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The Dr. Seuss Opportunity

by on April 5, 2021

Controversy surrounding Dr. Seuss is not new. In recent years, more scrutiny has been placed on the depictions of Seuss characters in regards to ethnicity and race. The decision by Dr. Seuss Enterprises to end publishing of six titles reignited discussions.

Depictions from past eras that are recognizably racist today, will continue to be an issue librarians must consider when it comes to our collections.  Especially within the context of the Black Lives Matter movement and recent anti-Asian racism related to the pandemic, it is crucial for libraries to respond appropriately if we are truly spaces for everyone. But what is the correct response?  The issue of the Seuss books provides a particularly salient opportunity to engage with your staff, especially those new to the profession. This particular issue meets at the intersection of two foundational pillars of librarianship, intellectual freedom on one hand and equity, diversity, and inclusion on the other. Use this opportunity to broaden perspectives on an issue that will only become more relevant to anti-racist librarianship.

Libraries around the country are handling the Dr. Seuss books in a variety of ways, indicating a lack of consensus. This is unsurprising given the nature of this issue. As with many decisions we make, some situations are not black and white. We often operate in a sea of grey. When this is the case, we need to exercise professional judgement and seek out a diverse range of opinions.

The Denver Public Library issued a statement that they will not remove the books from the collection, pointing to the ALA Freedom to Read Statement.  The New York Public Library indicated they too would not remove the books, but pointed out that when they weed the books from the collection due to condition, they will no longer be available to reorder and so in essence, would remove themselves in time. However, the Chicago Public Library decided to remove the titles due to the depictions of characters with stereotypical imagery. Their statement emphasized “Materials that become dated or that foster inaccurate culturally harmful stereotypes are removed to make space for more current, comprehensive materials.” Other libraries have chosen to relocate the titles to different areas of their library, move them behind check out desks, or add them to reference collections.

Looking outside the profession, the National Coalition Against Censorship released a statement against the removal of the books from publication. In it, they argued, “It is important to preserve our literary heritage even when it reflects attitudes that are no longer tolerated as they once were.”  Recently, the National Education Association pivoted away from Dr. Seuss as the focus of their Read Across America program. Instead, they have chosen to focus on diverse children’s books.  

This issue offers an opportunity to engage library staff in discussions. We can introduce the often nuanced reality of librarianship to a new generation. Use this opportunity to have a conversation with your staff.  Some questions you might pose include:

  • How would a child feel if they picked up one of these books and found a negative depiction of their own ethnicity?  
  • Is removing books from our collections because of outdated views censorship or an important aspect of collection development?
  • If we remove controversial books we disagree with are we opening up the possibility of removing other books with controversial viewpoints that we find less egregious or even support?
  • Does the context of the societal views of another time period negate how those views are perceived today?
  • Does the audience matter in this discussion, can children understand the context of bygone eras the same way adults can? 

The issue necessitates reviewing our collection development policies with an eye toward both free speech and inclusion. Policies should not only draw from the professional ideals of organizations like ALA, but also should reflect our institution’s individual situations and the context of the communities we serve. Are you a small community library with a collection that largely focuses on recently published materials? Are you a large library system that also serves a role for those researching past eras? Ultimately, there isn’t a definitive answer. Libraries, like society as a whole, are wrestling with ghosts of the past while we try to build a better present and future. When we have these discussions with staff, library boards, or other interested parties, it is also paramount to make sure other perspectives are included. Look around the room, is diversity present?

Materials become outdated. As society evolves more people understand that some viewpoints common in one era, are offensive. When we are too inflexible with our thinking and immediately consider any removal of an item as an affront to free speech we can miss other perspectives, other foundational elements of librarianship. Whether these books, or others like them, remain in your library collection is a judgement you have to make, ideally with input from others with diverse backgrounds and experiences. Use issues like this one as a learning tool to engage with staff, so they can develop a broader understanding of librarianship.

Further Reading

CBS News — New York and Denver public libraries aren’t removing Dr. Seuss books over racist imagery

Business Insider — Librarians are debating how to handle the Dr. Seuss controversy — but the books will stay on shelves for now

ALA Freedom to Read Statement

ALA Website — Equity, Diversity, Inclusion

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