CM May 10, 
1996. Vol. II, Number 30

image Fear of Words:
     Censorship and the Public Libraries of Canada.

Alvin M. Schrader.
Ottawa: Canadian Library Association, 1995. 195pp, paper, $29.95.
ISBN: 0-8880202-74-3.

Subject Headings:
Public libraries-Censorship-Canada.
Library surveys-Canada.

Professional / Post-Secondary.
Review by Maryleah Otto.



. . . the fear of words will never cease and the desire to censor them will never die.

. . .

Unless public librarians live the principles of intellectual freedom and access as agents of all of the body politic, through policies, procedures and integrity, they abdicate their claim to institutional prerogative and institutional autonomy

. . .

The evidence from this study suggest that public librarians as a community should be more consistent champions of the rights of children and young adults to have unqualified access to library materials. . . . age-related restrictions and other institutional barriers to access violate the "social contract" for intellectual freedom that public library staff unofficially, if not officially, endorse. . . . How a balance can be achieved between social ideology that expects public librarians to protect children and the larger moral imperative to restrict the rights of minors, is and remains an unresolved -- and difficult issue.

THESE ARE SOME OF THE CONCLUSIONS that Alvin Shrader draws from his superbly crafted research study of censorship in Canadian public libraries:

This study, the first national project of its kind in the world, has attempted to identify the scope and nature of community pressures to censor materials housed in the nation's public libraries and to document the ways in which public librarians across the country responded to these pressures.
     Shrader's credentials to undertake such a project are more than adequate. With a doctorate in library science from Indiana University, he has been a professor in 1982 in the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Alberta. He is a long-time member both of the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Library Association of Alberta and of the Advisory Committee on Intellectual Freedom of the Canadian Library Association. He has also been on the Board or Directors of the Library Association of Alberta. Previous professional experience includes several years in Ontario.

     In Part One of this study, Shrader explains that a review of the literature on censorship in Canadian public libraries revealed very little research into the kinds of community pressures that exist, how pervasive they are, or how often public librarians remove, or restrict access to, materials challenged.

     In outlining the conceptual framework of the project, he notes several important earlier U.S. Studies, emphasizing the need for a precise distinction between censorship ("a presumption in favour of thought control") and selection ("a presumption in favour of liberty of thought"). Shrader approaches his work by examining three main aspects of the context in which censorship exists:

  1. political and constitutional factors
  2. social and community factors
  3. institutional factors
He then identifies and explores three stages in the censorial process:
  1. the occurrence itself
  2. its resolution or outcome
  3. its effect on subsequent responses.

     Shrader gathered information nationally, in English and French, from a three-year period from 1985 through 1987. A questionnaire covered five main areas of inquiry:

  1. institutional characteristics
  2. access policies and practices related to intellectual freedom
  3. direct challenges to collections and their effects on access policies and practices
  4. covert censorship (deliberate theft or mutilation of materials)
  5. acquisition pressure (attempts to promote certain points of view or causes)
The study design included a checklist of thirty controversial materials based on the lists of challenged items identified in three previous publications about Canadian public library censorship incidents. Other design elements, limitations of the study, and the data analysis methods used are fully described in the text.

     Part Two of Fear of Words is a detailed presentation of the findings uncovered by the exploration of the five main areas of interest outlined above. The hundreds of responses quoted reveal the multitude ways Canadian public librarians deal with issues related to access. These quotes also make fascinating reading!

     Shrader's conclusions (suggested by the excerpts at the beginning of this review) include several other factors affecting censorship -- most importantly, those that operate at the level of the individual psyche. Shrader's plans for further research on these factors illustrate just how complex the issue is -- they involve insights from reader-response theory, social learning theory, and anthropology. Investigating them will require more complex research designs than the present one, but Shrader is confident their study will yield much enlightening information on censorial attitudes in general.

     Included in the book are several bibliographies, an index, the survey questionnaires themselves, covering letters, various statements on intellectual freedom, the 1995 Book and Periodical Council Freedom to Read Week Reading List, and a list of materials challenged between 1985 and 1987. There are also thirty-three tables and figures to illustrate the data analysis.

     Fear of Words is a landmark study that I hope will be read carefully by all public librarians in Canada. It exemplifies an unusually high level of research methodology in its attempt to uncover information and analyze data accurately. It is honest about its limitations.

     The only reservation I have is that Shrader expresses his own personal view of the issue so passionately. One is always tempted to suspect that a researcher finds just what they want to find in any available data unless a scientific impartiality and objectivity has been rigorously applied.

     The problems inherent in materials selection or rejection reach deep into the human psyche, and into a kaleidoscope of cultural, religious, political, and economic conditions. Public librarians will forever be caught between one man's meat and another's poison. Besides, values and tastes are always in flux. Ideologies hailed as true in one era or one region are taboo in others. Yet the concept of freedom -- not to be confused with license -- is dear to the human soul.

     I believe Shrader is correct when he writes:

In the last resort, it is not the force of law but only the force of free intelligence that can save a people from its own folly. In this light, I believe it is better to err on the side of more access rather than on the side of less.
Shrader seems to believe that humanity can trust its innate potential for good, and that we are, finally, more inclined to embrace truth and justice than their opposites. I hope he's right.

     This landmark study on the crucial issue of censorship deserves a careful reading by Canadian librarians in all field of practice.

Highly recommended.

Maryleah Otto is a former children's librarian in Toronto and London, Ontario, and the author of four published books for children. Her graduate work, apart from library science, dealt with the literature of modern romance languages.

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Copyright © 1996 the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364