Several Nova Scotia writers have cancelled upcoming readings at Halifax Public Libraries, to express their objection to the library’s decision to keep a recently purchased book on the shelves. On Friday, Halifax Pride announced it had also severed ties with the library over the issue.
The book, by freelance journalist Abigail Shrier, is called Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters.
The Regnery Publishing web page for the book says, in part:
Unsuspecting parents are awakening to find their daughters in thrall to hip trans YouTube stars and “gender-affirming” educators and therapists who push life-changing interventions on young girls — including medically unnecessary double mastectomies and puberty blockers that can cause permanent infertility …
Coming out as transgender immediately boosts these girls’ social status, Shrier finds, but once they take the first steps of transition, it is not easy to walk back. She offers urgently needed advice about how parents can protect their daughters.
Tom Ryan won the Ann Connor Brimer Award for Atlantic Canadian Children’s Literature at last month’s Atlantic Book Awards, for his book Keep This to Yourself. He wrote on Twitter that he could not in good conscience continue with an author reading he was planning at the library.
Brimer finalists Jo Treggiari and Andre Fenton also cancelled events to voice their displeasure. And Governor General’s award-winning illustrator Sydney Smith, who took home the Lillian Shepherd Memorial Award for Excellence in Illustration at this year’s Atlantic Book Awards, also cancelled an online library reading. (The Examiner could not reach Smith in time to confirm if his decision was also made as a result of the library’s decision.)
In a statement sent to the Halifax Examiner, Ryan wrote:
I understand why people are concerned about censorship, and the issue is fraught and complex, but the truth is that the library regularly chooses not to acquire titles. For example, there are many controversial books advocating for gay conversion therapy, that the HPL chooses for obvious reasons not to include in their collection. I think that including this title in their collection sends a similarly damaging message. I wanted to make a statement in solidarity with trans youth, which is why I’ve chosen to cancel my upcoming presentation.
On Friday, in a statement published on its website, Halifax Pride said it was ending its partnership with Halifax Public Libraries, because of “a newly acquired book that jeopardizes the safety of trans youth, through unsupported medical claims and the transphobic assertion that trans identities are a choice… Halifax Public Library’s collection process is at odds with Halifax Pride’s commitment to protecting vulnerable members of the 2SLGBTQ+ community.”
The severing of ties “will result in a major change for us,” Halifax Pride executive director Adam Reid said in an interview. “Prior to COVID, we hosted regular community meetings [at the library], our noon-hour panel series, our evening speaker series. We did a lot of events with the library. Hopefully our decision to walk away gives the library a strong indication of how seriously we take this.”
We recognize that the library can and has played a really wonderful role in the community. We are saying that our core policies and their core policies and their core activities make it such that it would be very challenging for us to continue the relationship at this time.
In March, an open letter to Halifax Public Libraries asked that the library not include the book in its collection. The library system subsequently purchased two copies of the book, which led trans/non-binary Mount Saint Vincent sociology student Mila McKay to launch a change.org petition asking for its removal from the collection. On May 11, a group of concerned community members, including McKay, met with the library to discuss the issue. In a petition update published May 14, McKay wrote:
I have optimism and hope that the library administration heard us and listened to us. They plan to give us a response early next week after they meet internally.
But last week, Debbie LeBel, senior manager, access, for Halifax Public Libraries, said the book was staying. In an email McKay shared on Twitter, LeBel wrote:
Through our conversations with you and others, we have come to understand more deeply the trauma that is disproportionately experienced by the trans community, and come to appreciate the trans community’s resilience in the face of transphobia.
We have further reviewed the book Irreversible Damage by Abigail Shrier against Halifax Public Libraries’ Collection Development Policy, the Canadian Federation of Library Associations’ Statement on Intellectual Freedom, and have made the decision not to censor the book.
Public libraries exist to provide equal access to resources for everyone and support individuals’ freedom to seek information and form their own opinions. When we act to suppress access, we engage in censorship.
