Vancouver's Amoral Public Library

Posted: 2/16/2008 2:21:00 PM
Author: Covenant Zone
Source: This article appeared originally apeared on the Covenant Zone Blog on Feb. 14, 2008.

Vancouver's Amoral Public Library
by Covenant Zone

After reading Terry Glavin's article in the Vancouver Sun, "Does our library know there's another word for anti-semitism", I was pretty upset, so I went to the Vancouver Public Library to complain in person about this revelation that they were scheduling a flagrantly anti-semitic author to read excerpts from his book, at the library, later this month.

Armed with my camera, I wanted to accompany this post with pictures of the advertising the library had on display for the event. But there wasn't any advertisement for the author's upcoming talk. Maybe because it's too soon, maybe it's because somewhere within their moral core they know it is preposterous to use up their limited resources on guests like this, and they were trying to keep it low profile.

I spoke to a seemingly nice and well-mannered librarian about my disagreement with their decision. Despite how upset I was I tried nevertheless to be as gracious and polite as possible as I explained the reasons for my objections to this person being offered a prominent public pedestal by the library for his views.

The librarian was most helpful and attentive, however unsympathetic she was to my position. In fact she was so unemotional and detached, beyond dutifully offering good customer service, that I began to wonder if I wasn't making myself clear. She was talking to me as if my position was as morally neutral as it would be were a Toronto Maple Leafs fan chagrined that the library had scheduled an "award-winning journalist" to talk about why the Vancouver Canucks were the better hockey team.

At one point I asked, "You can understand why someone would be upset by the discovery that an author like this was being given a public forum in, of all places, the city's main library?"

To frame her answer, she consulted, as she did right from the start of my discussion with her, a document that she read from, verbatim, off her computer screen. I asked her about what she was referring to, if it was online somewhere so that I could read it as well. She said that it was not. I asked if I could have a copy, and after consulting a few others for their ruling on the matter, a decision was made that it would be okay for people to see it, so she printed off a copy for me.

In a follow-up post to his earlier article, Terry Glavin wonders about the decision process that led to the library making room for the "provocative" author now scheduled there later this month.

Maybe the document the library offered me, produced evidently in anticipation of complaints like mine, can shed some perspective on what that story is:

February 25 Greg Felton Reading Q&A

Q. Did VPL invite Greg Felton to read at the Central library?

R. Mr. Felton approached the library to read from his book as many authors do and publishers on behalf of their authors. Given that Freedom to Read week occurs in February, the Library felt this would be an appropriate event to hold during that week.

Q. Some groups and individuals believe Mr. Felton is a holocaust denier and neo nazi. Should such an author have the freedom to read at a public library?

R. The Library knew Mr. Felton’s book would be provocative but it has not been identified as hate speech.

Intellectual freedom is a core tenet of public libraries even though some subjects may be considered unconventional, unpopular or unacceptable. Upholding the right to intellectual freedom may put you in the position of appearing to support controversial views. The role of the public library, however, is to provide a forum for an open and public exchange of contradictory views and to make materials available that represent all points of view.

Public libraries have a responsibility for the development and maintenance of intellectual freedom. This is one of the reasons this event is being held during Freedom to Read Week.

Q. Even though Mr. Felton is a known neo-Nazi sympathizer, denies the Holocaust and calls Israel a parasite?

R. Before agreeing to Mr. Felton’s request to read at the Library, Library staff reviewed several excerpts of his book and reviewed a number of websites. We found no information indicating the book is subject to any legal action. Library staff conducted more research than is normal for an author reading to ensure the book has not been identified as hate literature.

Because his work is provocative and Mr. Felton has been the subject of debates over journalistic freedom, the Library believed this event was particularly relevant for Freedom to Read Week.

Q. Have you received any complaints about VPL holding this event?

R. Some concerns have been raised and we have communicated the Library’s perspective and explained our obligation to uphold and support intellectual freedom.

Q. Is there any possibility the event will be cancelled?

R. We have seen no evidence to indicate this event should be cancelled. Mr. Felton’s book has not been identified as hate speech. The event was scheduled because of its appropriateness for Freedom to Read Week and it would be highly ironic to cancel it without evidence that the book’s content is breaking any laws.

Q. Will Mr. Felton’s event be monitored to ensure hate-crime laws are not broken?

R. Library staff will attend the event as they do for virtually all author readings. Uttering hate speech is a crime in Canada. The Criminal Code of Canada prohibits willfully promoting hatred against any identifiable group. If Mr. Felton were to utter hate speech he would be dealt with according to these laws.

I checked the library's catalogue: they currently have another of the author's books on file ("in stock"? Not sure what the proper expression is here...). They don't have the newer book that the author is going to be reading from at the event, but I was disillusioned to learn that it is on order.

Is this really the kind of book that our library should be buying? How many new books can they afford each year, that they can find the resources to accommodate a book like this in their budget? I wonder what kind of standards are in place for them to follow when they are determining how and where to spend their presumably limited resources. (Maybe that should become a topic for them to schedule a discussion around at their evening lectures... "Why you can trust that we are handling your money wisely". We can have a "Freedom to Judge" week...)

It makes you wonder how much of those limited resources have also gone towards accommodating this author's upcoming personal appearance at the library. Who pays for the time they spent researching whether he's been "subject to any legal action"? How many man hours are involved when the library staff conducts, as they put it, "more research than is normal"?

And the costs keep coming: "Library staff will attend the event...". Given the tendentious nature of the event, will there be more staff than usually attend these events? And who is paying for that? And what does it mean that "hate speech" "would be dealt with"..? Is that implying the staff that would have been in attendance anyway, will deal with it, or will there be even more employees required to be there, adding to the library's expense?

And my questions keep coming: what book got left out, to allow for his book to be purchased for our library's files? They don't have a printing press in the basement turning out money as well as renewal slips... what got lost in the trade-off required to put his books on their shelves? Which speaker(s) did we not get to meet, in order to give the one slot for "Freedom to Read" week to this author? What can't be done at the library now that money was spent on costs surrounding this author's appearance instead? Who gets to oversee the judgment of whoever it is that judges how the library's funds get used up? Do I have any say in how my library uses its money? Whose library is it?

Well, despite whatever probable strain was placed on the library's limited resources, the guy is going to speak there, by the library's consent.

Now, what do we do about it?

What is the Right Thing To Do?

What would constitute a principled reaction to this person's appearance, and the library's acceptance of his appearance, for the reasons outlined in their Q&A document?

Do we seek to get this "provocative", to use the library's term, appearance canceled? What does that say about our belief in Free Speech, even for people who have vulgarly silly things to say?

Do we protest his appearance? Doesn't that just give him more attention? We can't do nothing... but what do we do?

Personally, my anger is aimed much more at the library than the author. His work is simply beneath contempt; I should be able to trust that my library should know better, and should have far better things to do with the money it is given. I thought they were hard up for funds these days. Apparently not. They certainly won't be needing the quota of books I used to occasionally donate, or the cash I would dutifully give them through their seasonal fund-raising book sales, if they can afford to finance "particularly relevant" events like this one.