This weeks blog interview was conducted, in person a while ago before ‘social distancing’ and ‘quarantine’ were part of our daily vocabulary. I have known Ken Feser, this Cities Chief Librarian for some time now, and I was very pleased when he agreed to the interview. I have already published a blog highlighting the services being offered by the Medicine Hat Public Library, even when it is not open to the public. I hope that it opens again soon but in the mean time, I urge you to click on the link at the bottom of this page and see for yourself.

We have a very fine Public Library here in Medicine Hat. It is something we should all support, be proud of, and should avoid taking for granted.

Andrew: How long have you been in Medicine Hat now? What brought you here?

Ken Feser: It’ll be two years this April. I came here because of the job, but the community was a big part of the choice for me. I lived in a few countries, and three or four provinces so I’ve been around a lot and I really like Medicine Hat. It has everything you need but it’s still easy to get around. I think it’s hit a sweet spot in terms of size, it doesn’t have the issues of a bigger city but still has plenty to keep you entertained. I know the economy has taken a hit but I still feel like we’re going to be OK. I live in Crescent Heights area and when I walk out by the Family Leisure Centre I can see all these plants and heavy industry and that makes me feel like we’ll be fine.

Andrew: I don’t feel like being a Librarian is that common of an aspiration, what was the draw for you? Did you always want to work in Libraries or was this something you fell into?

Ken Feser: So it wasn’t something I’d planned to do, it’s not really seen the same way as becoming something like a plumber, or lawyer, or professions like that. I went to the University of Victoria and did my undergrad in English there, I then kicked around London Ontario doing a whole bunch of jobs for a while, but never really settled on anything. It was a tough time in Ontario in the nineties with the economy so I decided getting a vocational qualification wouldn’t be the worst idea.

First I applied to Journalism school but I guess my heart wasn’t into that because the paper I wrote for the application was about how damaging the media could be in peoples lives. So no big surprise that I wasn’t accepted there. It was during that application that I discovered that there was such a thing as a Library school and it was like the scales fell from my eyes. I realized that this was my true calling and it was funny actually because once I’d chosen to go to Library school it was the obvious choice for me. When I look back at how much of a book-worm I was growing up, and still am really, it really has always made sense.

Andrew: What would you say are Medicine Hat Public Library’s strengths right now?

Ken Feser: Our Public Library is a great institution and this really is the job of my life, the last job I ever have I hope. It’s been a wonderful experience so far. I was really lucky to have inherited such a well run Library with a culture of caring, service and ethics that are just really stellar. All I have to do is not break anything to enable all the great things happening here. Of course there is always things to get done and we can always get better but we have a bunch of really great people who are excellent at their job, and who really believe in what they do.

Andrew: Speaking to the point you just made about service and ethics, I know that there was a controversial speaker who was able to rent a room and make arguments against vaccinations. I know there was push back from the community about that decision. What was the thinking behind allowing that to happen?

Ken Feser: Yes, there were some very negative feelings about that and we’re grateful that people reached out to talk to us about it and a conversation was started. So if anybody doesn’t know what happened, I should explain. We had a couple of controversial space rentals, the theatre was used to show an anti vaccination movie and then a room was rented by a local patron to hold an anti vaccination presentation.

I think I should point out that unlike our collection we don’t curate our room rentals. The movie that was shown is not in our collection and it’s not the kind of thing that we would add. We’re able with our collection to change it to suit what’s best for the community and what the community asks for. When it comes to our room rentals, these are public spaces and we are very reluctant dictate who within our community can or can not use those spaces.

That said I did really wrestle with this decision. There were two conflicting values at play there. One was accuracy of information and the other was intellectual freedom. Who are we to say that the community can’t come together in a public space and talk about something if they want to. I did personally attend both events and I have to say that there was miss information and the message was quite unbalanced. In these situations we rely on the community to form its own opinion on whether the information being presented is correct and worth listening to.

Andrew: So does that mean anything goes? Is there a line that can be crossed, an idea that cannot be expressed in our Library?

Ken Feser: There definitely is a line and it’s a legal line. We wont rent a space if we know you are going to engage in hate speech against an identifiable group because that is illegal in Canada.

Andrew: So because it’s a public facility, as long as nobody is breaking the law then you wont stop the public renting the room.

Ken Feser: That’s right. If you think about it, if we did start to decide what is and isn’t a view that can be expressed in the Library, outside of what is legal, that situation could get crazy very quickly. If we decide, to stay on this theme, that we wont allow anti vax views to be expressed at the Library, does that mean we have to throw out people who are just talking about it? What is considered anti vax? Do you have to go all the way to saying ‘I wont vaccinate my child’ or do we draw the line at even saying ‘I’m worried about vaccinating my child’? I don’t think we should be the people to decide these things. Better that we uphold the law and leave the public to form their own opinion about what’s worth listening to and what is not.

Andrew: What about if we consider the other direction then. What one person considers hate speech another person may consider freedom of speech. It’s interesting when you think about how an authority is being able to tell you what you can and what you can not say. I think most of us have had to consider this more closely especially when negotiating the changing landscape which is the LGBTQ community and the issues faced by them.

Ken Feser: That’s an interesting point because it is another flash point when it comes to the role of a Public Library. There was a speaker whose basic view-point, if I remember correctly, was that trans Women should not get the same protection as biologically born Women. I think it was the Toronto Public Library where She was speaking. I don’t agree personally with that point of view but I don’t recognize it as hate speech. It wasn’t expressing hate towards anybody, but it wasn’t a great argument to make. In that case there was huge push back and the Toronto Public Library was criticized even by the Toronto Mayor for allowing that to happen. I did find that a little ironic because not that long ago there would have been the same reaction had someone wanted to use that space to speak in favour of equal rights for trans Women. A Public Library can become a real battle ground for these types of discussions.

Andrew: It certainly can be a bit of a minefield. There certainly is more to the Public Library than just books.

Ken Feser: There truly is. The Public Library is about knowledge and about people being able to better themselves. A hundred years or so ago as the world was getting more complicated the Library was there to help people keep pace with change. It started quite technical as something closer to today’s NAIT or SAIT and has since adapted into the kind of service we see today. I think the three components of today’s Library are knowledge, culture, and social betterment. It’s all about building the community, bettering the society, and sharing. Every crazy thing that the Library offers comes back to one or more of those things.

I would like to thank Ken again for his time. If there’s one thing to come out of this conversation I think that it’s the importance this facility plays in public discussion. It’s one thing to have your say on a message board, twitter feed, or Facebook page, but it’s quite another to stand up in a public place and say it. If someone feels strongly enough about something then their voice should be heard by those who want to hear it. Even if it’s just to confirm that it’s nonsense. If this can’t be done at your Public Library then where can it be done?

Thank you for reading and again, please let us know what you think, what we could do better, and who should we be writing about next.