In a statement published on its website, the library says:
In addition to our community conversations, we have worked to identify additional resources and new ways to promote and make available the most recent and relevant trans-affirming works in our collection. Beyond our collection, we will continue to look for new opportunities to expand programming, provide space, and build connections to support the trans community while also educating the broader public.
Halifax Public Libraries is committed to supporting trans people and the broader LGBTQ2S+ community. We can work together, collaboratively, to elevate trans voices, and create more compassion and understanding for marginalized experiences. We know our conversations will continue.
On its catalogue page for Irreversible Damage, the library has added a link called “Supporting Trans Youth: Resources for Parents.” It has also changed the original catalogue description of the book, from one supplied by the publisher to an excerpt from Wikipedia saying:
The book endorses the contentious concept of rapid onset gender dysphoria, which is not recognized by any major professional institution. Shrier states that there was a “sudden, severe spike in transgender identification” among teenagers assigned female at birth during the 2010s. She attributes this to a social contagion among “high-anxiety, depressive (mostly white) girls who, in previous decades, fell prey to anorexia and bulimia or multiple personality disorder”. Shrier also criticizes gender-affirming psychiatric support, hormone replacement therapy and sex reassignment surgery (together often referred to as gender-affirming care) as treatment for gender dysphoria in young people.
“I really care about the library. It’s always been a big part of my life,” McKay said in an interview. She said she was “disappointed” in the library’s decision and statement. “It feels like they made up their minds before they engaged with us.”
(The library said it would consider an interview with the Examiner, but did not get back to us. I am a former library board member and chair, but have not been involved with the library since 2013.)
• • •
The library’s purchase of the book and subsequent reaction — both from community members and the library itself — raise complex issues.
After the Examiner published a story about Mila McKay’s original petition and calls for the library to reconsider its purchase of Irreversible Damage, social media reaction from those upset about calls to remove the book from the shelves tended to argue that the library owns Mein Kampf, people who want the book removed are calling for censorship and no better than book burners (insert image of Fahrenheit 451 here), or, even worse, Nazis, and that it’s wrong to limit free speech.
Libraries, as that earlier article noted, pride themselves in embracing neutrality when it comes to speech and ideas. The Canadian Federation of Library Associations statement referred to above reads, in part:
The Canadian Federation of Library Associations affirms that all persons in Canada have a fundamental right, subject only to the Constitution and the law, to have access to the full range of knowledge, imagination, ideas, and opinion, and to express their thoughts publicly. Only the courts may abridge free expression rights in Canada.
The Canadian Federation of Library Associations affirms further that libraries have a core responsibility to support, defend and promote the universal principles of intellectual freedom and privacy …
Libraries have a core responsibility to safeguard and facilitate access to constitutionally protected expressions of knowledge, imagination, ideas, and opinion, including those which some individuals and groups consider unconventional, unpopular or unacceptable. To this end, in accordance with their mandates and professional values and standards, libraries provide, defend and promote equitable access to the widest possible variety of expressive content and resist calls for censorship and the adoption of systems that deny or restrict access to resources.
Dalhousie University professor Ajay Parasram, said in an interview that “there’s this assumption in society that the idea of impartiality and neutrality is both possible and desirable. And I think that, a), it’s not possible, and b), even if it were in theory possible, I’m not sure that it’s desirable.” Parasram teaches in the department of history and international development studies, and is also a founding fellow of the MacEachen Institute of Public Policy and Governance.
He said it’s not the job of a public library “to carry anything that anybody has published about anything. That’s not really serving the public purpose of a library. I think there is a really important difference between a library and a public archive.”
Parasram said the fact that the library used the language of censorship in its statement — that they have “made the decision not to censor the book” and that “when we act to suppress access, we engage in censorship” — frames the issues in a way that “invites this Fahrenheit 451 kind of drama.” (Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopian novel by Ray Bradbury about a society in which books are outlawed, and the role of firemen is to burn any books that remain in existence.)
