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culture

Freedom to Read and Reconsider at the Toronto Public Library

What it takes to get a book removed from circulation—and how often that happens at the TPL.

Entrance to Lillian H  Smith branch  Photo by Greg Stacey from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

Entrance to Lillian H. Smith branch. Photo by Greg Stacey from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Although the Toronto Public Library possesses a number of controversial holdings, few people are outraged enough to demand that items be withdrawn from its collection: it’s reassuring to consider, especially during this Freedom to Read Week, that on the whole, Torontonians support the public’s right to access materials considered offensive, and to do so via a local TPL branch.

The TPL outlines its position on contentious items and the importance of free debate in its Materials Selection Policy:

The Library believes that a vital society encourages members of its community to actively participate in an open exchange of ideas and opinions. Material selectors consequently strive to provide the widest possible range of resources within Toronto Public Library collections.

The content or manner of expressing ideas in material that is purposely selected to fill the needs of some library users, may, on occasion, be considered to be offensive by other library users. The library recognizes the right of any individual or group to reject library material for personal use, but does not accord to any individual or group the right to restrict the freedom of others to make use of that same material.

Yet there are, inevitably, patrons who wish to restrict that freedom, or to prevent items containing inaccurate or outdated information from circulating freely. And for such patrons, the TPL has developed a formal process. So what do these patrons do if they want the library to take a book off the shelf?

First, they ask their local librarian for a “Request for Reconsideration of Library Material” form. Once they’ve filled it out, it goes to the Collection Development department, where the manager reviews the request and contacts them if any clarification is needed. Then, the request is sent on to a librarian committee for review, and a response is issued within 12 weeks.

Front page of the Toronto Public Library’s “Request for Reconsideration of Library Material” form.

Since 2000, around 100 requests for reconsideration have been filed—and only nine items have been removed. The most recent title to be pulled, Date Rape: A Violation of Trust, was withdrawn from the video collection in 2012 because it, “while well-intentioned, reinforces stereotypes and lacks diversity and is, therefore, not appropriate as an educational tool in Toronto’s multiracial and multicultural environment.” Other titles have vanished for reasons including libel threats, unreliable accounts of Romanian history, bad advice on passing business accreditation exams, outdated information on dairy farming—and being poorly produced knockoffs of Pixar films made by the highly esteemed Video Brinquedo studio (What’s Up: Balloon to the Rescue).

Other reconsidered titles find new homes within the library system. Tintin in the Congo, for example, which features controversial depictions of Africans, was moved from the children’s collection to the adult graphic novel section in 2010. Not all suggestions from complainants can be acted upon: one 2003 complaint about eye weekly urged the library to provide copies sans escort ads. And in 2006, a patron requested that a rabbi review the content of Sarah Silverman’s film Jesus is Magic.

The most popular requests for consideration between 2000 and 2013? It’s a tie between Maxim magazine (2005 and 2006; one request suggested users be IDed lest it fall into the hands of innocent youth) and Robert Kaplow’s The Cat Who Killed Lilian Jackson Braun, a raunchy parody of The Cat Who… mystery series (2005 and 2007).

Library staff have not noticed trends in the complaints, and are proud of how few requests for reconsideration come in. Vickery Bowles, director of Collections Management and City-Wide Services, feels this reflects Torontonians’ “appreciation for the breadth and depth of our collections and the fact we are living in a large urban setting.” She believes that the public senses that “intellectual freedom in the public library setting is very important” and that the widest variety of available materials should be offered.

Freedom to Read Week display at the Maria A. Shchuka branch. Photo by Jamie Bradburn/Torontoist.

Richview librarian Kara Miley notes that discussion with staff can calm angry patrons. “Half the time they just want to rant at somebody—they want to think that you’re listening to them. If you let them just rant, they tend to lose steam.” Miley’s interest in censorship issues led her to put together a presentation as part of the library’s Freedom to Read Week activities. In “How to Ban a Book in 10 Easy Steps,” Miley focuses on the challenges libraries face elsewhere in North America, especially in the United States, where the merest hint of controversy damages an item’s acquisition chances. If you tackle topics like sex, racism, evolution, magic, and the Israel/Palestine conflict, be prepared.

What spares the TPL from many of the battles American librarians face are stronger protections via the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the anti-censorship policies of professional bodies like the Canadian Library Association. Plus, as Miley puts it, “I’d like to think we’re open and tolerant in Toronto.”

Check the TPL’s website for activities related to Freedom to Read Week, which runs through March 1.

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