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Beyond the Pluto Problem

weedingPerusing Debbie’s Reese’s  provocative (to me, anyway!) and useful site American Indians in Children’s Literature, I came across a comment she made referencing and linking to the Texas State Library’s guide to weeding, CREW: A Weeding Manual for Modern Libraries (link goes to a pdf). Last revised in 2012 by my most respected colleague and friend Jeannette Larson, the handbook is a fabulously clear and comprehensive guide to keeping a library up to date.

Librarians seem to hate or love weeding. There are those who can’t bear to discard from their collections a single title, especially one that might be among that librarian’s childhood favorites. It’s a not exactly welcome opportunity to see one’s failures too, like that book you bought because it got five starred reviews and hasn’t been checked out once. But I always enjoyed weeding, dumping books whose information had been superseded or those for which patrons clamored twenty years ago but sit like tombstones now. I always worked in small libraries and my weeding was haphazard: I didn’t worry about books that were checked out (because someone clearly found some value in them) and would just go shelf by shelf, discarding those books that were beat up (and ordering replacements) or, to the contrary, too pristine for their age; science and technology books that were outdated; books whose time had come and gone ( I remember getting rid of a bunch of how-to-be-an-air-traffic-controller test prep books purchased when Reagan fired them all, and a lot of Belva Plain, whose time had come and gone). It was a very unscientific process and the CREW (which stands for Continuous Review, Evaluation and Weeding) manual would have been a big help.

But while I was reading the manual and daydreaming about life back in the stacks, I came across a recommendation that bothered me:

“Be ruthless in weeding juvenile fiction. While many titles are used for class reading assignments, most fiction is leisure reading. Popular interest is the primary criteria for this section. Weed duplicate copies of past bestsellers if interest has waned, beginning by discarding the most worn copies.

Consider discarding older fiction especially when it has not circulated in the past two or three years. Also look for books that contain stereotyping, including stereotypical images and views of people with disabilities and the elderly, or gender and racial biases.”

Inaccurate, damaged, or unused? Yeah, weed the hell out of those suckers. But to remove a book–fiction, especially–on the basis that it contains stereotyping or bias is a violation of my favorite Right in the Library Bill of such, “[Library] materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.”

While it seems right and forward-thinking and all to rid a library collection of bias, it is both unfair and impossibly subjective. Determinations of stereotyping and bias are in the eye of the beholder, not intrinsic to a story itself. Whether you think Twilight is sexist or sexy, for example, is up to you; the great thing about libraries is that they don’t care. I’m bothered, too, that the CREW manual calls out juvenile fiction in particular for bias-monitoring, as if the rules are somehow different when it comes to library services for youth. They aren’t.

With its Banned Books Week, the ALA annually bangs the drum for the protection of intellectual freedom from assault (mainly) by conservatives. Do the progressives leave us alone because we’re already doing the job for them?

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. Good one!

    And besides those students who come in looking for books with bias and stereotypes won’t find anything. I love having great and obnoxious examples to show them.

    However, I am sure there will be some kickback on this. From Jeannette if no one else. I always admire her opinions and I look forward to hearing moe about why that section was included.

  2. Talk about provocative!

    It’s so hard, too, not to balk at books that are outdated to the point of being offensive or dangerous. I remember finding, in 2004 in my then new to me collection, a sex ed book from the early 80s (82 or 3 is my recollection) that talked about AIDS in a clearly added in at the last minute final chapter, and which said the only group at risk was gay men, so only if you were in that group did you need to worry. I weeded that immediately, because INACCURATE. But if a character says the same thing in a novel from the same period, is that somehow different because now it’s couched as opinion not fact? Isn’t it still harmful?

