The Dr. Seuss fiasco roiled society, nowhere as much as in right wing circles where these books were suddenly a cause célèbre, meritless though the outrage was. The second place the roil raged was in librarian circles, where old (mostly white) guards and newer librarians of color are oftentimes at odds. K – her real name concealed for safety – responded to an inquiry in the private “We Here” Facebook group, whose members are librarians and archivists who identify as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). K is a paraprofessional with a few classes left in their Library and Information Science (MLIS) master’s program. Here is our full and unabridged conversation, only edited for clarity. We discuss all the things, from censorship to book weeding to BIPOC librarian thoughts to figure out, as best we can, what the issue is and what’s at stake.
YS: I’m interested in the librarian perspective of the debate over censorship versus curation of racist content in our libraries.
K: Librarians are supposed to take policy recommendations from our professional association, the American Library Association (ALA). Last I heard, librarianship is about 87% white. I think many white librarians think that our profession is a noble one and that the Master’s of Library and Information Science degree that it takes to become a librarian adequately educates everyone to be good at our job. The trouble with this idea is that our education only minimally exposes us to things like Critical Race Theory, critical and activist librarianship—things that we really need to study and talk about to be able to justify overhauling policies that are based in unexamined White supremacy.
Conversations around censorship are based on the flawed perception that our democracy is functioning at peak performance when really it’s one part of a racist nation state. A true democratic state can only be achieved if we develop new policies that promote equity. Once we have achieved equity we can fight for libraries to maintain neutrality. I think that if the anti-censorship folks were also anti-racist they would be able to see that. I think it also comes down to ideas about progressivism versus conservatism. Conservatives think we have to maintain tradition because it’s been evolving through time and we’ve arrived where we’re supposed to be. I think we have a long way to go and that we need to adopt some strategies like Sarah Kostelecky’s cultural humility. [emphasis added]
YS: The American Library Association being vehemently anti-censorship is an awesome stance but the verbalized logic, as I understood it, indicated a preference for maintaining racist content and they “couldn’t imagine not having those books in [their] collections,” opting to leave it to individual librarians to decide if they want to maintain those or remove them.
K: Yeah, you’re talking about what Deborah Caldwell Stone, the Director for the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom said to the CNN reporter in that article published March 3rd. It’s implied that Caldwell is talking about keeping the six books the Seuss estate stopped publishing this year because they were his most racist children’s books. That article talks about how libraries are anti-censorship and should be trying to increase the purchasing, circulation, and promotion of books that center BIPOC characters without using racist stereotypes.
I noticed, too, that you added the word “individual” in front of librarians [Editor’s note: in fact, that’s a paraphrase from the ALA on their policy regarding the Seuss books]. It’s unclear if Caldwell is taking responsibility away from the ALA and putting it on individual librarians. Structural racism cannot just be the responsibility of individual librarians. Individuals cannot lobby our Baker & Taylor and Ingram vendors to carry more BIPOC authors. Individual librarians can’t educate all parents and educators about racist stereotypes in the books they are checking out. Individual librarians can share booklists put together by people like the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog and Meghan at Teaching for the Change that give people alternatives to harmful stereotypes, but anti-racism as a value needs to be more institutionalized.
YS: Can you explain the ways books are removed from circulation?
K: Libraries have collection management policies with guidelines for what we call weeding. Because new books are getting published all the time and we want to buy them, we have to constantly remove books to make space in our stacks.
Standard policies say that if books are damaged (ripped and missing pages, coffee stains, etc.) you weed them out. Before the book is removed you would want to look at its circulation statistics—if it’s a popular title you would buy a new copy and if it’s not popular you would discard it. Libraries also have to set up schedules for discarding certain kinds of books because people aren’t damaging and stealing books at a rate that makes enough space for new books. Some public libraries try to keep their shelves stocked with books published in the last 7 years. You have timelines for weeding books with information that’s going to go stop being relevant or true with time as science and technology advances. I think it’s pretty rare for a collection policy to explicitly address what to do with racist books. A colleague told me to look at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission’s “Crew: A Weeding Manual for Modern Libraries” to see an example of a policy that does address racism directly.
YS: How are librarians handling the circulation of the six out-of-print Dr. Seuss books?
