By Sue Tiffin
Three days after Chris Stephenson took on the role of CEO at Haliburton County Public Library last September, he arrived at work to encounter a rare request – for a book to be removed from circulation. The book: Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler.
“I came in, and this book was on my desk, with an elastic band with a little piece of paper,” he said. “I saw the words, Request for Reconsideration of Library Materials. My brain instantly knew that that’s what we call a book challenge.”
The challenge – when public access to a publication is asked to be limited – was brought forward by a small group of people who wish to remain anonymous, declined an interview and who Stephenson, under the library’s confidentiality policy, cannot name.
“In this case, they said, you know, we don’t like that the book is on the shelf, we’d prefer that it was removed,” said Stephenson.
The group also, however, came to Stephenson with a solution that wouldn’t result in the book being removed from circulation entirely – they suggested the original book be replaced with a recent critical edition version that includes annotated text placing its contents in historical context.
“And to be honest, I couldn’t agree more,” said Stephenson. “I think that’s a great suggestion and solution … So I was thrilled that these people brought a problem, and a solution together.”
Mein Kampf [My Struggle], Hitler’s 1925 autobiographical manifesto, is often challenged for the Nazi dictator’s anti-Semitic and racist ideas. Reprinting of the book in Germany was banned post-Second World War until 2016, and in 2020 Amazon banned and then later reinstated the book from the e-commerce site.
“Some people [not necessarily those challenging the HCPL’s copy] have a fear about raw text just being out in the world with no teacher or mentor or guide to help make sense of it,” said Stephenson. “My counterpoint is that from a historical perspective, how will you recognize the next Hitler if you don’t know generally what that person stood for, when you see it again next time?”
Stephenson said when it comes to book challenges, many people will object to content because it doesn’t follow their political, sexual, social or otherwise personal view.
“But the thing is, there are many books in the world, and if it’s not for you, that’s fine. Put it down, but don’t take it away from someone who might need that book.”
He gives the example of LGBTQ+-themed books, noting that when people challenge books that others might need as resources to learn from, “it takes away from the experience and education of another person.”
While book challenges do happen every now and then, the request in September was a first in Stephenson’s career.
“I was very proud to receive it, because I was told long ago in library school that you weren’t a true librarian until you received your first book challenge,” he said.
“These concepts of librarians making materials accessible to their communities is paramount to the functioning of good information and democracy. It’s also, you know, I’m thrilled when people come to the library with questions like, ‘what can we do about this? This is a problem for me.’ When they investigate something that matters to them, and it starts a conversation and an engagement with their librarian or their library staff, that’s for me one of the most rewarding parts of my job.”
At the time, Stephenson said book challenges were a “hot topic,” in libraries, and that his colleagues elsewhere in Canada mentioned an uptick in book challenges around the same time.
“Last fall, Publisher’s Weekly noted that the American Library Association’s Office for Information Freedom (‘which tracks book challenges nationwide’) reported that there’s been a 60 per cent increase in challenges to books received in the month of Sept.  compared to [the year before],” Stephenson told the Times.
At this time, the suggested annotated copy of Mein Kampf is only available in German and French.
“We did reach out to our main book distributor last fall to see if there was another appropriate version that may be annotated by an historian and placed in better context, but the options provided were limited,” said Stephenson.
Right now, the book – this copy purchased by the library in 2008 – sits in his office, available if someone needs it. And with this challenge, and subsequent newspaper story, it might become more requested than it has been – Stephenson brings up the Streisand Effect, a cultural phenomenon in which the attempt to suppress information only makes it more popular. The effect is named for singer and actress Barbra Streisand, who in 2003 sued a photographer for invasion of privacy over a photo of her home, which had been downloaded fewer than 10 times. In the month following the lawsuit, the photo was downloaded more than 420,000 times.
“When you try to censor ideas, or books or movies, whatever, often what you’ll do by not meaning to is draw greater attention to it – which is another reason why librarians celebrate Banned Books [or Freedom to Read] week,” said Stephenson. “To keep that conversation going. By highlighting this one book, look – our local paper is doing a story on it and now everyone’s thinking about this book … It’s a really interesting case.”
Book challenges have been rare over the past few years at HCPL. The records Stephenson has available show that in 2011 there were three reconsideration requests submitted, then one each in 2012, 2013, 2015, 2017 and two in 2019. Stephenson said materials that have previously been challenged include DVDs such as Drugstore Cowboy; Darwin; Notes on a Scandal; Breaking the Waves and Leaving Las Vegas, and the books Jim, Who Ran Away from His Nurse, and Was Eaten by a Lion by Hilaire Belloc and Mini Grey; The Girl in Red by Aaron Frisch; The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman and the Butter Battle Book by Dr. Seuss.
Stephenson recalls a T-shirt he once saw at a library conference that said, “There’s something in my library to offend everyone.”
“And all that means is, no one’s going to agree on the state of a collection in any community,” he said. “It’s robust, it’s colourful, the library’s for everyone so there’s something for everyone here, and the fact is no one has the right to veto the experience of others.”
“Here at the library we feel that books and ideas have power and even magic, so for kids and learning and passion around literacy,” said Stephenson. “It’s not surprising that texts that carry a lot of emotional weight are periodically going to come in and out of debate. This isn’t the first book and it won’t be the last.”
Freedom to Read Week takes place from Feb. 20 to 26 and is an annual event “that encourages Canadians to think about and reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom, which is guaranteed them under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” according to freedomtoread.ca.