Happy National Library Week!

I may be Canadian, but that’s not going to stop me from wishing everyone in the LIS world, and beyond, a very happy National Library Week!

Like you, I believe in the power of libraries to make a huge difference in people’s lives. Call me naïve, but I think that as long as people want to read and learn (no matter how they do so), as long as there are threats to intellectual freedom, and as long as people want to “get away” from their regular lives for a little while, libraries will continue to thrive. And I don’t think that any of those three key factors are going away any time soon.

This week, I encourage everyone to take stock of how their lives have changed thanks to their libraries – school, public, academic, or special. And remember the power of books. They’ve started social movements and even wars, after all!

(For example, a book that stands out for me is Quiet by Susan Cain. It really taught me to remember the importance of valuing introversion both personally and professionally – perhaps now more than ever before.)

So, what book has rocked your world?

 

 

 

 

The Libraries are All Right.

So, it’s been a while! Anyone in library school will tell you that March is the craziest month of the year, myself included. But with all but one of my assignments out of the way, I have time to write a little something.

I came across a blog post yesterday which I think deserves more publicity. Granted, I know I don’t have the biggest audience, but I think I ought to do my part, because this Ryerson University librarian has a very important message: Libraries are doing fine. We are adapting to the digital age. We are staying relevant. So, there’s no need to panic. Read her posting here.

Being in library school, it’s no fun to see people in the LIS community occasionally predict our impending doom (I don’t want to make a sweeping generalization, but that message is definitely out there). Nor do I think that panic is a healthy motivator for any person or any profession. At the OLA Super Conference back in January, David Usher gave an amazing plenary talk on creativity. Is the creative process hard work? Yes. Is it worth it? Definitely. And I believe that maintaining a creative mindset is vastly superior to panic when libraries are seeking to innovate. Panic leads us to ask: “How can we survive?” A creative mindset leads us to ask: “How can we thrive?” The former is about scraping by; the latter is about becoming a sustainable institution for many years to come. Which is why I’m so thrilled that next year’s Super Conference theme takes creativity as a point of departure; the theme is, “Think It! Do It!” And why an upcoming issue of CLA’s Feliciter is “Change vs. Panic.” To me, it’s important to not let those two things get too intertwined.

So, I would like to say thank you to all of the librarians who remind me that with a creative mindset, the libraries will, indeed, be all right.

Librarians and fellow students: What are your thoughts on this?

Canada Reads update: And the winner is…The Orenda!

Congratulations to Joseph Boyden, whose novel, The Orenda, has won Canada Reads 2014!

And, of course, kudos to Wab Kinew, for his outstanding defense of the novel throughout the week. (Read more about the Canada Reads finale here.)

Of course, as Jian Ghomeshi said on CBC Radio’s Q this morning, it’s naïve to think that one novel can literally change the nation. But I agree with Wab Kinew’s statement that we are at an important moment in the reconciliation process between aboriginals and the mainstream here in Canada (why not have a listen?). I don’t care if this goes against the principle of neutrality in the LIS profession: The way that the white Canadian mainstream has historically treated aboriginal communities is repulsive to me. We need books like The Orenda to hold a mirror up to ourselves and ponder how much (or how little?) our attitudes have changed.

So, to my fellow Canadians (and Americans – it’s worth reading south of the border too!), let’s all pick up a copy of The Orenda. And let’s continue the important conversations that Jian Ghomeshi, Wab Kinew and company have begun.

 

 

 

Day 2 of Canada Reads: And then there were three…

Perhaps you could call me old-fashioned. Yes, I think technology is awesome. I think it’s transforming the world of information in fascinating ways. But to be honest, a big reason why I decided to pursue a career in LIS is because I like to read. A lot. About many different things. And because I feel strongly about the importance of literacy skills and critical thinking, even – and especially – in the age of Google.

