It’s been a while since I last blogged in this space, but this past week’s honouring of our Freedom to Read has inspired me to write.
Freedom to Read Week is an annual event that encourages Canadians to think about and reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom, a freedom that is guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Like most libraries, we celebrated with banned book displays and conversations, as champions of free expression. With “create your own ebook” workshops and thoughtful collection development, we’re doing our bit to ensure new voices are heard and available, that access is preserved.
And so it seems only fitting that a cherished friend and mentor is acknowledged this week too. Brian Campbell, a passionate and committed individual who championed intellectual freedom and information access issues every day of his career and continues to do so in retirement, was honoured by the Canadian Library Association. Brian is the winner of the 2015 Award for the Advancement of Intellectual Freedom in Canada, for his tireless championship of librarianship’s core values of intellectual freedom and information access.
After launching his library career at Vancouver Public Library, Brian became a champion and chair of the BCLA Intellectual Freedom Committee in the 1980s. In his 2015 Award acceptance speech, he talks about those early committee days of defending the freedom to read. He notes that “While individual challenges to books & authors could be viewed as affecting only the reading public and literary community, the next decade and a half has seen a broadening attack on the right to know and the right to speak freely.”
And so Brian, always prescient, took the protection of intellectual freedom to the next level. He became the founding chair of the BCLA Information Policy Committee, was an active founding member of the CLA Information Policy Committee, and founding president of the Vancouver Community Network, a community-based organization which ensures the free, accessible electronic creation and exchange of the broadest range of information, experience, ideas and wisdom.
He has been instrumental in affecting change across a broad range of public policy issues such as the defence and protection of free speech and privacy, freedom of access to information access and the protection of privacy.
No stranger to public policy debates, Brian bravely took on challenges like the proposed amendments to the Criminal Code and the Customs Tariff regarding pornogaphy, shaping BC’s Freedom of Information & Privacy Act, fighting the campaign against the Multi-Lateral Agreement on Investments and the WTO General Agreement on Trade and Services, and co-founding the Seriously Free Speech Committee, a group dedicated to the belief that “free speech is fundamental to other democratic rights and that political criticism is the bedrock of free speech”.
The committee work that Brian led was instrumental in delaying, and in some instances stopping, the federal government from reducing or eliminating their statistics gathering programme and charging for government statistics, while preventing the immediate elimination of the government depository program. Thanks largely to Brian’s vision and efforts, the BC Library Association lobbied libraries and government to introduce free public access internet stations and training into public libraries. BC was the first jurisdiction to provide free access to the Internet in all its public libraries. No single effort resulted in such a broad increase in access to information for the general public.
And Brian’s activism work has only stepped up in his retirement from full time library work. He continues to lead and inspire with his passion and intellect. His ambition for libraries as a pillar of democracy continues to inform his thinking. In responding to Bill C-51 (Anti-Terrorism Act 2015), Brian offers this current challenge to libraries:
Bill C-51 is a direct attack over many aspects of public and private life – including thought. Many civil libertarian & other agencies have already spoken out against Bill C-51, as have prominent public intellectuals, retired members of the judiciary, the legal profession and politicians. It is clear however that the vast majority of the public has not understood its significance.
Thousands of grass roots organizations oppose Bill C-51, in which environmental and indigenous organizations are clearly targeted. Those organizations must mobilize a public education campaign that highlights the threat to stifle public participation in the decisions that affect our lives. Libraries, as they did with Bill C-54, can play an instrumental role to enable this public mobilization.
Libraries are an important public institution, perhaps the only one whose sole mandate is to make the collective literature and information of society available freely to the public. But we are only one institution and it is only by forming coalitions with social justice organizations, writers, publishers, indigenous organizations, trade unions and environmental organizations that we will have the opportunity to defeat Bill C-51 or, more likely, mount legal and civil disobedience campaigns against its implementation.
This can only be successful by combining our resources in a massive public and political education campaign.
Libraries have a responsibility to be active participants in our communities, and provide opportunities for citizens to learn more about issues that affect our world. It is our role to ensure that all relevant knowledge, opinions, and perspectives are given an opportunity to be heard. And by building relationships with the community and collaborating with partners, as Brian suggests, we magnify our reach and open the discussions more broadly.
Bill C-51 is a current and relevant issue for Canadians. It has the potential to profoundly affect the lives of all Canadians and yet the average citizen is unaware of its potential impacts on personal privacy and the health of our democracy.
Responding to this issue, the Canadian Library Association released a Statement on Public Access to the Internet. Reinforcing the role of libraries in this sphere, it states:
“The Canadian Library Association maintains that the privacy and freedom of law-abiding citizens should not be compromised. As Canadians discuss Bill C-51, the Anti-Terrorism Act, the Canadian Library Association remains committed to promoting public libraries’ role in providing free and safe access to the Internet. Public libraries’ internet use policies consistently reinforce that illegal activities are not permitted on library computers and library staff across the country continue to cooperate with law enforcement as required.”
I asked Brian for his thoughts on that last sentence, should Bill C-51 result in libraries becoming part of the surveillance apparatus. He pointed out that there will need to be a lot more fine-tuning of that statement, to make the distinction between things that are clearly against the law, and things that “may” be against the law. In his acceptance speech this week, he stated:
Of particular importance to libraries and to this audience is the definition of terrorist propaganda as “any writing, sign, visible representation or audio recording that advocates or promotes the commission of terrorism offences in general”. Note the vagueness of the term ‘in general’.
In conversation with me, Brian further warns that “libraries will have to reassess their policy on the law and Internet use. With Bill C-51 being so general, it’s inclusive of a lot of things that people are doing. For example, if a library patron is sending a letter of protest regarding something about Israel through a library computer, it’s highly questionable what the implications are for libraries.” Clearly, there is an ever present need to be vigilant in our commitment to library values. We will be looking to our library associations and academics for leadership on a public education campaign and public policy advice regarding Internet use in libraries.
I am always grateful to new librarians who bring passion and commitment to the work of protecting the freedom to read and to access information. And I want them to know that they are following in the wake of someone who paved the way for libraries in Canada. More than deserving of this national recognition, Brian is a librarian who made a big difference. Brian’s influence on the profession has reached legacy status.
As the BC Library Association wrote about Brian Campbell, “Those of us drawn to work in libraries because we are committed to protecting privacy and confidentiality, because we support free speech, and because we understand libraries to be catalysts for social change and responsibility, thank Brian for the road he blasted.”
Thank you, Brian, for the impact you continue to have in furthering information freedom and access issues, mentoring librarians to be critical thinkers and activists in defending information and privacy rights and informing their communities, and in so generously sharing your passions and wisdom with this particular public librarian. As always, you give us a lot to think about, and to act upon. You inspire.