Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Not a Contradiction



All of us working on Reading While White are active believers in and promoters of intellectual freedom. And none of us find it contradictory to suggest that librarians think about stereotyping and bias when they are doing the hard, essential work of collection management.

Because here’s the thing: for too long, selection decisions have been made with too little regard, and sometimes no regard, for stereotyping and bias. How do we begin to respond to that? How do we take responsibility for educating ourselves as a profession and as individuals to think critically about that aspect of the work we do in regard to book evaluation and collection management decisions?

There are a lot of things we can do, but one thing we must do is include statements in our professional guidelines that encourage and even demand we consider stereotyping and bias as part of what we look at when evaluating materials and making collection decisions. This is part of the broader framework of challenging racism across all aspects of our profession.

Will we eradicate stereotyping and bias in our collections if we do this?  Of course not. Will we be snatching books out of young reader’s hands? Please. Every librarian knows that collection development and weeding decisions are made taking multiple factors into account. Every librarian knows the collection they are managing is going to have things they and/or others find objectionable.

But every librarian charged with collection management also has a responsibility to evaluate and select materials and assess the collection thoughtfully, usually according to specific criteria outlined in their library (or school) policies and procedures. When we as a profession incorporate language that encourages us to consider stereotyping and bias as part of our decision-making, it does not suggest specific kinds of books be excluded. It simply codifies a criteria that will make us more responsible and responsive to everyone in the communities that we serve.

Acting on that responsibility demands more of us, as individuals and as a profession.  Where are we turning to for professional recommendations? Are those resources culturally competent? If they aren’t where else can we turn to find out more?

None of this is necessarily easy; not for the individual librarian making collection management decisions; not for reviewers and review journals, not for many award- and best-of-the-year list committees and others. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t the right thing to do. More important, it’s the necessary thing to do.

33 comments:

Nina Lindsay said...

A common argument for leaving books with stereotypes on the shelf is that kids need to learn about stereotypes. I guess this may be necessary for White kids in White communities that refuse to talk about race. Yet I've never heard anyone argue for leaving outdated science on the shelf so that kids can learn about the scientific process.

K T Horning said...

Another argument I hear is "I read that as a kid and I turned out okay." Uh huh.

Angie Manfredi said...

I have heard all this before too. I think a lot of it ties back to people hiding behind the supposed sanctity of books to disguise their discomfort with confronting bias at all.

To those who try to crouch their "but who are YOU to decide?" I have a few thoughts: I'm the curator, is who. Every library collection is curated or else it's a pile of books in a building. I know my community, I know how to look at stats, I know how my collection is used. I curate accordingly. It is a FALLACY to believe that any collection is neutral.

I pull non-fiction books with incorrect information ALL.THE.TIME. I pulled a book that said Pluto was still a planet. I pulled a book that said Nelson Mandela was still in jail. I pulled a book that had drawings of coyotes in wedding clothes and said they were monogamous and "got married for life". (yes really) I pulled a book that said by 2005 we'd be living on the ocean floor. No one suggests the library MUST keep those because they are historical documents that reflect a way of thinking that many people once truly thought was correct and if we pull them we're just censors. Do we not all understand that information changes? Why is it easier to accept that about Pluto than it is about marginalized people?

The library collection (of a non-archival library) is a living organism and it is our duty to curate it as such. That's why we're curators, that's why we're trained, that's why we have these convos, that's why we can't shy away from tough conversations with false equivalencies.

Julie said...

Yes, yes, agreed! Another rationalization for keeping a biased / stereotypical book on the shelf: "But, it's a classic!" Well, it's a classic because we've MADE it a classic and those criteria should be...must be... mutable. We can 'un-make' it a classic, too!

Nina Lindsay said...

"What is a Classic" is an interesting question. Sometimes it seems an excuse to leave a book on the shelf that the "curator" doesn't want to let go of, even though it doesn't circulate. This can happen regardless of content...

K T Horning said...

We've been having this discussion in the online Newbery class I'm teaching now, as stereotypical / racist past winners come up. Do you keep the Oldberies forever, even though if they hadn't won the medal they'd have gone out of print 50 years ago and would now be completely forgotten?

