I thought that this would be a good time for us to talk how librarians can address and approach harmful or “problematic” books when it comes to library collections.
Please note that this is in reference only to school or public library collections, and won’t necessarily be relevant to personal book collections, special libraries, archives, historical, museum, or other niche collections. Most school and public libraries develop collections intended to serve the current and emerging needs and interests of their user community, and it is to those librarians which this blog post may be helpful.
Pretty much every year, as March approaches, there begins the annual discourse about Dr. Seuss books and what some refer to as Dr. Seuss Week (which actually is called Read Across America Week) which then generally slides over into more general discussion about weeding and how librarians can address harmful or “problematic” books and authors when developing and maintaining library collections. I decided to do a lecture for my MLIS grad students about this topic, and due to popular demand I decided to do a blog post on it too. I hope that this post may provide some tips or “think abouts” for other librarians seeking to develop and curate collections which continue to evolve to meet current user’s current and emerging needs and interests, while also causing least possible harm, especially to systemically excluded and marginalized communities. I hope this post may also prove helpful to educators responsible for classroom libraries or curriculum, as those too should be regularly evaluated, weeded, and, whenever possible, updated.
If you want to learn more about what people often refer to as Dr. Seuss Week, actually called Read Across America Week, a simple google search will bring up plenty of resources. I am opting not to make that the focus of this plot post. I want to focus this blog post on the question of “what do we do with harmful (or “problematic”) titles or authors when developing library collections?”
Why Evaluate & Address Harmful or Problematic Books/Authors?
Throughout this post I’ll most often refer to “harmful” or “potentially harmful” rather than “problematic.” That is a linguistic choice I make for myself to ensure I don’t forget about the results of irresponsible, lazy, or inadequate collection development work, which is that harm may be caused by it. As a school librarian I try to always remember that our library users, the students, are legally required to be in the school building for about 6 hours a day, 180-ish days a year. They deserve for their resource collections to be affirming, relevant, updated, and not full of harmful, outdated, stereotypical representation. They deserve for this space they are legally required to spend much of their childhood in to be full of GOOD, affirming, and diverse representation. As school librarians (or other educators) this is our responsibility and our privilege. This responsibility requires that we continuously evaluate and analyze not only the new items being added, but also the items that already sit upon the shelves, to ensure they are continuing to be relevant and are meeting the actual current and emerging needs and interests of todays students while also, ideally, causing the least harm possible (especially to students who identify within systemically excluded, marginalized, and oppressed communities or identities).
What Do I Mean by “Harmful or Problematic Books/Authors”
When I’m referring to a “harmful book” or a “problematic book,” I mean a book that has ideas, words, concepts, or imagery which can cause harm to students, especially to students of systemically excluded and marginalized identities, populations, or communities.
When I’m talking about an author who causes harm or a “problematic author” as they’re often referred to, I am speaking about an author who causes harm, has caused harm, or who publicly upholds or upheld beliefs and ideologies that are harmful, especially to students of historically excluded or marginalized identities and populations.
How To Learn About Books/Authors that are harmful or potentially harmful
There is no “quick fix” for this, the only way is to take consistent and considered actions to stay updated and abreast of this discourse as it occurs in book world. Some suggestions of how to do this are:
- Develop a habit of checking
- Do quick checks via Google on a book/author before you booktalk, promote, recommend, buy, include on lists, etc etc.
- Be intentional in curating who you follow
- Actively and intentionally follow BIPOC, Queer, Disabled, and other educators, reviewers, readers, and authors who choose to do this work. Following the experts and advocates on social media and actively engaging in book industry news & discourse is a critical step for staying informed and up to date.
- Seek out independent reviewers
- While subscribing to, or following, some of the big elite review institutions is fine, you should also be intentionally connecting with and following reviewers not associated with particular publishers or elite institutions. Find independent reviewers, bloggers, booktokers, booktubers, etc as well so that you are diversifying the lenses and perspectives you are allowing to influence your purchase decisions.
