From repositories of records and literature to a home for events, libraries can be a place to fight against fascism or for the ideology to fester.
Canadian Anti-Hate Network
While libraries have long been sites of struggle against bigotry and oppression, the role they play in liberation movements and anti-fascism has become amplified in the last year. This has come as a result of far-right activists directing their repressive efforts at the 2SLGBTQ+ community, and trans and gender non-conforming people in particular. We want to highlight and celebrate the ways libraries persist in the resistance against white supremacy, fascism, and the far-right, and make some humble suggestions about how we all can become more engaged in this fight.
Diverse, Inclusive, And Anti-Racist Book Collections
I was raised in a deeply religious and very conservative home. One of my most powerful memories of public libraries is being a young, deeply closeted teenager, sitting on the floor of the young adult (YA) section. Back to the wall, I furtively flipped through a ragged copy of Annie on My Mind (which I had tucked inside another (not-gay) book), wrestling with the oscillating feelings of shame and joy that it brought up in me.
Library books that illustrate diversity, inclusivity, and anti-racism benefit all youth, and in particular youth who are unable to see themselves affirmed and celebrated in their families, religious communities, or social circles.
According to the American Library Association, half of the ten most challenged books, reported to their Office of Intellectual Freedom in 2021, faced attempts at restriction or bans in part because they contained 2SLGBTQ+ content.
The Christian nationalist hate group Action4Canada has, over the last year, set its sights on removing human development and sexual health education books, as well as queer and trans-affirming literature, from children's and YA collections at public libraries, claiming that “federal public libraries [are] supporting porn for minors.” According to The Sault Star, the organizers of last weekend’s protest of the library’s drag story time have ties to Action4Canada.
How Hate Movements Use Library Collections
In 2021, Halifax Pride cut ties with the Halifax Public Library after the library refused to “censor” the anti-trans book Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters. Halifax Pride had “urge[d the library] to take corrective action to remove the book and review their Collection Development Policy,” but was informed that the library would be “keep[ing] the book in their collection without further review of their policies.”
There can be a public utility to libraries holding hateful books in their collections – it allows researchers to access these materials for scholarly or anti-fascist reasons without financially supporting the publisher or author. One way that libraries can reduce the harm of holding these kinds of books in their collections is to make them available for reference only, and not available for borrowing.
Sometimes encouraging libraries to stock hateful materials, hate movements also weaponize library stacks as unwitting distributors of their propaganda. Members of leaked far-right and fascist chats claim to slip materials advertising their groups and ideology into books they thought might appeal to potential recruits.
Geraldine Slark, head librarian at Brockville Public Library, confirmed this is a practice they have seen.
“It’s something that came out of the religious far right, they used to always sneak their materials into libraries, put their books on the shelves, put posters up on our community bulletin boards,” they told the Canadian Anti-Hate Network. “So that was a daily exercise for me, I would do my little circuit of ‘Okay, so who has posted what.’
“But yes, I have absolutely taken down neo-Nazi materials, they absolutely do do that”.
Suggestions For Libraries:
2SLGBTQ+ book displays are awesome, but their high profile visibility can deter closeted or questioning people (especially youth) from repressive environments away from engaging with them. Consider keeping these books in the stacks, and using printed copies of their covers on display to promote them—this allows people to engage with the material more privately.
- Combat disinformation and fear-mongering about “antifa” by carrying and promoting explicitly anti-fascist books like ANTIFA: The Anti-Fascist Handbook by Mark Bray, The Antifa Comic Book: 100 Years of Fascism and Antifa Movements by Kwakwaka'wakw artist and author Gord Hill, and the upcoming We Go Where They Go by Shannon Clay, Kristin Schwartz, Michael Staudenmaier, and Lady.
Suggestions For The Rest Of Us:
Submit requests for diverse, inclusive, and anti-racist titles to be added to your library’s collections.
