The Public Library as a World Stage: An Analysis of Censorship

Censorship, General Interest, Programming, Self-Censorship

By: Ross Sempek

The Vancouver Public Library (CA) was recently criticized by Trans advocates for hosting a talk by Meghan Murphy, founder of feminist current, and unabashed independent thinker. This latter quality is a catalyst of this controversy, as one of the library’s critics claimed VPL was supporting Murphy’s hate-speech against trans people. This outcry even affected other library programming – The poet, jaye simpson, who was scheduled to appear at a VPL-hosted trans-inclusive reading circle, even said they would withdraw their name from this event because the library didn’t cancel Murphy’s appearance. Considering the tense situation, I applaud the library’s dedication to intellectual freedom in this matter by dismissing the attempts at censorship.  

Some of the anger behind Murphy’s appearance is based in the belief that by hosting her, the library is endorsing her point-of-view, and thus alienating the Trans community in a place where they should feel welcomed – and they should feel welcomed. However this feeling of estrangement is based in a misunderstanding of the ethos behind librarianship. To begin, libraries do not endorse or support any of the speech within its buildings. This does seem odd, as their collections and programming are lovingly curated to serve the needs of their communities. But this attention to detail illustrates libraries as information providers for its communities, not a promoter of their collections’ content. Even if a library said: “Hey, OK – we endorse everything at our library.” It would still alienate those perspectives not in the library’s collection. This is why the only position available to libraries (that strive for inclusiveness) is that of information repositories.    

vacant stage, auditorium To bridge the seemingly incongruous ideas of procurement and promotion I like to view public libraries collectively as a world stage. It is a platform where our shared human story takes place, which only functions properly when freedom of speech is applied to all viewpoints and intellectual pursuits. And this stage’s size is finite, so microcosmic censorship attempts such as the one at VPL lose any perceived power. The perspectives extant in the library that some want to quash will continue to exist outside of its walls. Given this, it is only logical that those views get folded into the library’s existence, lest it disaffect its community’s constituents.

Despite this ideal of inclusion embodied by VPL’s balanced programming, Murphy’s scheduled appearance stirred eddies of discontent and culminated not only in jaye simpson’s threat of self-censorship (ostensibly she did attend), but also in a retraction of a story claiming Murphy had cancelled her event. And in the midst of all this controversy, VPL felt compelled to release a statement about Murphy’s appearance, and even altered the time of her event to occur outside regular library hours, and with bolstered security. An escalation that was utterly unnecessary had Megan Murphy’s critics honed in on the fact that their beef was with her, not VPL – not the stage.  

So instead of productively adding viewpoints to a discourse, censorship clouded reason with a storm of petulant criticism. The goal of mutual understanding cannot be achieved in arrested development. Let us engage in meaningful conversation or debate, and share this world stage we call the Library as it has no agenda other than to connect communities, facilitate discourse, and be an impetus for lifelong learning.  And we can’t learn anything when censorship rears its reactive gaze.


Ross SempekRoss Sempek is a recent MLIS graduate as well as a volunteer for the Multnomah County Library System in the beautiful state of Oregon. As a makerspace program assistant, he facilitates a weekly gaming club for local teens. He comes from a blue-collar family that values art, literature, and an even consideration for all world-views. This informs his passion for intellectual freedom, which he considers to be the bedrock for blooming to one’s fullest potential. It defines this country’s unique freedoms and allows an unfettered fulfillment of one’s purpose in life. When he is not actively championing librarianship, he loves lounging with his cat, cycling, and doing crossword puzzles – He’s even written a handful of puzzles himself.

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