Spotting Harmful / Potentially Harmful Content
When evaluating resources to determine if, and to what extent, they include harmful/potentially harmful content, some things to look for include but are not limited to:
- Authentic voice (or at least due diligence)
- Evaluate whose voice/perspective is being centered in the story and whether the person writing the story has authentic experience, expertise, etc to write that voice/perspective responsibly and accurately? If they don’t have personal experience/expertise, or if that cannot be ascertained, did they do their due diligence of completing research, noting/citing their findings, engaging sensitivity readers and reviewers, etc? Author notes, footnotes, etc are good places to search for such information. If none of this can be ascertained, you’ll need to make your best professional judgement as to whether that book is a good selection for the collection (or for remaining in the collection) or if perhaps another book might be a better selection.
- Harmful stereotypes
- Evaluate your selections for harmful stereotypes, both in the text and within any imagery present. You will need to actively seek to learn more about many harmful stereotypes of which you may not yet be familiar. I have found Karen Jensen’s Diversity Audit resources to be a helpful start, but please know that familiarizing yourself with what harmful stereotypes exist and how they are often reflected and represented in text or imagery will take intentional time and effort, its something that must be actively engaged with. Some are obvious to most but many are subtler and very prevalent.
- Balanced representation
- It is incredibly important to evaluate your representation to make sure it is balanced and inclusive across your genres, types, formats, etc. For example, you want to make sure you are not providing a single and narrow perspective or experience for any group. Are all of the books you are selecting with Black boy main characters ones in which the character undergoes trauma and adversity? Or are you also adding stories that show Black boys training dragons, solving crimes, falling in love, taking down dystopian regimes, etc. Are all of the books with Queer rep realistic fiction with primarily romance plotlines, or where the focus is always on “coming out”? Or are you adding books too that have Queer characters trying to figure out whether to go to college, exploring haunted houses, saving the day, learning magic, etc? Do the only books you have with Jewish main characters all center the Holocaust? Do all the books you have with Native main characters place them in historical contexts? Or are there modern stories and experiences being portrayed in your collection too for these communities and representations? Harm can come from what is present in a book or collection, but also from what is not present. Its important to ensure we are not providing only a narrow or single perspective for any type of representation.
- Evaluate for “tokenism”
- You’ll often see this most frequently in how side characters are portrayed. Its important to ensure that collections include a lot of books that center the stories and voices of diverse characters, and that stories are selected in which BIPOC, Queer, Disabled, and other marginalized/systemically excluded and underrepresented folx are centered and fully realized, with all of the complexity and depth that any main character should be.
- Bad representation is not better than “no representation.”
- Being considered a “classic” or “canon” is not a free pass. Every book and author should be evaluated for the harm they may cause to your modern and current students. “Because we always have” is never, ever a good enough reason to do anything, including book selection or author celebration.
To Help You Get Started
Below I’m going to list just some of the books/authors whom I have learned more about in recent years. I’m hoping this NONCOMPREHENSIVE list will help those who are interested in getting started on familiarizing themselves with some of the discourse surrounding many of these well known authors and books, so that librarians who may not already know will be able to make informed decisions for their users during collection development.
I want to be very clear in reminding you that this is NOT a “list of books that should be weeded/banned/etc”! As you will see further down the blog post, I do not actually think weeding is always necessarily the best option in handling books/authors that could be considered harmful (sometimes it is, just not always). Rather this is a list of examples of SOME books/authors which have discourse surrounding them that librarians should be aware of & should take into consideration during collection development efforts.
- Island of the Blue Dolphins
- Roald Dahl & his books
- Sherman Alexie
- J.K. Rowling & her books
- It is important to note that there are concerns with both the author and the on-page representation in the books (racist stereotypes, troubling themes related to enslavement being “wanted” by the enslaved, fatphobia and fat-shaming, misogyny, antisemitism, and more) . I’m not interested in this blog post becoming about JK & HP so I’m not discussing further here but you are encouraged to do some googling to familiarize yourself more with the discourse.