I think it comes back to who your collection is principally for? Nostalgic adults looking to re-connect with a childhood favorite? The historian who may come by in five years to do research on old children's books? Or the children who are in your library TODAY?

K T Horning said...

I once withdrew a craft book that recommended asbestos as a substitute for clay.

Eric Carpenter said...

First I want to say that I love reading everything on this site and feel like I'm learning so much every time I come back to it...

I wonder if one would react differently if instead of a weeding scenario it's a challenge scenario?
For instance. What should one do if a patron or parent asks you to remove Amos Fortune or Smokey the Cow Horse because of the stereotyping and bias? Do you fight for the books inclusion in the collection as hard as you would fight for Harry Potter or Drama? Or because we agree with the parent/patron that the book is problematic, do we quietly comply with the request and remove the book from the collection?

Nina Lindsay said...

Eric, yes. That is actually the most common kind of challenge we get for children's materials (we don't often get challenged). If we do our jobs right, we have the best materials organized in the best way for our patrons to start with. Interestingly, in my experience, the challenge for a racial biased material is often from someone who hasn't read the entire book, as seems to happen across the board with challenges. I think it's important to recognize that in many cases, people who "challenge" library materials are acting out of what they feel is the best for their community. That cuts all ways.

Megan Schliesman said...

I also think it's important to remember you pull together all relevant materials--reviews--positive and negative, recommendations, and perspectives on the issue, and make sure the committee or board charged with the decision-making has all of this as well as the selection criteria by which to assess the situation. Always, we want challenge outcomes to be based on informed, thoughtful decision-making, not knee-jerk reactions from anyone. Principles of intellectual freedom absolutely should be at the foundation of that decision making, but it's important to remember those principles don't exist in a vacuum. We always say libraries are places of choice, but the choices we offer are not and never have been "anything goes." And every challenge is also an opportunity for everyone involved to learn, from the person challenging to library staff and board to the community. Maybe the decision will be to retain something challenged for racism because in weighing the whole book against the selection critera that's what seems to make the most sense for the community as a whole. But maybe the decision will be made to remove a book. People will have learned from the experience regardless. Finally, we have policies and procedures that offer due process for challenged materials; if we automatically assume every challenge is ultimately unworthy and a book should always be retained no matter what, then what are we saying? That we don't care and that the process is meaningless? It's not meaningless. The decision to remove a book is not always a failure of the principles of intellectual freedom, especially when it IS the result of thoughtful decision-making.

K T Horning said...

As Megan said, there is (or should be) a procedure in place when librarians are faced with a challenge. A big part of that is a selection policy that spells out what the library collects, and in the case of the Newbery books specifically, I want librarians to think about why they collect them and to discuss this as professionals. Do they have a special Newbery Collection? Do they keep them on the shelves forever, even if they don't circulate? Do they replace old copies that are worn out, or when a new edition comes out with an updated look? Or do they treat them like any other book from the 1920s-1950s that no one has checked out in years?

Erica Siskind said...

In 1997, we had the option to purchase an updated version of Lofting's The Story of Doctor Dolittle, in which key passages of the episode in Africa were revised by Patricia & Fredrick McKissack. In my personal opinion, it improved the work as a whole, but at the time, few of us bought it. I believe the main reason against purchasing it was that it's akin to deceit to re-write a book published in 1920 that contained obvious & insulting bias so that it appears that the author was not as racist as it seemed to us reading it several decades later. Since the notes by the editors were very clear on this point, I purchased a copy, and placed it alongside the original. However, it was poorly bound, and went out of print. Now my library only has the original version (which itself was apparently edited by Lofting a few times post-publication). I want the better version for my patrons, with a note about what was changed and why.

K T Horning said...

Sorry to hear the McKissack's version is already out of print. I'm not sure Lofting ever edited it. I think his son may have at some point, but in the 1960s and entire chapter was expurgated. It's the one called "The Black Prince" where Prince Bumpo dreams of turning White so he can marry Cinderella. P. L. Travers edited Mary Poppins twice -- once to remove the stereotypical Black dialect spoken by the African (?) characters in the chapter "Bad Tuesday" and then again to turn all the human characters in that chapter into animals.

Debbie Reese said...