    I think that’s where it gets slippery. Over at Someday My Printz Will Come the question of accuracy in YA lit (incidentally, also partially spurred by Debbie/AICL, and including a pointer to this post in one of the comments) is on the table today. Is fiction required to be accurate? Where do we draw the line with fiction that is also historic, not historical? Where is the line between harmful and how do we provide guidance when readers are often reading in their own private bubbles? Is this responsibility the same in a school (for which Jeanette’s guidelines were designed) as they are in a public library? (I know when I was in the public library, I weeded almost entirely based on circ, and that’s not at all the guiding principle for me in a school.)

    So many questions. I don’t have any answers, but these are the things I find my self pondering.

  3. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Karyn, I remember when Judy Blume re-edited FOREVER to keep up with the times, exchanging the girl’s sanitary belt to tampons and adding an afterword about condoms. One tricky thing about evaluating sexism or racism in fiction is distinguishing a character from the author; sometimes an author will call a character out, sometimes leave it up to us, and sometimes just be racist or sexist (as judged by the lights of a reader).

    The CREW manual is specifically aimed at small public libraries, according to the preface. I will reiterate that I think it is very useful, just this one little thing that put a bee in my bonnet.

  4. Sometimes this discussion feels like going round and round the mulberry bush, without the pop. I do wish it were possible to move past the notion that the “subjective” nature of stereotyping always necessitates a hands-off approach… or that selection based on avoiding stereotypes necessarily equates to banning and censorship.

    There’s a whole lot of context that gets lost in that framing.

    I agree with the above commenter that one of those contexts is school vs. public libraries. For example, should an elementary school librarian keep an alphabet book in his collection that shows a hook-nosed Jewish person under the letter ‘J’? What about in a teacher’s own classroom library? Are these school contexts different from that small public library, or from a larger research collection? In the case of the small public library, limited shelf space often means the decision to keep some books is a de facto decision not to acquire others: why keep the alphabet book with the hook-nosed Jewish character over a new book? Are people really arguing that weeding it would be equivalent to removing a book because, say, it includes a gay couple? Or that stereotyping is always just a matter of subjective perception, removed from any context? I think these are complicated and necessary questions– and not ones that can be so easily painted over with the broad brush strokes of “book banning” and “subjectivity”. And of course, this sort of preferential selection happens *all the time*. Especially, again, with limited budgets and shelf space. Is not buying a book in the first place a form of censorship?

    I agree that there are inherent dangers here, too. But I’m not sure how to move the conversation forward when the underlying issues and concerns so often get dismissed out of hand.

  5. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Sarah, while I have not seen a “J Is for Jew” alphabet book (in print; I just Googled it and found a couple of well-meaning online travesties) of course there is no shortage of “I Is for Indian” books in library collections, so let’s talk about those. I guess I fall into the “it depends” camp, which is why I err on the side of a hands-off approach. If a book had I being Indian in an alphabet otherwise composed (comprised?) of toys or animals, I would want to chuck it, and, given that there are certainly lots of alphabet books in the collection, probably would. But I would definitely keep, for example, Sendak’s Alligators All Around, despite its I for “imitating Indians.” Because it’s Sendak, because many parents want it, because it’s otherwise brilliant. I acknowledge the complications you bring up, absolutely, and wonder what to do with my own self-contradiction. I’d be happy to say to librarians, ‘just be reasonable,” but we all know that my or anyone’s ‘reasonable” is another person’s affront to humanity. How do we handle that?

    Pursuant to the images of Indians question, btw, we received a new 25th anniversary edition of AMAZING GRACE last week, and the picture of Grace pretending to be Hiawatha is gone (without comment), so public shaming has a part to play in this discussion, too.

  6. Thanks for that info about AMAZING GRACE, Roger!

    We might call its omission “public shaming” or we might call it something else: a realization that it was a stereotypical image, and that it perpetuates ignorance of who the real Hiawatha was in favor of a White Man’s Hiawatha. I think CCBC pointed out problems with Grace a long time ago. Going to go look…

  7. Hi all,

    For a different take on all this, see this post on Reading While White, which asserts that librarians in fact have a responsibility to take stereotypes and bias into account when making selection decisions, and that there is no contradiction between this appraoch and a pro-intellectual freedom approach:

    Have a good day!

