“A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.” This famous quote from noted library consultant and book editor Mary Jo Godwin is a sentiment that is echoed by not only librarians, but book sellers as well.
However, in a time of massive reevaluation of once widely accepted tropes, celebrities have been called out for past insensitivities and much worse, schools have been renamed and statues toppled. But what does it mean when books are brought into the discussion?
Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the company formed by the family of the author Theodor Seuss Geisel, recently announced that they would no longer be publishing six books, because those books “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong” as explained in a statement.
Even more recently, Scholastic announced they would cease publication of a spin-off graphic novel from the creators of the popular Captain Underpants series because of “passive racism” in the story. In addition to halting publication, Scholastic is seeking a return of inventory. The statement specified that the publishing company would be contacting libraries and schools to explain their decision.
Unlike a recall on a faulty vehicle however, these decisions cannot require the return of books already in circulation. That decision lies with readers, and keepers of books.
Censorship versus curation
“The definition of a good book, is one that we will sell,” said Eli Barrett, who owns Pelican Bay Books & Coffeehouse in Anacortes with his wife Brooklynd Johnson. A Dr. Seuss book will always be one of those, according to Barrett.
Barrett is the principal buyer of books for Pelican Bay, a used bookstore. When deciding which books to house in his store, he pays close attention to the interests of his customers.
Over the years, Barrett has seen trends of books come and go. Last summer, there was an increase of interest in books by Black authors, and those on the topics of racial justice. At the height of the #MeToo movement in 2017, the gender studies section of their store was heavily shopped. Being a used bookstore, Barrett is not able to stock a large supply of popular copies, so authors such as James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates don’t stay on the shelves for long.
Barrett said he is firmly against censorship. Pelican Bay Books does not stop carrying books that are taken out of print, and offers a wide variety of used and rare books. That said, he carefully considers what books to offer at Pelican Bay.
“Ninety percent of books we don’t buy, because we don’t expect to sell them,” Barrett said. By taking note of the interests of their customers, Barrett can curate a selection that will both sell, and encourage both freedom of expression and access to information.
Barrett said that Pelican Bay is proud to foster a welcoming environment, where tourists and residents alike can exchange ideas and learn. Barrett is mindful about materials that may encourage hate or misinformation, however, noting that he would be hesitant to sell Holocaust-denial content, or something of the like. On the other hand, certain controversial materials are important for the sake of historical reference, such as “Mein Kampf,” which is for sale at Pelican Bay, according to Barrett.
At the Lopez Island Library, “weeding” is an important part of the curation process.
“For every book that has been purchased, we have to weed out a book,” said Ingrid Vliet, collection and circulation librarian at Lopez Island Library. There simply is not enough space to house everything. Weeding isn’t necessarily easy because, according to Vliet, “all books are good books.”
A basic guideline Vliet considers is simply whether a book is being used. If not, there really isn’t the space for it. Vliet and other librarians at the library are currently updating their collections development policies.
Their current policy found on their website states, “It is the Library’s intention to develop a collection based on policies of inclusion rather than exclusion and on objective standards rather than personal opinion. It is the library’s task to provide material that will enable people to form their own opinions.”
As a small library, curation is critical, and there is no place for “racist titles,” according to Vliet.
“For me, it was easy to weed out the Dr. Seuss,” Vliet said, adding that the library still has plenty of Dr. Seuss on offer. While not a fan of Dr. Seuss herself, Vliet acknowledges that everyone is entitled to their own interests. The library will not remove books from their shelves because of personal preferences.
As is the case of Dr. Seuss, Vliet pointed out there are problematic themes in many beloved pieces of literature, including the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Despite this fact, those books will remain at the library because they are beloved by the community. Vliet might recommend other books with similar subjects instead, but the decisions lie with the reader.
The removal of racist titles “requires ongoing education,” Vliet said in an email, and will be ongoing work. It is of high importance to have a collection with a wide diversity of authors and characters, especially in the Children and Young Adults section, Vliet wrote.
The library hosts virtual discussion groups and offers resources to further education and conversation on topics of social justice, such as the Asian-American experience in light of recent high-profile violence toward the AAPI community.
Freedom to decide
Weeding is standard practice in larger library systems as well, including the Whatcom County Library System. Although there are 10 branches of the library, there is still not enough room for every piece of media.
As for the Dr. Seuss books removed from publication, “The few that we have left, we will keep until they fall apart or they aren’t being read anymore,” Christine Perkins, Executive Director of the Whatcom County Library System said, emphasizing that they do not censor materials.
Decisions about the content of literature are left up to the reader, according to Perkins and outlined in the WCLS collection policy. While materials with problematic themes may live on the shelves, it is hoped and expected that library patrons are critical and discerning readers, Perkins said.
“You need to give people intellectual freedom to make decisions,” Perkins said, and this goes for children as well. Parents and families are each responsible for what their children read and watch, and each family has different standards of what is appropriate, per the WCLS policy.
As interests change, and society recognizes past and present faults, the popularity of certain books will rise and fall. Some books will lose relevance and sink to the back of the shelf, but in many book carrying institutions, they will still be there.
Navigating the tension between censorship and public opinion in a changing society is a challenging, and ongoing responsibility for bookkeepers. For some, the best course of action is to engage with progressive ideas, but keep an enduring record of the past, as a reminder.
“There needs to be a stockpile of what there was … and how history used to be,” Barrett said. “Horrific ideas need to have exposure, sunlight to disinfect them.”