Those are also the reasons why I love listening to the Canada Reads debates on CBC every year.In case you’re not familiar with them, here’s how they work: Five Canadian celebrity panelists each pick a Canadian book to defend in a debate on CBC Radio. In recent years, they have been thematic, such as non-fiction books or “Turf Wars,” with different books representing different regions of the country. Each day, Jian Ghomeshi, the host, asks questions that promote debate among the panelists and require them to effectively defend their books. Based on what they hear, the public can recommend that the panelists eliminate a specific book, but it’s ultimately up to the panelists to decide which book they would like to see eliminated. Panelists whose books have been eliminated continue to participate in debates, supporting books they like or critiquing ones that they don’t, and they also continue to vote. On Day 4, the winner is announced as “the book that all Canadians should read.”This year, the theme is: One Novel to Change Our Nation. This year’s selections are: The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, The Orenda by Joseph Boyden, Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan, Cockroach by Rawi Hage, and Annabel by Kathleen Winter. Respectively, they are being defended by Stephen Lewis, Wab Kinew, Donovan Bailey, Samantha Bee, and Sarah Gadon. The Year of the Flood was eliminated yesterday, and Half-Blood Blues was eliminated today.This year’s novels take on an impressive range of issues, including the environment, the aboriginal experience, the immigrant experience, racial profiling, and gender roles (you can read more about the novels and their defenders here). It may be down to The Orenda, Cockroach, and Annabel, but really, I believe that any of these books could help change our country for the better. I often wonder what, if anything, is capable of triggering international action on climate change. In the wake of the Loretta Saunders tragedy, with all of its cruel irony, a lot of Canadians are thinking about the plights of aboriginals, especially aboriginal women, and rightly so. Racism continues to limit human dignity and equal opportunity in just about every country, and Canada is no exception. Immigrants’ academic and professional credentials often go unrecognized, which I personally believe is a disgrace. The controversy over the “genderless” baby Storm in 2011 shows that there is still progress to be made when it comes to how we treat people who transcend the traditional male/female gender binary. So, any one of these books can play an important role in facilitating dialogue on a contemporary social issue. And I think that all of those issues deserve attention.This is why continue to need books, regardless of format. Books have ideas. Ideas are at the root of all progress. Even the most vile and hateful ideas are capable of facilitating progress because of the backlash that they promote. So, we need to keep ideas going. When the flow of ideas stops, human progress also stops. As long as we have books, humans will continue to mean something.So, I guess that in the end, I didn’t just decide to become a librarian because I love to read. I chose this line of work because I want to help people continue to be human – to read, to think critically, to create, to share ideas. In an age of rapidly evolving technologies, we can’t afford to surrender the qualities and capabilities that set us apart from machines. And so I say: Here’s to five Canadian books that help us to continue to mean something.

Freedom to Read Week Review #3: Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling

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Where do you even begin to discuss a magical series that inspired a generation of readers all over the world? I can’t speak for all readers, but I think that J.K. Rowling and her characters taught us a great deal about love, loss, power, and the forces of good and evil. Unfortunately, there have been many zealous attempts to keep young people from learning about these things from her novels in the very places where learning is supposed to take place: our schools.

I won’t even get into censorship attempts of the Harry Potter series in the United States, because there have been so many that I could write a graduate-level thesis on them. No wonder it’s ranked #1 on the ALA’s Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books for 2000-2009. We’ve had far too many attempts to censor Rowling’s works in Canada as is. If our country had a similar list (CLA, take note), it wouldn’t surprise me if J.K. Rowling’s beloved seven-novel series topped the rankings in the Great White North, too.

According to the Freedom to Read Challenged Works List, the year 2000 was a very hard year for poor Harry and company here in Canada. In Corner Brook, Newfoundland, a parent complained about the novels’ presence in an elementary school. As is the case almost everywhere this series has been challenged, the parent took issue with its depiction of wizardry and magic. The principal ordered that the books be removed from the school, but here’s the real kicker: Neither the parent nor the principal had ever read a single book in the series. And it’s not like they had a shortage of Harry Potter novels to inform their thinking, since four out of seven had been published by the end of 2000.

A similar complaint, with a different outcome, was made to the Durham Board of Education here in Ontario. Initially, the board decided to withdraw the books from the classrooms, but keep them in the library. However, in a hard-won battle, the board reversed its decision. Nevertheless, in some areas, like in Corner Brook and at Rockwood Public School in Pembroke, Ontario, teachers are prohibited from using the Harry Potter books in the classroom.