  8. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Thanks Allie–you guys are saying some interesting things over there and I encourage everybody to take a look. I confess I’m having trouble seeing past the blog’s capitalization of “White,” though–while I understand your reasons for doing so (as explained in the FAQ), it makes me feel like I’ve wandered onto Stormfront. That could be my age speaking.

  9. To me, “it depends” is an inherent part of the guidelines– which might also include an awareness that one’s background, experiences, and biases will affect one’s perception of those contingencies. Along with an awareness of past and present imbalances. But if there’s agreement that there are situations where removing a book based on stereotypes is the right choice, and not censorship, maybe the question is whether to make those considerations a central value? And there I wholeheartedly agree with the post Allie shared.

    Also glad to hear about the changes to Amazing Grace, and interesting to place that beside other books that have undergone similar changes, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I know you’ve also written about efforts to edit books like Huck Finn– to me, this is another dynamic with an “it depends” attached. Just always aware that those debates and decisions aren’t abstract, but have consequences in kids’ real lives.

  10. The only White people talking about Whiteness in this country are White Supremacists and White Antiracists. I understand why it hits you funny, Roger, but our goal is not to make you feel comfortable!!

  11. Re: Amazing Grace:

    So glad to hear there’s a new edition.

    I agree with Debbie that calling what happened “public shaming” is wrong. If raising awareness of the image’s problems has shifted the “shame” OFF of Native children who are dehumanized and hurt by such stereotypes and ONTO the adults who created the book, that is progress.

  12. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    By public shaming, I mean people seeing something and saying STOP DOING THIS. Happens to me all the time.

    I’m still having trouble understanding how a public library removing a book on the grounds of perceived offense is not censorship. As I acknowledged above, I can see a case where I would do it, but I think we should call a thing what it is. I know I’ve shared on here before about the librarian who said, in defending the decision of her library not to circulate JAKE AND HONEYBUNCH GO TO HEAVEN, “when librarians do it, it’s selection.” No, it isn’t always.

  13. I’m interested in what you said, Roger, about the rules being different for the juvenile collection. I think with the juvenile collection there are two concerns — that children might absorb the stereotypes as truth, and that the child readers of any particular minority might come across those stereotypes like a slap in the face. I wonder at what age we decide children can be trusted to deal with these things for themselves, as they eventually will in the adult collection. I don’t think anyone is pulling all the books out of the adult collection that have offensive stereotypes in them.

    I think it’s hard to draw a line here between protecting the reader and infantilizing the patrons. I’d probably be more willing to see the picture books with questionable content go then books for older readers. Questions I’d like to think are asked while weeding would be, “Is the reader of this book likely to be sophisticated enough to see that this content is problematic? Are they likely to be taken by surprise?”

    Can we let them judge for themselves? I can see why some readers would avoid older books, for example, exactly to avoid offensive stereotypes, but as I said, I am uncomfortable taking the decision away from them. Weeding for space, of course, is a different pressure, than reading solely because of stereotypes. And I think Lofting is a fine example of a book that is often issued in a shiny new cover that gives absolutely no clue to the unwary reader of the land mines it contains. If the library is going to have the Doctor Dolittle series, I wish they’d keep the old battered copies so people get an idea of the age of the story they are about to read.

  14. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Megan, there’s a lot of history in ALA around the extension of the Library Bill of Rights to minors, and, more generally, within the history of library services to youth. For example, the LBR was introduced in 1939, but its extension to children was not put in until 1967. When I first started using libraries in the early 1960s, children were routinely excluded from checking out books from the adult department whereas now they are generally allowed full run. (The LBR has no legal force in any given library unless that library has affirmed it as a governing policy.)

    I think you are pointing out WHY the trend in the profession has been to increase free reading for children. Kids (even of the same age) are different, families are different, what bothers you (Dr. Doolittle, say) might not be of concern to another child, parent, or librarian.

