebrates the freedom to read and highlights attempts to censor books and materials, is now upon us. (It continues until Oct. 3.) 

Bonnie Morgan, librarian and collections manager with the Newfoundland and Labrador Public Libraries, has first-hand experience in dealing with attempts to censor books. Years later, one moment stands out.

A display at a local library showcases books that some people don't want others to read. (Submitted by Amanda Chafe)

"Very early in my library career, even before I completed my MLIS, I was working a part-time student job at a public library," she told me.

"A patron pulled a paperback copy of a book that they didn't like from the shelf, brought it to the circulation desk and told me to put it in the garbage."

Why do books get challenged?

Books are challenged or banned for a variety of reasons. Frequently, challenges seem to be motivated by a desire to protect children or young people from inappropriate language, sexual themes and violence.

"No matter the motivations behind them, I think all challenges to ban books come from a deeply emotional place," Morgan told me.

"A person sees a book with content that runs counter to their personal belief or value system and the knee-jerk reaction is to try to make that book disappear, as if that can make the ideas contained in it disappear, too," she said.

"I see such efforts coming more from a place of fear and control than morality."

Atwood story censored in N.L. textbook

While the Newfoundland and Labrador public library system rarely has books challenged, it was a regular occurrence when denominational school boards existed.

In 1989, the provincial Department of Education ordered changes to a textbook called Themes for All Times. Advisors from some of the religious school boards were offended by some words and demanded changes.

Kevin Major's first book, Hold Fast, is still controversial: it continues to be challenged because of the language that its characters use. (kevinmajor.ca)

One of the authors censored was Margaret Atwood, whose short story The Sin Eater had contained words like "damn" that were considered blasphemous. Atwood, who had originally been told her story was being adapted for a Christian organization, was infuriated when she learned it was a textbook in the public school system.

Local authors Des Walsh and Kevin Major have had their works banned or altered. In fact, Major's groundbreaking debut novel Hold Fast still maintains a place on the most frequently banned or challenged book list in Canada. His tale of a troubled youth from small-town Newfoundland has been banned and challenged for containing curse words and (very) mild sexual content.

A former Pentecostal school board here removed a photo of young people dancing to rock music from a Grade 6 textbook.

There were challenges because of the courts, too. The Crown moved to ban local sales of Dereck O'Brien's memoir Suffer Little Children, which included material about abuse at Mount Cashel Orphanage while trials were underway in the early 1990s. Interestingly, the ban was extended even after the report of the Hughes Inquiry (which heard testimony from Dereck O'Brien, who also shed light on abusive foster care conditions) had been released.

Where libraries come in

The public libraries of Newfoundland and Labrador are committed to protecting the freedom of readers and writers. The provincial library board even formalized that commitment by endorsing the International Federation of Library Associations Statement on Libraries and Intellectual Freedom as part of the libraries' collections policy.

"That being said, not every patron is happy with every book we have on our shelves and we do have a process in place for patrons to request that we reconsider having a particular book in our collections," Morgan said.

"We take each complaint seriously while considering our commitment to intellectual freedom."

Margaret Atwood's short story The Sin Eater was censored in a 1989 textbook used in N.L. schools. (Alastair Grant/AP)

While the public library acknowledges and celebrates Banned Books Week every year, celebrating the freedom to read is also something you can do at home by borrowing or buying some of Canada's most frequently challenged books.

"And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell was a favourite bedtime picture book at my house when the children were younger and will always have a place in my heart. I also have a soft spot for When Everything Feels Like the Movies by Raziel Reid and Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women," said Morgan.

Another way to celebrate or acknowledge this week is to be seen reading and discussing books in public. While reading can be deeply personal, debating difficult works is a great way to confront new ideas.

Morgan left me with some helpful advice to share with you.

"Maybe someone else has a different take on a book you personally disliked or found disturbing and can open your eyes and mind to seeing it in a different way. Don't be afraid to ask the question, 'Read any good books lately?' A new, more diverse world of ideas and experiences can open up for you."

Finally, celebrate Banned Books Week by remembering that libraries being threatened, books being taxed and works being challenged or banned are all movements that have a harmful impact our collective access to information.

Banned Books Week shouldn't be celebrated by just librarians and overly eager library students.

These are issues that affect us all.

Challenges at Newfoundland and Labrador public libraries are, fortunately, rare. (Stephanie Tobin/CBC)

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador 

About the Author

Andie Bulman

Contributor

Andie Bulman is a chef, writer and comedian in St. John's.

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