Reflections from the City Librarian

September 6, 2023 | Vickery Bowles

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Text reads What's at stake when intellectual freedom is challenged?

This week we launch the first season of a new year-long series that focuses on the vital importance of intellectual freedom. We have a fabulous lineup of programs, exhibits and installations designed to both inform and engage, with leading writers, thinkers and activists in some of the most critical conversations of our time. Whether it’s standing up to censorship, exposing big tech’s complicity in stoking divisiveness or making space in the media landscape for nuanced and complex arguments, this series asks us all: What’s at stake when intellectual freedom is threatened?

I think it’s so important that these conversations are taking place at your library. To meaningfully participate in the life of our city, Torontonians need access to a broad range of information and ideas. They need opportunities for open, uncensored discourse to hear, debate and learn from each other’s perspectives.

This access and opportunity are critical to the health and vibrancy of our democratic society. And it is libraries, through initiatives like this, that defend, protect and preserve these core democratic and library principles. And so, we commit to providing the resources and spaces for Torontonians to discover, share and discuss different perspectives and ideas in an environment that encourages and values a diversity of thoughts, ideas and opinions.

What is intellectual freedom?

Simply put, intellectual freedom is every individual's right to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. And while it might be tempting to assume that intellectual freedom issues are only relevant for librarians, journalists or lawyers, nothing could be further from the truth. Intellectual freedom impacts us all by limiting our access to information and silencing voices, including and especially the voices of equity-deserving groups.

Many of our societies are grappling with deep divisions, conflict, misinformation and echo chambers that prevent us from developing empathy and true understanding. In this digital age, when we literally dismiss one another with the swipe of a finger, it feels as though it’s becoming harder for us to connect as humans, especially when we don’t agree with one another.

What are the impacts when intellectual freedom is threatened? 

The impacts of this dismissal and division ripple across society. Policy decisions are made on shaky foundations, civilized debates devolve into shouting matches, and compassion disappears. Our world becomes narrower, our access to information is limited. We segment ourselves into smaller and smaller like-minded groups, forgetting along the way our most basic principle: That to be human is to disagree. Most significantly, as we look to present and future critical issues like climate change, our ability to rally, collaborate and change course becomes seemingly impossible.

But I am not without hope. Despite the obstacles, I am more convinced than ever that libraries are rising to these challenges by embracing and defending intellectual freedom. We achieve this through our collections, our programming, our services and most importantly, our staff. In short, libraries are safe spaces for all stories – today, tomorrow, and for the bright future ahead.

I hope you’ll join us this fall for some of the most critical conversations of our time.