At The Circulation Desk

Cancelled? Banned? Out of Print? The why behind a title’s demise

Estimated reading time of article: 4 mins

By James Johnson

The corporation responsible for preserving the legacy of the late Dr. Seuss’s books has come under fire for ending the print run of six controversial titles. Supporters of this decision celebrate the removal of what many consider to be offensive and racist depictions of minority groups, while critics have slammed this move as yet another overreach of progressive wokeism and cancel culture.

As library professionals, one of the most important jobs we have is collection development. This work usually goes on behind the scenes, and users generally remain blissfully ignorant of it. Developing a library’s collection requires a deep understanding of not only the needs of the reader, but also the needs of other departments and what considerations, if any, are requisite for policy adherence.

Depending on the size and type of library, there may be several departments that operate within the organization. Each of these department’s has there own requirements, budgets, and even users. Departments can work independently of one another in service of the whole. Take the children’s section of a public library. It’s not often an adult library user checks out the latest Diamond Willow winner. In some cases these departments share budgets with other departments. In smaller cases there is only one budget for the system, and each department allocated a limited set of funds, do with it what they can.

In every case, collection development policy is key. Within the idea of developing a collection is the concept of selecting new titles and removing damaged, irrelevant, or unused ones. This latter process is known as weeding, or de-selection.

Library staff have a difficult job on their hands in weeding. Such a crucial step in developing a collection requires a robust and clear policy so that, no matter the individual conducting the task, a specified path to success can be followed.

The elements of a library policy are unique to the system it serves, however, there are principles that generally guide library professionals in developing good policy. Depending on the particulars of a library’s mission statement or goals, providing access to resources for the purposes of learning, entertainment, and discovery is almost always the prime directive of a publicly accessible library system.

Publishers choose to stop printing their property for many reasons. I believe Dr. Seuss Enterprises actively believes their policy of encouraging inclusion and support of reading and seeks to meet and exceed the expectations it sets forth, but don’t for a minute think this act of removing “wrong or hurtful” titles is solely in response to a policy of inclusion and support of reading. Dr. Seuss Enterprises makes money. That will always be theirs and every other for-profit business’s primary motivator. Whether you agree or disagree with the move, Dr. Seuss Enterprise will benefit from this. Their image and bottom line.

When library’s weed it serves a few purposes. We look at the items use (has it circulated well), condition, whether it has remained relevant or has been superseded, and whether alternative copies can be acquired or accessed easily elsewhere (frees up much needed shelf space in tighter quarters.

What effect does a publisher’s decision, like Dr. Seuss Enterprises, have on a library? Hopefully very little. A library should not base their development criteria on any outside sway. A robust and clear policy created in-house represents their unique users better than any third party influencer could ever establish.

The New York Public library said it well. They’re not in the business of determining what people should read. Removing an item from the collection on the grounds it has been challenged (for accuracy, relevancy, or negative attributes) takes careful consideration. As part of a healthy library’s collection development policy, new titles must be selected on the basis of relevancy, accuracy, and user need. Old titles, equally, require reflection when considering their place (or not) in the collection.

A publisher’s decision to end a print run is their prerogative, however they choose to spin in. Take a closer look at the parent owner of this subsidiary and you’ll find they choose to print material many people find offensive, hurtful, and wrong. I may not agree with the decision Dr. Seuss Enterprises made with this move, but it was a business decision first and foremost. Sure they support reading, so does Chapters Indigo. That doesn’t make them a library, and they don’t have to follow the same democratic principles that guide them.

Alternatively, a library has no place in determining the right and wrong of an item based on someone’s feelings. There is plenty of stuff I can’t stomach, content I find offensive and demoralizing. What authority do library professionals possess in removing access to such works, particularly those of publicly funded societies? We may as well claim rightful mastery over the contents of peoples skulls.

Library professionals have politicized the field far longer than I’ve been alive. Whatever side of the “battle” you find yourself on, I hope the purpose of the fight remains relevant to you. That you think for yourself, read what you wish, and do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Happy reading/streaming.

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