K: So there are librarians who have taken books out of circulation because they don’t want the books that are no longer in print to get stolen because those books are now selling for hundreds of dollars. Supervisors will eventually put those books back in circulation when they are no longer concerned about them getting stolen. But then you have librarians who want the books gone and won’t pull the books into the work room because they want them to get stolen from the stacks or circulated enough to be damaged and discarded.
You also have people that have pulled the books out of circulation into closed stacks and those books will hopefully not circulate much at all and will eventually be weeded because they aren’t circulating enough to deserve the space. Closed stacks are used for non-circulating items that the public can access under supervision. Other librarians who want the books gone don’t want to put them into closed stacks because closed stacks are set up to protect “important” books and they think racist books shouldn’t be perceived as special.
YS: That defined ALA position, of not wanting to cull racist books, strikes me as implying a preference for maintaining racist content while simultaneously leaving the question of whether or not to do so open-ended and up to individual Librarians. Here in Denver, the library opted to follow the anti-censorship position and has declined to remove those specific books. It struck me as an odd stance to come out for when there was no local demand for them to remove the book. It felt like an unnecessary way to stand up for racist books when it wasn’t required.
But since these remain, as a librarian, if you were to maintain racist books, would they be left as-is or should they come with some sort of disclaimer, warning, or companion materials to help parents work through and talk about racism and racist content with their young people?
K: So I was wondering about disclaimers too. Have you seen those mini manila envelopes glued to the first page of a book where people wrote their name down on a little index card to check a book out?
YS: Of course. Old school.
K: Our library has books that still have those. I was thinking about putting little bookmarks in that envelope with a note about reading with a critical eye and naming what was problematic with the text and/or author. I asked a mentor about the idea and they said I should think about what the community would want me to be spending my time on—like maybe I should put my efforts toward celebrating books with good content instead of spending time notating which books were bad.
But that idea of “labeling” a text is actually considered bad form by the ALA. In 2015 they added a document to their ALA Statements and Policies on Censorship collection titled “Labeling Systems: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.” In it they write that they affirm the rights of individuals to “form their own opinions about resources they choose to read, view, listen to, or otherwise access. Libraries do not advocate the ideas found in their collections or in resources accessible through the library. The presence of books and other resources in a library does not indicate endorsement of their contents by the library. Likewise, providing access to digital information does not indicate endorsement or approval of that information by the library. Labeling systems present distinct challenges to these intellectual freedom principles.”
YS: As a consumer, especially in communities with lower literacy rates/levels, or for people not expecting to be confronted with racist indoctrination, I would think a user warning or label would be helpful and appreciated.
K: I agree, but I think my mentor was asking me to think about what our staff of two people should be prioritizing. Like an academic librarian could more easily make the case to spend work hours annotating problematic books because they are more focused on research and instruction.
YS: So then in Colorado’s Front Range Denver Metro, where I’m at, that shouldn’t be as much of a problem. They can do things to help.
As a librarian, do you think removing the books amounts to censorship or does it not? Does removing racist content – even if just removing to closed stacks – fall under a different category? Censorship itself seems like something that we see at the governmental level and overly broad definitions would seem to err on the side of offensive materials. I don’t think local libraries removing racist content amounts to censorship, legally, and the claim that it does – in my understanding – amounts to straw man arguments or other false logic in favor of maintaining racist content.
K: The ALA says that removing books from a collection is censorship. But I personally want to get rid of the Dr. Seuss books that portray harmful stereotypes because there are so many books out there that we can be using to teach children the same literacy and social skills without damaging the positive self-concepts of BIPOC kids and giving all kids ideas about it being okay to mistreat other people. Kids that see Black and African American people as apes and monkeys, as less than human, like they do in Dr. Seuss’s books turn into adults who are more likely to condone mistreatment and violence.
I think people get scared that once we acknowledge that Seuss is racist we would have to also acknowledge that large parts of our collections are too—and they think there aren’t enough materials out there to replace what we would lose. I think that racist books can go live in special or academic libraries that have the capacity to warn and educate people about their problems but they don’t have a place in public libraries.