A library, especially a publicly funded library, is not just a place for books. It’s also a place for people. It’s a community space. It is a space that has to make decisions about how to represent society in some sense … I think this way of thinking about the world, that neutrality is possible and desirable, is a fundamentally small-c conservative disposition. And it’s conservative because it protects the status quo. It assumes that intellectual and social progress is achieved through this kind of structured form of institutionalized adversarialism — in this case the court. So literally, it says only the courts can decide what is and is not admissible. And I see that as a great surrender of the intellectual purpose of a public space like the library.
There is a disconnect, Parasram said, between arguing principles like freedom of expression in an abstract way and looking at the potential effects of institutional decisions in the real world:
I think the library, or public spaces in general, really need to think more broadly about the kind of damage that comes about when when they do this pursuit of truth in the purest of forms. What libraries are trying to do here, if we take them by their word, is they believe the truth can be discovered through conflict and that any damage that comes about as a result of that pursuit of conflict in the library space through debate or what have you — that ultimately that pursuit of truth is worth it… That protects the status quo… because there are so many other ways that people around the world go about pursuing truth that are not, you know, putting one side against the other into some kind of formal debate and making them perform for the masses.
Halifax Public Libraries “obviously are in the midst of a very thorny debate that’s really sweeping our society, ostensibly around issues of freedom of expression, but really about other things,” Mount Saint Vincent sociology professor Alex Khasnabish said in an interview.
Most of the people interviewed for this story at some point mentioned Halifax Public Libraries’ reaction when, in 2019, the Radical Imagination Film and Discussion Series — hosted by Khasnabish, in partnership with the library — decided to show two films on racial profiling and police brutality (The library said it would only proceed if members of the police were present, but later changed its position and allowed the screenings to proceed as planned).
Khasnabish said he thinks “free speech or free expression is probably a pretty poor lens through which to look at these issues.” He called the issues in this case “super-complicated,” and added:
If we’re going to agree to weigh in on this and prevent this from being out there and publicly available, are we going to do that with each book? And then I would turn around to the library and say equally, well, you don’t own a copy of every book. You know, you probably have no copies of many books that I think you ought to own. So why this one at this time?…
I don’t envy the position of library staff in this moment where so many of these reckonings are happening in the idiom of free speech, when I think that’s not really what we’re talking about. It’s become a convenient sword for many different factions to smite their enemies with. And at the end of the day, it’s pretty clear that nobody is comfortable with the idea of living in a society of totally unfettered expression, but we aren’t willing to have the really difficult conversations that are lying just one layer behind that. Instead, it’s like, oh, J.K. Rowling was called a TERF and now people are saying mean things about her on Twitter, and that’s destroying her freedom of speech. Which is nonsense, you know? I just I wish we were having better discussions about all of this.
Khasnabish said the idea of removing books from library collections “makes my skin crawl a little bit” and that he tends “to err on the side of freedom of expression, because I think once we start to crack down on that stuff, the slope is extremely dark and extremely slippery.” At the same time, he thinks this whole controversy could have been easily avoided. He said:
This is low-hanging fruit for the library. There’s no need to carry this stuff. In the library’s defence, they’re obviously not subject experts across all these things, and when a book is recognized and getting some airplay and generating conversation, you can imagine why a librarian might think it is useful to have in the collection … What we’re doing is we’re fighting over, to some extent, the social acceptance of trans people. And this has become a lightning rod for it … and the library’s response is in this much more abstract vein.
• • •
Like many writers, Sarah Sawler has been an enthusiastic supporter of libraries for years. But they have voiced disappointment with Halifax Public Libraries over their position in relation to the book.
In an interview, Sawler wanted to make clear they feel Halifax Public Libraries have taken a number of positive, progressive steps in the last few years. But in this case, they think the library has made a mistake. “At the very root, I think it’s about respecting the people that you serve in your community, and having to listen to them and reconsider your policies.”
