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2022 SSHRC Partnership Engage Grant project: “Balancing Intellectual Freedom and Medical Disinformation in Canadian Libraries”

The British Columbia Library Association is pleased to partner with UBC Faculty Devon Greyson (Principal investigator) and Julia Bullard (Co-Investigator) on a SSHRC Partnership Engage Grant project , “Balancing Intellectual Freedom and Medical Disinformation in Canadian Libraries.”

 Canadian libraries have long been supporters and defenders of intellectual freedom. Certain types of materials have commonly posed challenges to intellectual freedom ideals, with disinformation—for example, holocaust denial literature, speakers, or groups—among the most difficult to navigate, due to the potential for such information to cause harm. Amidst the COVID-19 “infodemic”, a great deal of attention has been paid to issues of medical misinformation (inaccurate information) and disinformation (purposefully false or misleading information). Public and academic libraries alike have faced difficult decisions regarding how to balance issues of intellectual freedom and stemming the tide of health disinformation on pandemic-related topics including anti-vaccine materials and false information about alleged “cures” for COVID-19, as well as other medical subjects such as the idea that “rapid onset gender dysphoria” is afflicting adolescents. When libraries refuse to acquire materials or provide space to specific views (no matter how scientifically inaccurate), they may violate their ideals of providing access and free expression to all perspectives. However, when they provide space or other support to disinformation, they risk alienating portions of the community who feel harmed, as well as allowing unscientific theories to perpetuate, potentially harming the public. In many cases, there is no easy choice in such matters, and creative compromises may be employed, such as carrying a material but reclassifying or relocating it to make clear its inaccuracy.

This study will use online interviews with library workers across the country to explore challenges Canadian libraries have experienced related to disinformation on health topics such as vaccines, COVID-19, and youth gender identity development.  We aim to:

  1. document the experiences of Canadian libraries and library workers attempting to balance intellectual freedom with limiting harm due to disinformation,
  2. understand the various ways libraries in different contexts have responded to such difficulties, and
  3. provide guidance and considerations for libraries dealing with these questions in the future.

Watch your email this summer for invitations to participate in an interview!

The project will be recruiting adult library workers of all types for English-language interviews about their experiences and perspectives in collections management, reference and instruction, programming and rentals, or other library services for adults, youth, and children.

If you have experience negotiating intellectual freedom issues related to medical disinformation in a Canadian institution, your perspective is valuable, and may help researchers develop a guide for libraries thinking through considerations in their unique contexts when faced with similar challenges.

 BCLA’s role in this study will be to provide information to help inform the study design and facilitate participant recruitment, and to assist with disseminating results. Raw data and analysis will be done by independent UBC researchers, meaning that although BCLA is a partner on the project, participants and their detailed interview data will be kept confidential and not shared with our association.

Watch this space, and BCLA’s 2023 educational offerings, for results of this exciting study!