These books were challenged at Ottawa's libraries last year

The central branch of the Ottawa Public Library is seen from Metcalfe Street on Jan. 11, 2024. (Patrick Louiseize/CBC - image credit)
The central branch of the Ottawa Public Library is seen from Metcalfe Street on Jan. 11, 2024. (Patrick Louiseize/CBC - image credit)

The Ottawa Public Library (OPL) denied all formal requests to remove materials from its collection last year.

According to a report to the library's board, there were seven "requests for reconsideration" during 2023. Six sought to pull books or DVDs from library shelves, while one asked to reclassify a graphic novel from the teen to the adult collection.

Complaints covered everything from alleged racism or promotion of hatred to reports of inaccurate information or objectionable content.

Some of the impugned books have been in the crosshairs elsewhere, like Tintin in America, which has been criticized for stereotypical depictions of Indigenous people. On the cover, Tintin is depicted tied to a pole behind an axe-wielding man in a headdress.

Another challenge targeted the graphic novel Love on the Other Side, which portrays "fascinating relationships that refuse to be confined," according to the OPL description, including with a monster, a vampire and a "magnificent bird."

The only Russian-language book on the list was written by a pro-Kremlin political scientist and former television propagandist who has made threatening comments about nuclear warfare against the United States. The complainant said his book "promotes hatred."

Another challenge objected to a DVD of a "comedy horror" film starring Ralph Fiennes.

A French-language children's picture book about the stegosaurus, with a subtitle that translates as "the friendliest of dinosaurs," was challenged as racist. Though it is largely about a boy's friendship with the prehistoric creature, one illustration shows a carnival where one little girl is dressed in what appears to be traditional Indigenous clothing.

Arthur White-Crummey/CBC
Arthur White-Crummey/CBC

According to the report, the library retained all of the materials in their existing collection areas. That includes the graphic novel, which remained in the teen section.

Library sets 'very high bar' for removing material

Coun. Matt Luloff, who chairs the OPL board, said the library takes "a very strong stance on intellectual freedom." In his view, its policy is among the most permissive on the continent.

"We set a very high bar," he said. "Just because one person may find something offensive to their personal views doesn't mean the library should not be carrying it."

This is the second time the OPL has released a written report on library challenges. In 2022, the number of challenges stood at 17. That year, staff withdrew two of the challenged books including one entitled Hitler's Table Talk. It cited "low usage" as the reason.

The 2023 report says the seven challenges that year are more in line with recent trends.

Barbara Clubb, the OPL's former chief librarian, said there were far fewer before she retired in 2010.

"I had to sign off on them and I can't think I signed off on more than a couple," she said. "Most complaints were about what wasn't in the library."

Now she's seeing a well-organized movement in the United States looking to pull books focusing on gender or racial issues out of libraries.

"We're not immune to those things, but it's not happening at the same rate," she said.

'We are not here to censor'

Melanie Mills, past president of the Ontario Library Association and an academic librarian at Western University, has also watched censorship demands become more prominent in recent years than at any time in her career.

"What happens in the United States for sure influences what we're experiencing in Canada as well," she said.

Mills said people sometimes come to libraries with lists of hundreds of books they want to see removed.

In her view, unrestricted access to information from all points of view is "fundamental" and "core to our work" as librarians. She said education and discussion, not censorship, is the best way to handle objectionable material.

That also goes for works with outdated depictions that appear discriminatory by present standards.

"We retain materials from their time to understand context, to understand what was happening in a specific time and date," she said. "Because society's views have evolved ... that in and of itself wouldn't warrant removing something."

'Something to offend everybody'

Clubb agreed that such works can have "historical value" and illustrate how standards change over time.

According to Clubb, librarians sometimes say they "have something to offend everybody," meaning they should carry works that respond to diverse communities with opposing world views.

But she said it's still essential to have a process that responds to public concerns, reviews them and reports back with an answer.

Luloff, Mills and Clubb all agreed that, generally, the law is the limit bounding what libraries can make available to the public.

"We are not here to censor or mitigate access regardless of political view, perspective, experience," said Mills.

Feb. 18-24 is Freedom to Read Week in Canada.