YS: Speaking of books we deserve to have, Honduran-Japanese writer, Doctora Oriel Maria Sui’s recent book, Rebeldita en el Paîs de Ogros (“in the land of Ogres,” English and Spanish) is fantastic. I bought a copy for friends. It’s a story of kids standing up to the incarceration of migrants. Excellent work. But I digress…
On the ALA.org site, under the “Freedom of Information” tab, under they have a definition of censorship and supporting logic under the “First Amendment and Censorship” tab, which says:
Censorship is the suppression of ideas and information that certain persons — individuals, groups, or government officials — find objectionable or dangerous. It is no more complicated than someone saying, “Don’t let anyone read this book, or buy that magazine, or view that film, because I object to it!” Censors try to use the power of the state to impose their view of what is truthful and appropriate, or offensive and objectionable, on everyone else. Censors pressure public institutions, like libraries, to suppress and remove information they judge inappropriate or dangerous from public access, so that no one else has the chance to read or view the material and make up their own minds about it. The censor wants to prejudge materials for everyone.
“Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.” — Article 3, Library Bill of Rights, [emphasis added]
This seems to betray a fundamental misunderstanding of what censorship means in regard to the First Amendment, which is about governmental censorship. They even state that it’s about “state power” but take the responsibility of the state on themselves. It’s actually completely surprising, and a bit revelatory, that the ALA would rely on a deceptively presented mis-definition of censorship in defense of maintaining problematic materials. Applying the First Amendment to censorship idea in libraries would only make sense if the library is government owned, operated, and fully funded. In fact, most libraries are locally organized and funded minimally by state and federal governments.
K: That assertion about funding is something that doesn’t sound accurate to me but I’m new to the field and haven’t been too concerned about learning where the money comes from. I thought all or a large percentage of the funding for county libraries came from county governments. And policies that the county library puts into place that affect patrons have to be approved by a library advisory board that is picked by the county board of supervisors.
And at least for our small rural tribal library, as far as I know we pay for everything but salaries from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) grant that we apply for every year–and the federal government funds the IMLS. And then the IMLS gives money to the state libraries that are made available as grants to academic, tribal, and public libraries. Those grants are for things like improving broadband speed and covering construction costs.
To get back to your point and the “What Is Censorship” section you quoted, one of the things that trips me up is how the language presents itself like librarianship is enlightened when it’s really just a reflection of the society we live in.
I wish that the ALA could recommend that our public libraries keep non-dominant communities free from the kinds of degradation that may stop some parents from bringing their kids to the library, but I think the ALA is justifying their position because of how things like hate speech are protected under the first amendment—it’s not like that in Canada and some places in Europe. Some of my peers in school think that it’s the job of a parent to review what books their children are trying to check out before they let them read them. I wonder how my peers grew up—once I was eight I could go to the library by myself and during the summer I would go to the library when my mom went to work. When I worked at the county library, many kids would come to the library after school and stay until their parents got off of work. Librarians are not child care providers. Children are going to be exposed to the negative things on library shelves and if our professional association says we’re not supposed to label them a child is going to think that the library endorses the bad stuff they find. I didn’t know until I started library school that libraries are supposed to be neutral, so I’m not convinced that it’s common knowledge.
I also think that claiming libraries are neutral is wrong—their books are reflections of the people, mostly older white women, working in the collections department who manage things based on vague collection management policies that allow them the flexibility to buy books they think their communities need and want. Things are changing for the better though. The formation of ethnic community services teams has allowed some collection departments to take recommendations from their BIPOC colleagues more seriously. And I say “more seriously” because I don’t think the white folks in our profession really understand why we are advocating for #OwnVoices.
In 2019, Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens published an article called “The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books.” They looked at all the Dr. Seuss books that were still available for purchase by the public and found that, of the 2,240 human characters, only 2% represented BIPOC. Of the 2% that represented BIPOC they found that all of them promoted racism and White supremacy through stereotypical, dehumanized, or subordinate portrayals.
Ishizuka and Stephens also write about how children are able to “categorize and express preference by race as early as three months of age (Kelly et al. 31). According to Baron and Banaji, children “report negative explicit attitudes toward out-group members” at age three (53). When exposed to racism and prejudice at this age, they tend to embrace and accept it, even though they might not understand the feelings (Burnett). By age six, White North American children have already developed a pro-White/anti-Black bias (Baron and Banaji 55)” (page 6).