Oh... I did a very long post about Mary Poppins. It started when that film came out last year and I started reading things she said, like "I lived with the Indians." It went on. And on. And on. I was fascinated. http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2014/01/travers-author-of-mary-poppins-i-lived.html

TheGloop said...

Exactly! A collection is a growing and changing thing. To insist upon retaining items in the collection simply because they are considered "classics" regardless of their historical accuracy or extreme racial bias is ridiculous. Do we keep classic history books that talk in the present tense about the Soviet Union? Do we keep classic science texts that claim some day man may land on the moon? We give fiction this pass for some reason because it is fiction, but with so many wonderful titles that are out there, why hold so tightly onto material that stereotypes or otherwise disparages minorities. I'm not talking about works of obvious historical fiction that are trying to attempt to represent attitudes/ language of the past in an instructive or meaningful way, but rather casual racism and bias in contemporary/ "classic" works. When my branch's two copies of "And to Think that I Saw It On Mulberry Street" fell into disrepair, I didn't replace them. Yep, its Dr. Seuss. I know. I'm tired of small children asking me what a Chinaman is. I can't justify holding on to something for ever just because I am SUPPOSED to.

K T Horning said...

Thanks for the link, Debbie! Off to read now. I have a love/hate relationship with Mary Poppins (the books).

Allie Jane Bruce said...

Hi, Eric. I think the "you must defend all books if you would defend Harry Potter" argument is a smokescreen.

The reason for removing something like Amos Fortune or Amazing Grace is that they reflect racist stereotypes and perpetuate a racist society. If I keep them where any child can find them--including children who could be personally dehumanized by the images and ideas within AND children who could internalize the images and ideas within and then use them, wittingly or unwittingly, to dehumanize and dominate others throughout their lives, I am guilty of perpetuating our racist system myself.

There is no such parallel for Harry Potter (unless you wanna talk to me about how problematic the house-elves are, or about this issue: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x67OjOLj11g and believe me, those are conversations I'll have!!!)

It's about power. White people have it, and we also have the responsibility to change the balance of power, by doing things like removing books with stereotypes.

Eric Carpenter said...

my concern is less about our (white, middle class, progressive) power to remove books with stereotypes and more about how this power creates a slippery slope. Do we only remove books that include bias or stereotypical imagery when they deal with depictions of persons of color and first nations? Or are we washing out all bias from our shelves? Who determines when something is a bias depiction? Might this power to remove books be used by evangelicals (of any race) to remove books that are in their minds presenting bias against or contain stereotypes that undermind there sincere religious beliefs. Do we support a librarian that weeds Pullman's Northern Lights because they see bias in the depiction of religion?
I am not attempting to compare racial prejudice and precieved religious intolerance, but as someone who lives in the south and understands that the Kim Davises of the world are larger in number than we'd like to admit and exist in all professions including librarianship, I know that a licence to remove/weed books based on personal opinion of right and wrong is a scary thought.
I don't know the answers to any of this but I am triying to think outside my liberal bubble.

Eric Carpenter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nina Lindsay said...

Eric, the "slippery slope" idea is scary, and I think it's a metaphor used to scare us. I think the key is that there IS a difference between racial prejudice and religious intolerance. In instances they may be related, but they are different. So is your "personal opinion" and widespread racial stereotype borne of white supremacy. That someone else does not see it does not make it your "opinion."'

I can't pretend, from the liberal bubble of the SF Bay Area, to know how to handle this in the south, but I believe the first step is to disarm the rhetoric.

Sam Bloom said...

I think it's difficult to reconcile intellectual freedom with the truly harmful materials. On the one hand, we are taught as librarians and teacher librarians to have something for everyone. But on the other hand, we HAVE to be aware of items that may actually HARM young readers. Looking at Angie's comment above, the book about Pluto being a planet would obviously be on the "low harm" end of the spectrum, but I'm betting you wouldn't think twice before getting rid of that one. Think about books like Amos Fortune and how they are much, much more harmful. As the last paragraph says, "none of this is easy... but it's the necessary thing to do."

Eric Carpenter said...

I just want to say that I am really grateful for the existence of this blog, which is not only incredibly insightful, but a safe place to try to parse out these ideas without fear of judgement. Happy to be learning here. Thank you to all who put this together!

Monica Edinger said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
K T Horning said...

