Books with Racist Images

Q: What does the recent announcement from Seuss Enterprises that six Dr. Seuss books will no longer be published because of racist images mean for my library? We don’t have all of the books but do have a couple of them.

While we don’t think of this forum as a place to discuss specific books, this circumstance has many libraries wondering how to proceed. And the issues it raises are certainly applicable to selection and weeding decisions in general.

As with all collection development, maintenance, and weeding, decisions about what to include–or weed–from a library collection should be guided by your library’s policies and procedures and the criteria for selection and retention. And that starts with looking at each book individually.

These books have gone out of print–something that happens to books all the time; it’s a fact that means you can’t replace them in the future. But whether and how this announcement impacts your decision to keep them in your collection now is a matter of evaluating them against your selection and retention/weeding criteria.

It’s unlikely any library’s current selection and retention/weeding policy and procedures have language to address this unusual situation in which the copyright holder has essentially said “we aren’t going to license these books for publication anymore because they’re racist.” And yet, the fact that the copyright holder has stated these books have content they describe as “hurtful and wrong” is not necessarily irrelevant to the criteria you might consider as outlined in your policy. Unless your policies and procedures state retention/weeding decisions are based solely on circulation (which this announcement may impact, at least temporarily), and condition of materials, this situation demands the same kind of work you’ve always done: considering the books in light of multiple factors in order to arrive at a decision.

Some public and school libraries may decide to weed these books based on reasoning they support with their collection policies–for example, determining they are outdated because of their racist images*, no longer fitting into a collection designed to support the needs and interests of contemporary children and families, or no longer relating to the curriculum. And some libraries may choose to keep them based on reasoning they can support, including if they have a stated goal of collecting materials relating to the history of youth literature and/or the ongoing study of race and racism in popular culture. It’s also important to keep in mind that there is a difference between collection development (providing access to materials in a library collection) and programming (selecting materials to highlight in some way). 

So, it’s not simple. But collection development and maintenance never is. Curating a library collection is a responsibility that requires open minds, critical thinking and the ability to balance multiple factors, as outlined in policies and procedures, to arrive at a decision. No book has a guaranteed place in a collection forever; books are added all the time and books are weeded all the time, following selection and retention/weeding guidelines in policies and procedures. The current media attention to these books doesn’t change that fact, or the thoughtful process that this work has always demanded.

March 2021

*It’s important to note that the images have always been racist and always faced criticism; unfortunately, those critical voices were not widely heard or amplified, and the images weren’t widely understood or seen as problematic at the time they were created, or for many years after. Our changing understanding of works of the past is one of the many factors we are being challenged to consider in our work evaluating materials.