February 24 to March 2 is Freedom to Read Week this year in Canada. The annual event encourages Canadians to think about and reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom, which is guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Freedom to read must never be taken for granted. Even in Canada, a free country by world standards, books and magazines are banned at the border. Schools and libraries are regularly asked to remove books and magazines from their shelves.
The Weyburn Public Library has been displaying books that have been banned in certain places for what has been deemed as 'inappropriate' content. Literary classics like Harper Lee's 'To Kill a Mockingbird', John Steinbeck's 'The Grapes of Wrath', and Mark Twain's 'Huckleberry Finn' are banned in numerous libraries, even though many local readers may actually recall these books being part of their secondary school curriculum. The most-published book on the planet, The Holy Bible, is also banned in some places.
For a public library in Canada, however, there is no such thing as a 'banned' book.
Weyburn's City Librarian, Kam Teo, stated why libraries throughout the country are involved in the Freedom to Read week. He noted that libraries are not merely 'warehouses' of books.
"Books actually have ideas in them," said Teo. "In a democracy, if person X can tell person Y what not to read, then democracy is certainly being challenged. In a democracy, we need to be able to debate and exchange ideas."
"To Kill a Mockingbird is a tremendous book about racial bigotry," Teo said, noting that the vilified books should be read and that the content should be discussed within its context.
The WPL welcomed Edward Willett for an author reading on February 27.
Willett, who is originally from Weyburn, is a freelance writer and performer in Regina. He is the author of approximately 50 books of various genres, has a background in newspaper writing and is a professional actor and singer, having performed in dozens of plays, musicals and operas in and around Saskatchewan. He has also hosted local television programs and emceed numerous public events.
Willett spent a great deal of time at the Weyburn Public Library as a child, where he first indulged his interest in science fiction books.
"I was maybe ten," said Willett, recalling the way the WPL had been laid out in those days, with a children's side and an adult side. "I had long since left the children's side and I was reading the stuff on the adult side. One of the librarians actually told my mom, 'your son is reading material from the adult side. Are you sure you want him to do that?'"
His mom, Nina, who knew he was reading science fiction, told the librarian that it was alright. Although she may not have fully been aware of the content of some of those books, which Willett admitted may not have been appropriate for young readers, she also had no way of knowing her son would one day be an accomplished writer in the science fiction and fantasy genre.
Willett noted that his mother is still an avid reader.
"Growing up, my parents never said anything about what I chose to read, as long as I was reading," said Willett. "I think that's probably the best approach to take. Generally, kids are ready to read something if they are ready to read it and if they find it and they're not ready to read it, it goes over their heads or they get bored and put it down again. Certainly, I ran into books like that, too."
Willett said he was reading adult novels by the age of eight.
"I was free to read it and I think that had a lot to do with my interest in reading and writing, because I was exposed to such a wide range of material," he said.
Willett recalls going to a reading by W.O. Mitchell at the Weyburn Public Library when he was starting out in his career as a journalist. He recalls Mitchell being given a hard time, in his home town - by people he had known his whole life - for including swear words in his book!
Willett noted that he certainly does believe in the Freedom to Read, especially when it comes to public libraries and people being free to read what they want.
"Keeping people from reading something is just another way of trying to control ideas," he said. "I think the last thing you want to do is to limit the free flow of ideas. I'm pretty much an absolutist when it comes to freedom of expression and the right to freely express yourself."
"I think it's very, very important that ideas flow freely if we're going to have a democratic society," said Willett.
"It's easy to say, 'I support freedom of expression' when people are expressing ideas you agree with," he noted. "It's when they're expressing ideas you disagree with that your commitment to freedom of expression has to really come forward."
Willett noted that the classic formulation of disagreeing with what one has to say, yet being willing to defend their right to say it, is how democracy is upheld.
"It gets dangerous to say, 'they shouldn't be allowed to say that,'" he said. "That's when you're getting on the slippery slope to censorship - and dictatorship, eventually."
The Weyburn Public Library is part of a province-wide accessibility program called Saskatchewan Inter-Library Loans. If a reader cannot find the book they are looking for within the city's collection, the book can be requested from the library in another city or town.
For more information on ways to celebrate Freedom to Read Week, visit freedomtoread.ca.