And to add... I also think there is a difference between going to the shelves and pulling a book off without due process and withdrawing a book as part of an overall weeding process in which many factors are considered, including condition, circulation stats, and currency. Librarians are forever weeding outdated books and books with gender and racial stereotypes usually fit into this category (LITTLE BLACK SAMBO, e.g.).

Where it gets complicated is if the book is considered a "classic" (FIVE CHINESE BROTHERS, e.g.) or if a book is still popular and is being checked out regularly (LITTLE HOUSE IN THE BIG WOODS, e.g.). What does a librarian do in these instances?

Jonathan Hunt said...

I don't have a problem weeding old books--classics, Newberys, whatever. But I'd like a little more guidance on collection development. You mention adding language to policies that covers stereotyping and I'm wondering if you could cite some examples of collection development policies that include such language as well as sources for culturally competent reviews. I consult 6 review sources for literary quality, for example, and I know I'm not going to get that many sources for culturally competent reviews, but I do need more than one or two.

Nina Lindsay said...

Jonathan, my library's collection development policy, woefully in need of revision, includes the following criteria, among others:

• Relevance to the experience and contributions of diverse populations
• Quality, including accuracy, clarity and usability

Those are both to me grounds from removing work with outdated stereotypes that undermine the quality and relevance of the work. I assume most policies have similar language. In our Children's Services training manual we go into more detail, indicating work should be reviewed for the "treatment and portrayal of ethnic, gender, age, disabled, and other groups" (also in need of updating!).

Re cultural competent review sources, that is a whole other can of worms. I do think that the standard ones are trying to do better, but basically I trust no one reviewer when it comes to reviewing cultural content. Our local group, ACL, produces BayViews reviews which I hope are better in this regard than most, but we are also MOSTLY still a bunch of White ladies, learning. http://bayviews.org/

Megan Schliesman said...

Here are some examples of phrases I've found in policies online:

" Provide a global perspective being free of stereotypes and bias" (St. Mary's County, Maryland, public schools)

"Representative of the diversity of religious, ethnic, political and cultural values of a pluralistic society without stereotype or bias" (Pemi-Baker Regional School District, Plymouth, New Hampshire)

"Materials should reflect the basic humanity of all people and be free of stereotypes, caricatures, distorted dialect, sexual bias, and other offensive characteristics. Library materials concerning religious, social
, and political content should inform rather than indoctrinate." (Bruce Guadalupe Elementary and Middle School, Milwaukee, Wisconsin)

I want to add that all aspects of collection development criteria require professional judgment--every decision is a choice about something. Including language like this makes sure that choice is informed by these criteria, too.

Debbie Reese said...

This is great, Megan! It'd be great to see this on the CCBC website, along with the CREW manual.

https://www.tsl.texas.gov/sites/default/files/public/tslac/ld/ld/pubs/crew/crewmethod12.pdf

Karen said...

Thanks for mentioning my difficulty, KT. Even with weeding processes, it is definitely more difficult to withdraw a book that contains stereotyping, but that is still popular and is regularly checked out, especially when it's a book remembered fondly by a previous generation and those adults are now parents who expect to find the book in the library.

Debbie Reese said...

I asked librarians about this one time, and received some interesting feedback. The librarian who is being asked for a title that was withdrawn due to stereotypes can explain the policy and why the item was withdrawn, and, she can offer an alternative book, and/or, offer to request it from another library.

Jonathan Hunt said...

Thanks to all for sharing. We have language that encourages both accuracy and diversity, but nothing that discourages negatives.

K T Horning said...

Most adults I've talked to who have a fond memory of some childhood favorite that has stereotypes are appalled when they look at the same book today. I've had the same thing happen myself with racist and sexist books I remember from childhood. We have to remind ourselves people of color may have very different childhood memories of the same books. My mother had a friend who used to shudder whenever he saw LITTLE BLACK SAMBO because it brought up such awful childhood memories. As the only Black child in his class back in the 1940s he was forced to play the lead role of when they acted it out and his classmates called him "Sambo" for years after that.

Allie Jane Bruce said...

Hi all, I love all the resources being shared here. This document from the Council on Interracial Books for Children is super useful, and has language that could easily help inform a collection development policy: http://fcs.sites.mjc.edu/10QckWys2AnlyzChldn.pdf