Libraries take many factors into account when it comes to weeding and maintenance of their collections – one of these is frequency of circulation, so if there is a book you are happy to see your library carrying, check it out and encourage your friends to do the same.
You may be able to donate your used diverse, inclusive, and anti-racist books to your local library (be sure to call first to make sure they have capacity to receive your donation).
Remove and report hate propaganda you find in libraries. Place anti-fascist material on public bulletin boards.
- Be informed about your library’s collection and make requests for books that promote dehumanization and disinformation to be removed from the collection. Many recent books that promote hate, such as Irreversible Damage, do so under the guise of objectivity and science. When making these requests, it may be useful to emphasize the faultiness of the research these books present, as you would if you found out your library was carrying a book falsely linking MMR vaccines to autism. Slark told us that many librarians inherit collections when they start a new job, and so are not always aware that certain books exist in and should be removed from the stacks.
Space For Liberation Movements And Community Building
Many public libraries around the country have successfully hosted drag story hours. While some of these events have seen hateful demonstrators and threats, Canadian libraries have nearly universally persisted in hosting these joyful events for children.
Public libraries have also permitted their facilities to be used for teach-ins, organizing sessions, community meetings, and events for anti-fascist, anti-racist, anti-colonial, and other liberation-based groups and movements, such as Public Interest Research Groups, Idle No More, and PFLAG.
The fact that libraries are one of few spaces in our communities that we are able to exist in without paying any fees is itself radical.
In Brockville, Slark points to disconnection and a lack of community as contributing to the rise in far-right movements, emphasizing the need for libraries to re-engage in this role, “they have lost the sense of community, and public libraries are supposed to be that community gathering place.”
Slark was in the thick of the public response to the Brockville Public Library’s December 2022 Drag Queen Storytime, spending three hours outside the building alongside anti-fascist drag defenders, dedicated to protecting the safety and enjoyment of the children inside. Ahead of the event, someone set a fire on the roof of the building, near the HVAC equipment.
“I believe they did that to activate our sprinkler system with the hopes of it would then destroy the building,” Slark told CAHN in December. “We'd have to cancel the event, which I had a backup plan for another location if something happened to the building.
“I was going to go forward.”
Despite all this, they are committed to reaching out to the subsection of protestors who, in their view, were not motivated by hate, but rather by ignorance. They plan to hold a “Grown Up” drag storytime, with a performer prepared to take some clumsily worded, but hopefully good faith questions.
Hate Movements Using Library Event Spaces
In 2018, a branch of the Toronto Public Library allowed its facilities to be rented for a memorial service for a lawyer best known for defending Nazis and Holocaust denialists, which featured neo-Nazi Paul Fromm as a speaker. In response to community outrage over the booking, the TPL board revised its booking policy in 2018, allowing staff to deny or cancel bookings "when the library reasonably believes the purpose of the booking is likely to promote, or would have the effect of promoting, discrimination, contempt or hatred of any group."
However, as Yellow Vests Canada Exposed researcher BloodRayne reported last year, “This policy change designed to maintain a ‘welcoming and supportive environment free from discrimination and harassment’ has already failed at least one public test. In October 2019, transphobic writer Meghan Murphy was allowed to speak at the Palmerston branch despite stiff opposition and protest.”
Earlier in 2019, the Vancouver Pride Society (VPS) banned the Vancouver Public Library from participating in its Pride Month celebrations after the library hosted Murphy in January. CBC reported that “the legal framework of a situation that will guide changes to the policy and not pressure from VPS,” according to Vancouver’s chief librarian. They also reported that according to the executive director of Vancouver Pride, “renting space to Meghan Murphy has eroded the trust between the library and the trans community.”
Suggestions For Libraries:
- Start or continue hosting drag story hours and other progressive social movement events.
- Communicate with other libraries about your experiences with hate groups protesting these events—many protestors have been travelling around the province to different municipalities, so sharing your knowledge about their identities, behaviour, and social media profiles to keep an eye on, can really help your fellow librarians be prepared.
