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From the CEO: Why our fight for intellectual freedom matters for all Canadians

This opinion piece was originally published in the Calgary Herald on Tuesday, February 20, 2024, in recognition of Freedom to Read Week. 

By: Sarah Meilleur, CEO, Calgary Public Library  

Libraries are magical places where a love of reading can be sparked for little ones, a newcomer can find supports to start a new life, or anyone can find connection and respect no matter their background or circumstances. Yet the most powerful role of libraries is their ongoing fight for your intellectual freedom. 

Some Canadians might take for granted the privilege of unrestricted access to information and the freedom to explore diverse perspectives without fear of judgment. And yet it’s not something everyone in the world benefits from and is a pillar of a democratic society.  

Intellectual freedom is at a growing risk. People from opposing ideologies believe their ideas are the only option and seek to censor other perspectives. It's easier to categorize people into boxes than to understand the complexity of who we are. As history has shown us, censorship has never led to stronger societies – it has only led to their breakdown. 

Challenging, censoring, or banning a book is really about erasing a perspective or experience. We are shutting down conversation in our community and hindering progress. It creates an environment where questioning and debating is discouraged.  

As we recognize Freedom to Read Week, observed from February 18 to 24 across Canada, it is time that we take a step back and realize that every time we say, 'this book is not okay,' we are limiting the options for what we can build in the future. Let's acknowledge the weight of each silenced story, the stifled dialogue, and the missed opportunities for empathy and understanding. 

In many ways, libraries have become one of the last organizations upholding freedom of expression and freedom to read. We have a mandate and a professional obligation to defend the principles of intellectual freedom and freedom of expression, ensuring that the widest diversity of perspectives is represented – whether we agree with them or not. We stand strong in the ‘in between.’ We curate collections and provide spaces that embrace diverse viewpoints and facilitate open dialogue.  

Between January 1 and August 31, 2023, the American Library Association reported 1,915 challenges to censor library books — 20% more than the same period in 2022.  

Canadian libraries are closely watching events in the United States and are concerned about increasing pressure on libraries to reevaluate their commitments to intellectual freedom. But protests, challenges, social media commentary, and targeting of libraries only increases my resolve that we must continue to provide access to information, without judgment or censorship. 

It was author George R.R. Martin who penned, "A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one." Literature is powerful. It can transport us beyond our own experiences. But we have to let it.  

There is an idea that we must control what people read, hear, or see. But the more we influence, the less autonomy we’re giving people, especially children, to make their own decisions. Instead, it is essential to give people access to information, perspectives, and conversation. Don’t let the fear of something you disagree with override your belief in humanity. It’s new and different thinking that will solve the challenges ahead. We want the next generation to do better than what we’ve done. They will do that if we ensure they have access to information, alternative perspectives, conversation, and debate. 

In honour of Freedom to Read Week, I challenge you to read something you disagree with. Ask tough questions of what you read and question yourself, too. Think critically about what you are reading. Misinformation and disinformation are everywhere, so understand where things originate from, who wrote them and why, and always think twice about what you read.  

I am more committed than ever to fight for intellectual freedom. This matters across the country, and right here at home in our Calgary neighbourhoods.  

Books are not just words on a page; they are windows into different perspectives and ideas. By defending our right to read and access diverse viewpoints, we are not only enriching our own lives but also contributing to a more inclusive and tolerant society. 

I don’t always agree with everything on library shelves, but I will always fight for your right to read it. 

Sarah Meilleur is CEO of Calgary Public Library, one of North America’s largest municipal library systems. Read about Calgary Public Library’s commitment to intellectual freedom here. 

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