Sawler said they would have no qualms about having their books removed from the library’s collection if people raised concerns about them:
I wrote a lot about history in my first two books, and if it turned out that I framed something in a harmful way towards one of our marginalized communities or underrepresented communities here in Nova Scotia or Atlantic Canada, I would be fine with that coming off the shelf — at least until I had a chance to fix it and correct it with the publisher … I think our challenge as a society over the next little while is going to be figuring out where to draw that line between censorship and protecting vulnerable people and vulnerable communities. But I think it’s something that we really need to start working hard at instead of being resistant to change.
The biggest thing for me is that trans people have addressed this. They have told the library that it makes them feel unsafe… So I think ultimately that is the biggest concern for me in this particular instance, is that people, patrons, people in this community, say this makes us feel unsafe. And not only have they [the library] not changed anything, but they haven’t even dug into it … And that concerns me because I feel like that is an indication that they’re perhaps not listening to the community as much as they should be.
• • •
Leslie, a trans woman who works in a rural library in Nova Scotia, said her library system has a controversial books policy similar to Halifax’s. (Leslie said her library has gone “above and beyond” when it comes to being supportive of her identity, but she asked that we use only her first name since she is not authorized to speak for the library.)
She said her system is not carrying Irreversible Damage, but if it does, she will express her “outrage” to her supervisors:
We are there to serve the public. We are a public good. But if we are giving out information that is harmful to a certain section of the public, we need to ask ourselves if that falls within a public good … My bosses have been very supportive, but at the end of the day they are cis straight women, and you want to hope their education gives them the context to make the correct decisions.
Asked why she thought there has been so much discussion about this book in particular, Leslie said:
Why specifically this one? I guess there are two ways of looking at it. It’s new … and it’s a hot-button issue in the public consciousness … Other harmful books are harder to get rid of, because they’ve always been there. This book is new and to actively purchase it for our library stock feels much more complicit.
Libraries, of course, hold all kinds of materials patrons may find offensive. And yes, Halifax Public Libraries holds one copy of Mein Kampf in its collection, as an ebook. (It has a rating of 2.5 stars.)
“I’m frustrated by the number of people who’ve referenced this in terms of censorship — who say, ‘Does the library have Mein Kampf?’” says Reid of Halifax Pride. “Yes, of course they do. It is a significant historical document that speaks to a very important time.”
Pride has been strongly criticized in the past — by people including Leslie — for not listening to marginalized members of the community. Reid says the organization acknowledges it has made mistakes and has learned from them, and he urged the library to do the same:
Institutions and organizations can change, and we can grow and can learn from our mistakes — and that is what we’re asking of the library, and that’s what we ask of ourselves as well. Certainly we have a problematic history, and certainly we are committed to at all times being better and responding to community needs.
• • •
Ultimately, of course, this is more than a story about one book.
Like Khasnabish, Parasram would like to have more complex, nuanced conversations. He said:
My general disposition on this comes more from social movements where, if a community is telling me that they’re being hurt by something, you stop the hurt. And if the hurt has to continue, there had better be a good reason. You’ve got to flip the levels of accountability so that the person being victimized is not the one making the case, you know what I mean? As a society, we have an obligation to do that. That’s what democracy is about. Not this kind of cartoon about, ‘Well, everybody gets an opinion,’ regardless of if it’s real.
Sawler also said they hope this controversy can lead to a larger conversation:
Ultimately, I want the library to think things through on a broader scale. I want them to really think about what they’re doing to improve the structural inequality of the system they’re working within, because I think they’ve already started a few really important things. And I think that they need to kind of pull out, zoom out, and reconsider balance for balance’s sake, and really think about whether or not they’re sticking to something because that’s the way they’ve always done it, or whether it should be reconsidered.
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The Halifax Public Libraries collection includes several books (16, at last count) by a Princeton professor named Peter Singer, who has advocated infanticide (the killing of living babies) if they have a disability. He’s also been quoted as saying children with disabilities such as spina bifida (Disclosure: I have spina bifida) should be killed because, “the child’s life prospects (are) significantly less promising than those of a normal child”.