Suggestions For The Rest Of Us:
- Start or continue requesting anti-racist, anti-colonial, pro-2SLGBTQ+, liberatory programming at your local library.
- Start or continue showing up to defend drag story hours and other events protested by the far-right.
- Get in touch with library staff ahead of the event to share any research you might have on protestors who are planning to show up. Slark told us that being in contact with anti-fascists, including those who intended to support the library in person during the protest, was really useful in feeling prepared.
- Communicate your appreciation and support for these events. Local public libraries are mostly funded through your local municipal government, so make sure to CC your councillor and mayor on supportive emails you are sending to the library.
Taking A Leadership Role In Institutional Anti-Fascism
Anti-fascism can (and should!) be practised by all levels of society, including at the institutional level. In 2021, the American Library Association passed a “Resolution to Condemn White Supremacy and Fascism as Antithetical to Library Work.” The very first clause in the resolution explicitly identified that “libraries have upheld and encouraged white supremacy both actively through discriminatory practices and passively through a misplaced emphasis on neutrality.”
In the aftermath of the multiple convoy protests across Canada (centrally in Ottawa), the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives suggested “promoting libraries to counter far-right populism” in their Alternative Municipal Budget for Winnipeg. They pointed out that “It is important to counter fascist and misinformation movements with education and information. Winnipeg Libraries are perfectly positioned to be part of continued education on the role of democracy, government and providing fact-based information.”
The Elephant In The Library
While many Canadian libraries are actively involved in the fight against white supremacy, hate, and the far-right, there have been some notable incidents in the last few years (which we discussed above), in which libraries have made choices in the name of “intellectual freedom” that have been perceived as harmful to the communities they serve.
While the International Federation of Library Associations identifies neutrality as a guiding force in librarianship and intellectual freedom, many librarians, such as Nicole A. Cooke, Renate Chancellor, Yasmeen Shorish, Sarah Park Dahlen, and Amelia Gibson, writing for Publishers Weekly have made compelling cases against this focus on neutrality.
“Libraries are not now – and never have been – neutral,” they wrote.
Other librarians, such as Anita Brooks Kirkland, in the Canadian School Libraries Journal, argued that neutrality can be a “radical practice,” if it is more robustly defined.
When asked if they thought the emphasis on neutrality in librarianship is sustainable, as hate movements continue to proliferate and encroach on community spaces, Slark, who has worked in public library leadership for over twenty years, told CAHN that “No not really, because there’s the whole paradox of the tolerance of intolerance, and that is something that libraries are very aware of. That these hate groups are using the tolerance that we have against us.
They continued, “I am at a library meeting at the end of the month, and this is something I will be bringing up as well, because having my library set on fire, and as far as I know, no other library has had that level of vandalism - it’s just going to keep escalating. So absolutely yes, we need to take a very hard line against it.”
Suggestions For Libraries:
- Take inspiration from the ALA and issue your own public statements about white supremacy and fascism being antithetical to library work.
- Likewise, make your own resolutions to review how a misplaced emphasis on a false neutrality could negatively impact your ability to serve marginalized communities, and to commit to incorporating a pro-actively anti-racist and anti-fascist framework.
Suggestions For The Rest Of Us
- Delegate to your municipal council to show your support for your local public library, especially as it relates to them adopting anti-racist and anti-fascist policies.
- Advocate to your provincial library association about issues surrounding anti-fascism and anti-racism.
All the reasons that the far-right and fascists view libraries as a threat – from hosting gender-affirming gear programs; to letting anti-racist community groups use their facilities; to hosting drag queen story hour; to stocking materials that allow queer and trans people see themselves reflected in literature – are things libraries should absolutely keep doing. It is not an exaggeration to say that these services can be lifesaving.
As community members, it is incumbent upon all of us to be active participants in fostering the values that guide library decision making, about everything from collections to programming and events to official policy.