- Dr. Seuss and many of his books (Cat in the Hat + others)
- Again, there is plenty of documentation available through a simple google search so I’m not focusing this blog post on the Dr. Seuss discourse, please do explore the discourse though, especially if you are feeling very defensive or nostalgic about his books. For example, did you know that not a single Dr. Seuss book features a girl of color character and that every single boy of color character shown is placed within a subservient or de-humanized role? https://www.vox.com/culture/22309286/dr-seuss-controversy-read-across-america-racism-if-i-ran-the-zoo-mulberry-street-mcgelliots-pool#:~:text=There%20are%20no%20girls%20or,some%20combination%20of%20the%20three.
- Indian in the Cupboard
- Five Chinese Brothers
- Tiki Tiki Tembo
- To Kill a Mockingbird
- Skippy Jon Jones
- Boy in Striped Pajamas
- Little House on the Prairie
- Peter Pan
- The Giving Tree
- Curious George
- Little Black Sambo
- Many of Shakespeare’s works
This is a noncomprehensive list and obviously you should do a lot of additional research above and beyond the single link I’m providing here, this section is hopefully enough to get you started.
What to Do About Harmful/Potentially Harmful Books & Authors
When evaluating you might consider asking yourself the following questions, among others:
- Who benefits from this story and who is harmed?
- Who has power in this story (and who does not)? (whose voice is centered, whose will is centered)
- Are harmful stereotypes present or alluded to on page?
- Do I have other books with better rep on similar theme/subject?
- Does this book serve CURRENT or EMERGING curricular needs?
- Is this book accessible elsewhere? (open source, public library, etc)
- Is there context present? (author’s note)
Decide upon and take action
There are no “one size fits all” solutions to these situations, each book/author will need to be evaluated individually and different actions may be more appropriate in different situations. I can offer a few potential solutions, but only you, as the librarian, can determine what the most appropriate action is for each of your situations.
Potential Actions To Consider
- Weeding it
- Sometimes harmful books will need to be weeded. This decision should be made after analysis and evaluation, and in conjunction with your library’s usual weeding/selection policy. When books no longer serve the current or emerging needs of our library community, they often should be weeded. Please do not perpetuate the misconception that weeding is synonymous with “censorship” or “cancel culture.” Weeding is a necessary and normal process that all libraries must engage in, and books are weeded when they are no longer the best choice for serving the current and emerging needs of the user community.
- Adding Counter-Narratives
- Another action which will sometimes be most appropriate is to add counter-narratives to the collection in order to provide balance and to offer a broader perspective on the representation. For example, if you have a lot of books which feature Hispanic/Latine representation in the form of adversity fiction, an appropriate action to take may be to add more selections which feature a broader array of Hispanic/Latine representation that places the characters in situations which affirm experiences beyond adversity. Another example would be if you have a lot of books featuring Black main characters, but most of them are not written by Black authors, then an appropriate action might be to add more books with Black main characters which are written by Black authors.
- Leave it off of promotion efforts
- Another action option to take is to leave a book/author on the shelf but stop selecting that book for promotion. In other words, sometimes its ok to just let a book quietly exist but not celebrate or promote it, using your limited celebration and promotion time instead towards celebrating and promoting other, non-harmful authors and books. You can stop using that book/author for annual author studies, stop using it as inspiration for your library’s themes/decorations, stop adding it to your summer reading lists, stop including it on displays, stop choosing it to booktalk, stop recommending it. Something like a million books are published every year, take time to consider the kind of good you can do by switching your focus towards promoting and celebrating other books and authors which may speak more and cause less harm to your CURRENT library users. Nostalgia and tradition should never be the driving focus of a librarian’s collection development or readers advisory efforts.
- Replace with a version that has context added
- If a “canon” text has been re-published with the context added (like via an “authors note” or similar) that may be an option to consider. One of the biggest issues with having harmful or potentially harmful content on the shelves is that they often exist there without any context. Sometimes it can be beneficial to read something from the past which may demonstrate harmful representation, but its not helpful to do so without the context applied.
