A Canadian Controversy: Libraries Emptied Over Banned Books.
As Banned Books Week comes to a close we look to the empty shelves in Canadian libraries, and why ending banned books is more important then ever.
New standards for library book removal left students, parents, teachers, and board members of the Peel District School Board confused recently as they noticed the number of books in various school libraries drop by what may be as much as half. Adding to the confusion is the assertion by some that books, including significant titles such as Harry Potter, The Hungry Caterpillar, and Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, were removed simply because they were published before 2008. The situation has prompted so much discontent that Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce wrote to the PDSB around September 13th, requesting a halt to the removals.
Like most school districts in Canada and other countries across the globe, libraries periodically conduct a process sometimes referred to as “weeding,” where some books are added, some removed, and some replaced with newer editions. Unheard of, however, is removing a book solely because of its publication date, particularly one as seemingly arbitrary as the year 2008. Getting a straight answer to what happened hasn’t been easy for parents, students, community members, or the media. The board’s education director, Rashmi Swarup, said in a statement, “PDSB teacher librarians have not been given the direction to remove all books published with a publication date older than 2008, nor has the board received provincial direction to remove particular books from our collections.” The chair of PDSB’s board of trustees, David Green, claims staff were told to focus on books published around 2008 or older as that was when there was last a major weeding. Students and other community members claim staff told them they were told to remove anything pre-2008.
Documents obtained by a group of parents, teachers, and other community members known as Libraries Not Landfills show that PDSB formulated their weeding methodology to comply with a directive issued by (plot twist!) Education Minister Stephen Lecce himself based upon a 2020 report commenting on systematic discrimination in the district. According to the documents, the first step of the process apparently places the age limit in question before two other measures aimed at improving equity and diversity. The district's guidelines were written by the non-profit Canadian School Libraries (CSL) and are known as “MUSTIE”.
● M (Misleading) - a book is factually inaccurate/obsolete or contains stereotypes
● U (Ugly) - a book is torn, dirty, moldy, etc.
● S (Superseded) - a book has a newer edition
● T (Trivial) - a book has no literary/artistic merit or is poorly written
● I (Irrelevant) - a book doesn’t interest or serve the needs of its target community
● E (Elsewhere) - the book’s info can be better explored in another book or format
Some of these guidelines seem obvious - nobody wants a moldy book lying around. Others can be left to a troubling amount of interpretation - whether or not a book is trivial or irrelevant can vary wildly from student to student. Weeding out books with stereotypes is tricky too - what constitutes a “harmful” stereotype is somewhat subjective, and the line between that and accurately depicting certain cultural tropes can be quite blurry. Too heavy-handed an approach on this metric could lead to such important Canadian authors as Richard Wagamese, Margaret Atwood, and Dionne Brand being unfairly targeted for removal because they tackle race, ethnicity and gender in a manner some may find uncomfortable.
So what happens to the books that get weeded? The physically damaged ones should be thrown away, but what about those that don’t meet the trusted MUSTIE standards? Donating them might be nice, but no, apparently not. According to the documents obtained by Libraries Not Landfills, PDSB is straight up destroying many of the weeded books because “they are not inclusive, culturally responsive, relevant or accurate” and therefore “not suitable for any learners.” Tom Ellard, the founder of Libraries Not Landfills, says a landfill in the area told him they’re looking to hire extra staff because of all the discarded books they’ve received. That’s pretty astonishing (assuming it’s accurate) and incredibly troubling, evoking images and memories of tactics used by authoritarian regimes across history.
Coverage of the removals has been non-existent since Lecce’s letter to Peel District School Board in which he requested the current removal process to “immediately end.” His initial statement was, “Ontario is committed to ensuring that the addition of new books better reflects the rich diversity of our communities. It is offensive, illogical and counterintuitive to remove books from years past that educate students on Canada’s history, antisemitism or celebrated literary classics,” which seems to be a defense of the program overall while criticizing the scope and severity of the removals. His office has not commented since.
It’s not entirely clear where exactly the breakdown happened, but given how widespread the issue was across the district, David Green’s claim of a simple miscommunication from the board of trustees to staff about focusing on books published prior to 2008 seems plausible. However, Rashmi Swarup’s earlier claim raises much doubt - the board technically wasn’t instructed by Lecce’s 2020 directive to remove specific titles, but they were instructed to aim for better diversity and equity in their libraries. Given such obfuscation on the part of the board, one can only hope that the passion of PDSB students, teachers, and groups like Libraries Not Landfills will help them to continue pushing for answers and an end to such a controversial weeding system.
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This article was written by Jack Gillespie.