    It’s true that weeding-for-stereotypes as well as external challenges to library materials almost always focus on children’s materials, or adult materials being used by children (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings on school reading lists, for example). No one is trying to take Gone With the Wind (which I love but also think is racist as hell) off of the shelves. But protecting children is a huge part of being an adult, so the impulse to keep them from books we think will harm them is logical. Where we (adults generally) disagree is in just which books are harmful, in what way they are harmful, and the best way to ameliorate the harm.

  15. Well… it looks like the UK version of GRACE is unchanged. I updated my post:

  16. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    That’s interesting, Debbie–and note that the Mowgli image, which I’m guessing might also be seen as offensive by some–remains in both editions. That’s what I meant about public shaming: the Hiawatha image was deleted because people made noise about it.

  17. Hi Allie. Concerning the blog post you linked, I see the assertion but I don’t see the argument for why it’s not a contradiction. As far as I can tell it just says: monitoring the bias and stereotyping in our collections is right and necessary because it wasn’t done in the past and because it makes us more responsible to the community we serve. I think one could use Roger’s words in this blog post to counter:

    “While it seems right and forward-thinking and all to rid a library collection of bias, it is both unfair and impossibly subjective. Determinations of stereotyping and bias are in the eye of the beholder, not intrinsic to a story itself. Whether you think Twilight is sexist or sexy, for example, is up to you; the great thing about libraries is that they don’t care. I’m bothered, too, that the CREW manual calls out juvenile fiction in particular for bias-monitoring, as if the rules are somehow different when it comes to library services for youth. They aren’t.”

    I’m still asking myself these questions after reading both posts:

    We say we believe in intellectual freedom, but how do we define it? Should ALA’s Library Bill of Rights be part of the definition? If so, how do we deal with the part that Roger quoted about not removing items because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval? Do our concerns about stereotyping fall under “partisan or doctrinal disapproval” or is it something else entirely? Finally, there’s a fascinating clip of a grandmother pleading with a school district to remove Alexie’s book (you know the one) from the curriculum:

    Do her concerns fall under “partisan or doctrinal disapproval” or something else entirely? Is there a contradiction if we allow our progressive values to determine a collection but not hers?

  18. Here’s the thing about bias/censorship/racism/sexism: everyone does them. Censorship is a continuum and, like it or not, selecting/weeding a book collection is on the same continuum. Weeding according to your implicit biases without being conscious of them is almost certainly worse then making considered decisions using as much of your conscious mind as possible. If you are not going to have a rigorously objective and algorithmic approach to weeding, then you should certainly consider issues of representation. Why should consciously weeding for stereotypes be challenged, while all your other cultural assumptions go unchallenged. Examine all your biases (as much as you can). Great discussion.

  19. You know me, Roger, a big fan of old books. I want people to grow up to read Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen and enjoy them, not just plod through them for school assignments, but it takes a certain amount of bridge building to connect to old books and that ability has to be nurtured in readers. I think if we truly want to keep children from harm we should concentrate more on making them the kind of readers who can choose for themselves what they want to read and avoid the rest. I lean in the direction of free-range libraries, I guess. I don’t think we always know what we’ll lose if we take all the objectionable stuff away. I’m sure you know Gene Luen Yang’s speech at the National Book Festival.

  20. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    A Reader makes a great point. Regardless of where you come down on weeding-for-bias, it behooves every librarian to examine his or her own, because it’s too easy to see our own biases as simply correct thinking!

  21. I believe that challenging ourselves on First Amendment and censorship issues is one of the hardest, most rewarding, and most interesting aspects of being a librarian. Trusting all librarians to recognize the same stereotypes or weed according to changing historical truths seems to me to be impossible. We all have our little obsessions. One of mine, which I find humorous even now, was trying to weed all books that were favorable to J. Edgar Hoover. Okay, maybe not a stereotype, but plain wrong. And where do we stop?

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