But alas, Harry’s trials and tribulations didn’t stop there. Two years later, in the Niagara Region here in Ontario, a parent asked the school board to remove the books from the areas’ schools, on the grounds that they contained violence and promoted Wicca. Again, had she read a single one of the books? No. Thankfully, the Niagara District School Board turned down her request.

You see, as a librarian-in-training, attempts to ban books naturally bother me – but what bothers me most of all is when people try to keep other people from having access to books without ever reading the books themselves. To me, it comes down to treating others as one would wish to be treated. You wouldn’t want some stranger to decide what you can’t read, especially when their opinion isn’t an informed one, right? So why do that to others? If a parent wants to believe that the Harry Potter series promotes Wicca, then that’s fine, so long as a) his/her opinion is an informed one, and b) that person lets intelligent young people decide for themselves what Rowling’s novels are really about.

Finally, all of this opposition to Harry Potter on the basis of its inclusion of witchcraft and wizardry assumes that those forces must be used for evil purposes (although a viewing of The Wizard of Oz would prove otherwise). Throughout the series, Harry, Ron, and Hermione combat dark magic and dangerous creatures. Souls and mortality are prominently featured. Maybe I’m missing something, but I would argue that those kinds of themes ought to appeal to Christian readers, rather than drive them away. None of the three major characters support Voldemort, the widely feared dark wizard, also known as “He who must not be named.” They don’t spend a lot of time hurting other people; in fact, a lot of their time is spent trying to avoid getting killed or keeping other people’s souls, or lives, from being taken away from them. In many ways, Harry and his friends just want to make their magical world a better place – an admirable goal, really, regardless of your religious beliefs.

LIS students and librarians: What censorship attempts of the Harry Potter series have you encountered, personally or professionally? How did you (or your employer) respond?

Freedom to Read Week Review #2: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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I know what you’re thinking: That cover is awful. That thought once ran through my mind, too. But thankfully, I didn’t get the chance to judge this book by its cover, as this Margaret Atwood novel was one of two required novel studies Grade 12 English (the other being Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles – a very interesting pairing, if I do say so myself).

For those of you who haven’t read the book, The Handmaid’s Tale is a work of speculative fiction. It takes place in the not-so-distant future, in what is currently known as Massachusetts, (part of the Republic of Gilead in the novel). In Gilead, women are valued exclusively for their ability to procreate. The law even officially states that there is no such thing as a sterile man; there are only fertile women and barren women. Sex is no longer an expression of love – it is simply a means of sustaining life in a nation that is eager to increase its birth rate. Women are forbidden from reading (unless they are “Aunts,” who train the Handmaids), holding jobs, or maintaining their own bank accounts. Freedom of religion has been outlawed. And you can forget about interracial relationships, since African-Americans have been transported to “National Homelands.”

How could this have come about, you may ask? When Atwood was writing this novel in the 1980s, feminists and evangelical Christians obviously didn’t agree on very much (and they still don’t). However, they did find common ground on one issue: pornography. Feminists derided it as degrading to women, and evangelicals argued that it promoted sexual immorality. When this alliance is taken to its logical end, the result is a theocracy – with fragile roots in the Old Testament – in which women are legally “protected” from the “dangers” they face as objects of sexual desire, either within or outside of the context of marriage. Be careful what you wish for, Atwood seems to be warning us. You might get it.

Because this book deals so frankly with sex and religious fundamentalism, The Handmaid’s Tale has been an easy target for censorship attempts through the years. In the United States, it holds the dubious honour of making the ALA’s Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books list for both the 1990s and the 2000s. According to the Freedom to Read Challenged Works list, it was formally challenged here in Toronto, Canada in 2008 by a parent who objected to its use in a Grade 12 English class. The novel’s profanity, “anti-Christian” stance, “violence,” and “sexual degradation” were points of contention. The parent’s teenage child was assigned another book, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (which I think is a clever choice on the teacher’s part, since parallels have often been drawn between Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale), but ultimately, The Handmaid’s Tale was retained as an appropriate resource for Grade 11 and 12 English courses. (You can read more about the controversy here.)