- Provide “Read-alike” options
- Consider curating “read-alike” lists and displays to help promote other books that cover the same theme, representation, experience, etc but without the harmful parts. Its good for librarians to act as leaders within our school communities and one way to do that is to curate resources to help our communities find better representation alternatives to commonly selected but harmful books/authors. You can promote these as books for “pairing OR replacement” with harmful curricular texts as providing both options can be a successful advocacy strategy.
- Teach the book within the context of being harmful/problematic
- Just because a book is harmful or “problematic” does not necessarily mean there is no value in teaching the book, but it has to be taught within that context. There are books like “To Kill a Mockingbird” which definitely have “problematic” aspects but which can still make for a great curricular text because of those very aspects. It can actually be a good thing to teach students and children how to critically evaluate what they read, to teach them to be able to identify who in the story has voice and who does not, who has power and who does not, to teach them to be able to identify both what is present and what is not present in a story and what the impact of each is can be a great strategy for teaching through an antiracist and inclusive lens. So, if it is possible, one strategy you might take is to help ensure that if a harmful/problematic book is being taught in curriculum that it is being taught with sensitivity and within context of the harms its representation and portrayals perpetuates. If that is not possible, then it may be best to help advocate instead for a different book, one with better representation, to take its place in the curriculum.
- Advocate for change
- If there are harmful/problematic titles or authors in your school’s curriculum, you can advocate for change. This may take time and may depend on the amount of social capital you are able to wield, but positioning yourself as a leader in the school may give you opportunities to help drive curricular change. If the books are in curriculum but are not being taught within the context of being harmful, you may be able to begin advocating for better PD for staff to help empower them to begin teaching the book within that context. If that is not an option, you can try advocating for changes to the curriculum so that it may be filled with options that provide healthier and less harmful representation and selections for our students.
I have a large (2.000+) classroom library, in part because our school library has no librarian and I want students to have access to current books that represent them well. This post is so helpful and positive! I wish I had time to week our school library. Most of our nonfiction is from the 1970s. I did recently yank a book I noticed titled “Red Man, White Man” off the shelf and hand it to the library aid to dispose of.
Your idea of what is “harmful” makes me wonder what you think modern children are made of – rice paper? If Harry Potter and Dr Seuss can damage them, they have a long, hard road to travel – and without Shakespeare they will lose a big support for travelling it … Do you ever think that earlier decades, in which these books were read but armed guards were not necessary at school gates, might not be entirely inferior to this one?
You’ll notice that nowhere in my post do I say that libraries should not have Shakespeare or these other books. Rather my blog post encourages librarians to familiarize themselves with the stereotypes present in these books & consider when and how to ensure their library users are getting access to inclusive collections that also offer OTHER books that don’t have these stereotypes.
I’m so glad if the post is helpful Wendy! It’s great to hear that you are doing the labor necessary to develop relevant & inclusive collections for your library users! It can be daunting but is so worth it!
Respectfully I could not disagree more with the sentiment of this blog post. I am a very liberal person in most ways but I see myself as a traditional free speech supporter and I am equally terrified of people on the right banning books that they don’t like as I am of the idea of weeding out books that liberal people see as “harmful” to children.
You use the word harm a lot in this and I think a better word would be “challenge”. I want kids to be challenged with ideas and books and authors – and then discuss what they liked and what they didn’t. I find it incredibly infantilizing and damaging to children to strive to have a school library that has no book that wasn’t vetted by a librarian deciding for them whether it might be harmful. To Kill A Mockingbird, one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, is problematic? Maybe parts of it are challenging for young readers but it is worth reading and discussing. Isn’t that better than throwing it out of the library?
I don’t disagree with most of your comment at all, which is why you’ll notice that my blog post specifically states that not all books with harmful rep should necessarily be removed from collections. Developing inclusive collections does NOT mean there will be zero books w harmful or potentially harmful rep, rather it means librarians must evaluate collections & ensure that A) there is ALSO lots and lots of books present with good & affirming rep and B) that any books present which do have harmful or potentially harmful rep are there because they actually serve current & emerging needs and not due to mere nostalgia.