Books teach values. From a young age we learn to value the images of people we see and undervalue the images of people we don’t see. The research that went into how stereotypes relating to Indian mascots affected children showed that Native kids’ self-esteem lowered in relation to non-Native kids rising. Isn’t that wild that seeing stereotypes of another group of people can make you feel good about yourself? Like, is what we’re really talking about an issue of white people not wanting their kids to have lower self-esteem? I think entitlement is a trademark of patriarchal White culture and that what we are seeing is conservatism. I think not challenging notions of entitlement in children leads to violence later in life, physically and structurally. And I think lack of representation in children’s literature feeds into a culture that is literally destroying our communities.
I attended a lecture on March 3rd by Dr. Debbie Reese called “Critical Thinking about the Children’s Books You Use in Your Collection.” She shared a graphic illustrated by David Huyck in consultation with Sarah Park Dahlen based on research done by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The graphic shows how often American Indian/First Nations, Latinx, Asian Pacific Islander/Asian Pacific American, African/African American, and White children were depicted in books published in 2018. While white people make up 50% of the characters published that year, characters from the diverse backgrounds listed above appeared only 23% of the time. Dr. Reese pointed out that the percentage of those books that represent BIPOC children adequately and the number written by BIPOC are even fewer.
YS: What’s the conversation in BIPOC librarian channels around this specific book conversation, regarding Dr. Seuss, and censorship or racist content in our libraries in general?
K: I can share a couple things I’ve seen shared in private Facebook groups but I’m new to this issue and feel a little out of my depth.
There are BIPOC who support the ALA’s stance on not pulling the six no-longer published books out of collections and you also have BIPOC librarians taking different approaches to protect our children from yet another source of racism.
I hope this national conversation has allowed some librarians to suggest incorporating statements into their collection policies about addressing racism to their administrations. I don’t know about the repercussions of a library system going against ALA policy recommendations but it’s not like you can get disbarred like lawyers can.
I saw one BIPOC children’s manager who said they implemented a “no-display, no-program, no-recommendation rule for Seuss.” They chose to leave the books in the collection to be found. Another librarian commented that Dr. Seuss books aren’t checked out in their library unless a staff person goes out of their way to put up a display (permanent, like a wall of favorites, or temporary like for Read Across America Month in March) or create programming (like storytime) around his books–they said the books are old and kids don’t find them interesting unless an adult tells them that they are.
I heard from a children’s librarian that she had to decide if removing those six Dr. Seuss books was worth having to also remove books that other community members had formally challenged (as often happens with anti-racist and LGBTQ+ materials). We were taught in library school that there should always be some titles in a library that you don’t personally agree with because that means your collection is “balanced.” I think this is another flawed concept in our industry–just because we are buying books that educate people how to be anti-racists doesn’t mean we also have to go out of our way to collect the published works of people who preach the subjugation of ethnic minorities.
YS: And that, friends, is the conversation. It’s a big conversation, with a lot of complicated parts. But, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really seem that complicated: all our kids, every race, deserve to grow up with and around equitable representation of all humanity, so we can build a just and equitable future. We have all the studies on how kids are affected, from a young age, by racist imagery and information. The only question I have is why anyone, much less our American Library Association, would want to maintain that.
American Library Association. 2017. http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/censorship
Andrew, S. 2021. “Libraries oppose censorship. So they’re getting creative when it comes to offensive kids’ books” https://edition.cnn.com/2021/03/03/us/offensive-childrens-books-librarians-wellness-trnd/index.html
Huyck, David and Sarah Park Dahlen. (2019 June 19). Diversity in Children’s Books 2018. sarahpark.com blog. Created in consultation with Edith Campbell, Molly Beth Griffin, K. T. Horning, Debbie Reese, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, and Madeline Tyner, with statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison: https://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/literature-resources/ccbc-diversity-statistics/books-by-about-poc-fnn/. Retrieved from https://readingspark.wordpress.com/2019/06/19/picture-this-diversity-in-childrens-books-2018-infographic/
Ishizuka, Katie and Stephens, Ramón (2019) “The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books,” Research on Diversity in Youth Literature: Vol. 1 : Iss. 2 , Article 4. Available at: https://sophia.stkate.edu/rdyl/vol1/iss2/4