Despite this and several other repugnant statements he’s made, I support the libraries’ choice to include his books in the collection. All points of view should be welcomed in a free society, and people should be able to decipher what ideas and opinions are good and which are bad.
Bravo for a great piece, Philip.
Well, while there are many things to think about with regards to free speech, nothing is an absolute. If we are talking about opinions, that are framed as opinions (only) to be debated, then obviously in an equal debate or conversation those beliefs or opinions that are poorly supported would lose, we hope. (although eve then, we don’t have to look far for evidence to the contrary. When Trump was president of the U.S., he routinely quoted lies and half truths as facts, and just kept repeating them over and over until some others believed and affirmed them, much to their detriment. Power influences hugely, never forget that) However anyone’s rights to free speech is not absolute, in any sense. There are consequences to hate speech and outright lies about others, they are not permitted and those people (or institutions) can be charged with slander or libel, depending on if it’s verbal or written. (the same reason you cannot yell “fire: in a crowded theatre when there isn’t one, it’s punishable by law, as what it incites is not only false panic but it causes both direct and indirect harm) To “censor” any book, either by coming out against it and/or not stocking it, is a serious decision. However, in this case, I cannot see how the library made it’s decision nor why it is sticking by it. Unless they are filing the book under fantasy, what is within does not reflect fact in any way. The concept the author is advancing has no scientific merit, it is not upheld by any major scientific body or scientific peer reviewed literature. As well, the fact is none of the trans-community are featured in the book, not their thoughts, their experiences, any of their lives first hand. The only people featured in her book are a group of the families who have rejected these people and cut off all contact with them, it’s very one sided, and third party one sided at that. (the author does not even try to present any other view at all, ignoring the many families of transpeople who love and accept them as they are) These beliefs may be the only way those families can valid themselves in the decisions they made to walk away, but it does not support the concepts the author is advancing. The book does nothing but promote misinformation and can be used, if it is recognized as valid by being in the library, to promote judgements and propagate hatred. (sadly, that’s all it takes, a pubic institution stocking this kind of work, to make those who have hate and prejudice point to it and say, it wouldn’t be there unless it had some truth to it) This is not a copy of a historical document that is significant in any way. I do wonder how the library came to this decision and what it says that it is keeping to it. (especially, when in another situation, like the films about police bullying and brutality, that are firmly documented, they wanted to apply censure there, but backed away at the last minute.)
It is easy enough to say that a book that is factually inaccurate or which makes claims that aren’t empirically backed by science should be removed from a library, as some are saying should happen. But that is a dangerous slope for any library to stand on, as that would be the case for a large number of books in a library, even entire sections of books.
Thanks for the careful treatment of the subject, Philip. If only everyone commenting on the issue would read this.
This issue is so fraught, and it’s ridiculous that it should be because the book is literally a cash-cow cynical piece of trash with all the scientific and the literary merits of an “INSIDE STORY OF THE BACKSTREET BOYS” biography circa 1996. The BEST CASE for this would be that Library never bought the stupid thing in the first place. Not choosing to invest in it frames it in terms of merit. Removing it now makes it very easy for bad actors to frame it in terms of “SPESHAL INNEREST GROOPS AND THERE DEMANDS” instead of taking away an unnecessary, unhelpful, unscientific piece of crap that has the potential to cause harm, both because someone may read and heed, but also just because it’s out there, accepted and recognized by an authority like the public library.
The way to combat speech that you disapprove of is with better speech, not with a demand that particular speech be removed from the library. It is this point that is made so well in the writings of Nat Hentoff (Free Speech for Me, But Not for Thee).
Scott, I want to agree and maybe I might agree in a lot of cases, and perhaps in this case. My concern is that I’m not sure all of the ‘dialogue’ is in good faith – a lot of strong opinions are being thrown around these days not to have a debate but to bludgeon opponents.
Thanks to Philip and all who were interviewed for this piece. Lots of stuff to chew on.