Oregon libraries shrug off Dr. Seuss book controversy

A copy of the book "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street," by Dr. Seuss, rests in a chair, Monday, March 1, 2021, in Walpole, Mass. Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the business that preserves and protects the author and illustrator's legacy, announced on his birthday, Tuesday, March 2, 2021, that it would cease publication of several children's titles including "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street" and "If I Ran the Zoo," because of insensitive and racist imagery. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

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Dr. Seuss books always tickle

His publisher put some in a pickle

Decision to let books fade isn’t so humdrum

Oh no! Oregon libraries face a conundrum

Attempts at mostly clever rhymes aside, when Dr. Seuss’ publisher decided to no longer license or sell six particular titles, Oregon’s public libraries didn’t flinch. They mostly shrugged.

On March 2, Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced that six of the children’s books would no longer be published or licensed because they include images and text that “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”

Libraries aren’t likely to pull the books from their shelves. Instead, say leaders in Washington and Multnomah counties, individual libraries will decide what to do with the books if issues arise.

It’s a balancing act between community concerns and a commitment to intellectual freedom, said Lisa Tattersall, manager of Washington County’s Cooperative Library Services, which has 13 libraries with 16 locations across the county.

“This isn’t something new to us,” Tattersall said. “But just because it’s not new doesn’t mean it’s not uncomfortable. We have policies and procedures in place to handle things like this for people who are offended by material in our libraries.

“It’s a good opportunity to discuss with the community our commitment.”

A media storm

Dr. Seuss Enterprises, family of author Theodor Seuss Geisel, announced that it would cease publication and licensing of six titles: “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937),” “If I Ran the Zoo (1950),” “McElligot’s Pool (1947),” “On Beyond Zebra! (1957),” “Scrambled Eggs Super! (1953)” and “The Cat’s Quizzer (1976).”

The decision came after a review of Seuss’ catalog by educators and experts (more than 60 children’s books going back to the 1930s). “Ceasing sales of these books is only part of our commitment and our broader plan to ensure Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ catalog represents and supports all communities and families,” according to the company statement.

That touched off a media storm blaming “cancel culture” for the decision. A week after the announcement, a pile of Dr. Seuss books shot to the top of Amazon’s best seller list. During the week of March 7, 12 of the top 20 bestselling Amazon fiction books were by Dr. Seuss.

Nationally, libraries took the announcement in stride, said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. “For libraries, the fact that they made that decision is not a reason to take the books off the shelves,” she said.

Multnomah County libraries expect to keep the Dr. Seuss books on their shelves until they are replaced in the normal collection process. (Courtesy/Portland Tribune)

It could be “time to think critically about these books,” Caldwell-Stone said. “It’s a great opportunity to think carefully about how they’re sharing them with the children in their lives and to have good conversations about racism and racial issues in our society.”

Dr. Seuss books rarely are challenged by library patrons across the nation, she said. The association’s list of top 100 challenged books between 1990 and 2019 did not include one Dr. Seuss title.

In Oregon, no Dr. Seuss book has been removed from library collections because of patron challenges.

One challenge that got a lot of media attention came in 1989, when the Laytonville, California, Unified School District in Mendocino County dropped Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax” from its elementary school environmental curriculum because of complaints from the Northern California timber industry. Logging business leaders replaced the book with a timber-friendly text.

Finding the right balance

Portland-area librarians have become adept at working with the public on material some find offensive or objectionable. Each year, libraries field public complaints about books, movies, magazines and other material. In most cases, the material is not removed from public circulation. Librarians usually work with people who complain about material to find solutions short of dropping items from circulation.

Libraries plan to rely on that experience when it comes to the six Dr. Seuss books in their collections. Shawn Cunningham, director of communications and strategic initiatives for Multnomah County Library, said Portland-area library branches would stay true to their “core value” of intellectual freedom.

“Multnomah County Library Director Vailey Oehlke has affirmed our library’s commitment to dismantling systemic racism and oppression,” Cunningham said.

Oregon City Public Library has two of the Dr. Seuss titles that will no longer be sold or licensed. (Courtesy/Portland Tribune)

Multnomah County Library operates the Central Library and 18 neighborhood branches. It has about 2.5 million books and other material in its collection. The libraries have more than a dozen print copies of each of the six Dr. Seuss books, Cunningham said.

Oregon City’s Public Library also plans to “generally follow both national standards and local policies to help inform and guide their response to situations like this, particularly when involving issues of intellectual freedom and censorship,” said Library Director Greg Williams.

“The Oregon City Public Library currently owns two of the titles that Dr. Seuss Enterprises will no longer publish or license,” he said. “In accordance with our collection development policy, our copies of these titles will remain in the collection until they meet the criteria for removal due to physical damage or low circulation.”

In Washington County, Tattersall said individual branches would make decisions about whether to keep the books on their shelves. Most will keep them until they become too worn or damaged, she said, something they normally do as part of collection development policies.

“It’s in the news right now so it’s hot on people’s minds,” she said. “This is not a new thing for us.”

Librarians are practiced at talking with their communities about all sorts of issues, Tattersall said. So, this could be a good thing.

“Libraries have long been controversial at times because they have something on the shelves that offends someone,” she said. “On one hand we have (a) commitment to intellectual freedom, but also our society has a history of racism. It’s something each library has to decide by listening to their communities. We have to be open to everyone. It’s that balance that each library needs to respect.”