“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
– Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from the Birmingham Jail
Libraries play a critical role in our democracy – particularly when it comes to intellectual freedom. In a free and democratic society, censoring information simply because it doesn’t align with any one group’s cultural, religious, sexual, or political beliefs is an affront to our shared equality as citizens. Such attempts at censorship are not only undemocratic but can also foster hate and inflict real harm on real people because of the implied messaging that some are less worthy of full participation and representation in our society.
In a defining moment, the John E. Robbins Library at Brandon University became a center for upholding this freedom when a motion to censor LGBTQ+ materials was being deliberated within the Brandon School Division Board of Trustees.
As part of a meaningful response to this challenge, the University’s Gender and Women’s Studies department launched a three-part speaker series on the topic of LGBTQ+ inclusion, in collaboration with the Library, and with funding from the Margaret Laurence Endowment. The Library’s Gathering Space served as a modern-day agora for keynote speakers such as Professor Melissa Adler, from the University of Western Ontario, Dr. Robert Mizzi, Canada Research Chair in Queer, Community and Diversity Education, and poet Michael V. Smith to express the importance of queer literature and representation in our society. With hateful acts such as the École Polytechnique massacre and, more recently, the multiple stabbing incident that took place at the University of Waterloo in mind, extra measures were taken to ensure the physical safety of speakers and attendees. The Library, in essence, became an active site for defending not only intellectual freedom, but freedom of speech, equity, diversity and inclusion as well.
In addition to the speaker series, the commitment to intellectual freedom and solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community was further inscribed in the Library’s physical and virtual space as a sustained response. A display of juvenile challenged books, general information about challenges to books and magazines, and news clippings outlining the events leading up to the speaker series and ultimate triumph of the LGBTQ+ community was created by Stacey Lee, Metadata and Collection Management Librarian and Natasha Ofwono, Library Assistant. A “Challenging Books” Libguide mirroring the display was also launched.
The Gender and Women Studies Speaker Series these past couple of months came at a time when many were looking for a space to breathe and be around safe company. Having queer and gender diverse topics openly and passionately discussed at the library brought a lot of positive energy and the community together. The speakers brought in were all enthusiastic and inspired but were also not opposed to opening up the conversation to those in the room to share similar stories and ideas. Hearing that Melissa Adler had taken the time to watch the entire BSD Meeting from May 23rd before she came to Brandon… or Robert Mizzi breaking down common tropes in children’s books and holding them up to banned LGBTQ+ books of similar themes. Each speaker brought something that the Brandon audience was familiar with and then expanded on, provided additional resources, and their own experiences — either personal or professional. These curated presentations are essential to have available in smaller communities such as Brandon. They let us learn and come together in a healthy way.
– Aly Wowchuk, Chair, Brandon Pride
One thing I really appreciate about the library people at BU is the dedication to supporting the *social* missions of the university alongside the scholarly ones. This is not just a “shush space” it is very much a library where inquiry and discovery is supported in all its forms for all people, even and sometimes especially when it requires events and speakers and food and debate. In a world where silent, solo study space with all the information you could ever want is just a click away online, our library embraces the physical reality of its place, its people, and the relationships and perspectives we (sometimes messily) bring to the table.
-Grant Hamilton, Director, Marketing and Communications, Brandon University
In addition to being a pillar of democracy, the John E. Robbins Library is an ever-evolving space for nurturing academic excellence and supporting intellectual curiosity. Students, scholars, and the public have access to a wide-ranging collection of expertly curated resources. Reference services, multimedia tools, information technology support and writing workshops are also accessible to patrons through the Library. The “Long Night Against Procrastination” is an event put on by the Library to encourage students to leverage these resources towards the end of term as preparation for final exams and assignments. For the event, the Library and its many services are made accessible from 7PM until 2 in the morning. Events such as this, fused with the high art, human-centered architecture, and modularity of the space make the John E. Robbins Library experience undisguisable from any of the top tier Canadian universities or “U15”.
The university’s Music Library offers students a cosmopolitan musical experience through its comprehensive collection of books, journals, and audio media. Musical video performances, curated by Music Librarian Laura Jacyna, are routinely screened at the Music Library. These events contribute to creating vibrant, inclusive, and social experiences for the student community. In addition to its cultural richness, at the physical level it is one filled with natural sunlight and plants – described by students as wellness enhancing space.
Supporting Indigenous pedagogy and cultural awareness are also a key element of the Library. As part of Brandon University’s commitment to Truth and Reconciliation, undergraduate degrees require a minimum of three credit hours of approved Indigenous content and the Library plays a critical role in preserving, acquiring, and making materials in support of this curriculum accessible to students. The Indigenous Curriculum Collection, which is geared towards K-12 teachers, also provides a range of thoughtfully curated, multi-format resources intended to support and advance culturally appropriate teaching practices. Resources on Indigenous musical traditions are also housed in the Music Library.
The John E. Robbins Library can be likened to a crossroad where democratic action, advances in pedagogy and research, and the preservation and diffusion of culture intersect. Providing a U15 experience on a fraction of the budget is another way of describing the essence of the John E. Robbins Library. Funding for the Library, when it remains static in the face of inflation as it has in recent years, spurs difficult decisions that make providing such an experience ever more challenging. When we consider all the above and the context of being situated in a small prairie city, as a library community and as citizens of Manitoba and Canada, we cannot undervalue the vital role that this library plays as an intellectual hub in the region.
The Manitoba Library Association would like to extend its gratitude to Melanie Sucha, CIO; Natasha Ofwono, Library Assistant; Laura Jacyna, Music Librarian; and Dr. Kelly Saunders, Associate Professor Political Science and Gender and Women’s Studies, for their leadership and for sharing their experiences in shaping the John E. Robbins Library landscape.
Article and Photographs by Rustam Dow, MLA Communications Committee Member