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Toronto libraries are fighting for 'intellectual freedom' with new collection of exclusively banned books

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At a time when some beloved novels have fallen under scrutiny and more and more titles are banned from shelves, Toronto Public Library is taking a stand for “intellectual freedom.”

The library’s newest collection, “the Book Sanctuary Collection,” aims to send one message to users of the publicly-funded system: TPL is a safe space for all stories and ideas.

The collection features 50 adult, teen and children’s books that have been banned, challenged or censored across North America. The collection includes titles such as Toni Morrison’s ‘The Bluest Eye,’ Anne Frank’s ‘The Diary of a Young Girl,’ E.L. James’ ‘Fifty Shade of Grey,’ Phillip Pullman’s ‘The Golden Compass,’ Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ and Rupi Kaur’s ‘Milk and Honey,’ among others.

The collection declares all of TPL’s locations as “book sanctuaries” and offers a new stream of programming that allows users to explore “intellectual freedom challenges.”

“It’s never been more important to stand up and speak out for intellectual freedom, and to ensure voices, especially those of marginalized and equity-deserving communities, are not shut down,” librarian Vickery Bowles said in a statement to CTV News Toronto.

The move comes at a time when, globally, many well-known books are being re-evaluated, rewritten, and, sometimes, outright banned from shelves.

A display of banned or challenged books by Toronto Public Library can be seen above. (Handout by TPL)

Just this week, famed children’s author Roald Dahl’s books came under scrutiny. The British publisher of Dahl's books, Puffin Books, removed “colourful” language from works such as "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Matilda" in a purported effort to make them more acceptable to modern readers.

Augustus Gloop in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is no longer "enormously fat," just "enormous,” and the word "black" was removed from the description of the terrible tractors in the 1970s "The Fabulous Mr. Fox." The machines are now simply "murderous, brutal-looking monsters."

Critics called the move censorship. "Roald Dahl was no angel but this is absurd censorship," prolific author Salman Rushdie wrote on Twitter. "Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed."

Rushdie’s book, ‘The Satanic Verses’ spurred Iran's Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa calling for the author's death for the alleged crime of blasphemy in 1989. Rushdie was attacked and seriously injured last year while on stage at an event in New York state.

The backlash caused Puffin Books to announce they would also release a collection of “classic” – unedited – Dahl novels later this year.

In 2022, analysis by PEN America, a literary and free expression advocacy organization, found that at least 50 advocacy groups in the U.S. are advocating – either at the national, state, or local level – for certain books to be banned from schools. The advocacy group says the majority of those groups formed in the last year, and that they range from local Facebook or online groups to more established conservative organizations.

Toronto’s libraries aren’t the first to participate in the movement – Chicago Public Library started the Book Sanctuary Initiative in 2022.

With files from the Associated Press and CNN

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