Now, I’m not anti-religion. I think that faith, in and of itself, is a beautiful thing. But fundamentalist interpretations of sacred texts are, well, not so beautiful. You don’t need to look far to find out how much damage they’ve caused over the course of human history – although you can if you want to, and you’ll find religious fundamentalism’s scar tissue all over the world. Christian fundamentalism was used in The Handmaid’s Tale not to specifically attack Christianity, but to discuss the most widespread, influential fundamentalist religious movement in the United States. I somehow doubt that Atwood is promoting the sexual degradation of women like Offred – literally, “Of-Fred,” to denote her status as a man’s property – simply by including it in her novel. Rather, the oppression of women like Offred serves a logical intellectual purpose: to remind readers that when fundamentalism of any kind joins forces with feminism, women are seriously in trouble.

Of course, you may disagree with me about all of this, and that’s fine. But a fundamentally different understanding of the purpose of a book’s “objectionable” content doesn’t entitle anyone to prevent others from developing interpretations of their own.

LIS students: Have you ever encountered this book or any controversies surrounding it? If so, what were your thoughts on it?

Librarians: How have you approached, or how would you approach, any challenges to The Handmaid’s Tale and similar works?

Freedom to Read Week Review #1: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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Let’s kick off Freedom to Read Week with one of those classics that’s caused a whole lot of fuss through the years: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

I was assigned this book in my Grade 9 English class, and with the exception of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (another controversial work, in its own time), it was my favourite novel study in my high school English career. Before we began reading the book, we had a class discussion about the racial slurs that Lee opted to include. Our teacher explained to us that the use of racist language, while shocking, did not make Lee a racist author, nor did it make To Kill a Mockingbird a racist novel.

And yet, time and again, we see To Kill a Mockingbird condemned for being a “racist” text. According to Freedom to Read’s Challenged Works List, there have been several high-profile challenges to the book here in Canada. In 1991, the book was challenged, along with Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, by a black community group in Saint John, New Brunswick. Two years later, a parent’s complaint prompted the book’s removal from a Grade 10 reading list in Hamilton, Ontario. Most recently, in 2002, black parents and teachers in several Nova Scotia towns targeted To Kill a Mockingbird, along with Barbara Smucker’s Underground to Canada and John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night, for removal from the curriculum. If you search the Nova Scotia School Book Bureau – a database which contains all of the approved texts across the different subject areas – you will no longer be able to find To Kill a Mockingbird.

What lies behind the novel’s appeal to young people (and the 1961 Pulitzer Prize jury) is its confirmation of what they already know: that we live in an unjust world, that social change is a slow and painful process, and that treating others as we wish to be treated is easier said than done. The characters who perpetuate a racist point of view – and use racial slurs most frequently – are also those with whom we, as readers, are not meant to sympathize. Atticus Finch, by contrast, is a worthy nominee for the Best Father in Literature Award. He takes full advantage of the “teachable moments” in his children’s lives, most notably in his decision to defend Tom Robinson, an African-American who is falsely accused of raping Mayella Ewell, who is white. But does he go far enough in advocating a world in which we are treated as equals? Does Lee go far enough when it comes to Calpurnia, the Finch family housekeeper? Is she the victim of her creator, or is she a strong and worthy role model for young Scout? Some people think these questions are worth debating. Fair enough. But debate can’t happen if students, parents, and communities don’t expose themselves to the novel in the first place.

As a woman, I naturally object to insults that are specifically intended to degrade women. But a book that uses sexist language isn’t sexist simply because those words appear in the text. In fact, some books may use misogynistic insults not to promote a sexist worldview, but rather, to argue that the world in which the novel is set is unfair to women. It’s not my place to consider a novel sexist unless I’ve actually read it and carefully considered its content, because until then, I don’t know everything there is to know about the work at hand.

I’m not trying to tell you how you should read To Kill a Mockingbird. Perhaps because I’m white, I really am missing something. I’m just saying that there is no excuse for judging a book to be racist without reading it first and thinking, hard, about the deeper purpose that its controversial language may serve.

LIS students: Was this book freely available to you when you were in school? Did censorship issues play any role in your decision to pursue a career in librarianship?

Librarians: Have you personally dealt with any challenges to this book? If so, how did you handle that situation?