May 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

When Cosby’s ‘Little Bill,’ Alexie and Asher are on the Shelf: What Should A Librarian Do?

The conversation among librarians in school districts, colleagues at public libraries and classroom teachers is ongoing and difficult: What do we do with the books written by authors accused of sexual harassment or, in Bill Cosby’s case, authors convicted of sexual assault?

“I truly do believe you have to be able to separate the artist from the work,” says Ann Morgester, library supervisor for the Anchorage (AK) School District. “You look at Sherman Alexie’s work. Does his work stand alone aside from him? Does it speak to the reader?”

Sherman Alexie

Alexie, author of the acclaimed The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, was one of many accused of sexual harassment when the #MeToo movement hit children’s publishing earlier this year (“Children’s Publishing Reckons with Sexual Harassment in Its Ranks”). Other big names accused included Jay Asher, who wrote Thirteen Reasons Why, and James Dashner, author of “The Maze Runner” series.

Morgester discussed it with district staff. The high school librarians didn’t hesitate—the books stay. The middle school staff thought maybe it wasn’t worth any possible problems or complaints from parents. Most of these books are for older students anyway, why not just take them off the shelves? In the end, though, the titles stayed. Across the country, in Massachusetts, Scott McGinley made the same decision.

Weighing Professional Ethics

“I’m strongly opposed to removing books because of who the author is, regardless of what they’ve done,” says McGinley, librarian at two middle schools in the Longmeadow (MA) Public School District. “It really would be against our professional ethics to judge the author and not the work, so that is a concern of mine.  … “Little Bill” was on the American Library Association Office of Intellectual Freedom’s (OIF) list of the Top 10 most-challenged books of 2016.”

OIF issues an annual list of the 10 most-challenged books from the preceding year. The collection of titles becomes a call to arms for librarians in the fight against censorship. This year, though, the list revealed two authors at the top that caused some ambivalence. Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why was No. 1 and Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was No. 2. Go back a year and the 2016 most-challenged list included the “Little Bill” series, written by Cosby.

So now what? Stand up against censorship or remove the books based on the actions of the authors?

“I think we still need to champion those books based on the fact that they speak for and to our students, they engage our students and they represent a really important voice,” says Morgester.  “If I went to my collection at my previous high school and removed every book whose author offended me in some way, there wouldn’t be a whole lot of things in there.”

These cases can be especially difficult, though, even for those who unequivocally believe the books should remain on the shelves.

“It’s hard for me because on the one hand, I know so many people who have experienced harassment and assault and traumatic events in their lives, and I understand the far-reaching consequences of that,” she says. “But on the other hand, those books have a really important place in engaging our students.”

In Cosby’s case there are other factors. Those considering removing his books must decide whether they have enough materials with African American characters, who are just typical kids doing everyday things as opposed to the historical figures who make up much of the diverse titles in school libraries. For most, though, Cosby’s books were already weeded based on general criteria: Are they outdated? Do they circulate?

“I only had one “Little Bill” book and one biography on Bill Cosby,” says Catherine Mottola, librarian at Forest Lake Elementary School in Wantagh, NY. “I weeded both of them, but even if he had not been convicted, both books were older and not circulating, so it was time for them to go.”

With biographies, memoirs, autobiographies, things can get even more complicated.

“I would definitely pull any biographies, because the biography would need to be updated to reflect the actual life experience of that person,” says Morgester. “When you’re talking about memoirs, I think that’s a little bit trickier. It is perceptual. It seems to be that in many cases, as offensive as this may sound, these individuals don’t necessarily perceive their actions as inappropriate, so would they include them as an issue within a memoir anyway?

“When you’re talking about books that are autobiographical—that’s a really kind of interesting question. Would I say Diary of a Part-Time Indian is autobiographical? Does it still speak clearly to his experience as a Native American individual growing up in his circumstance? I don’t know that I can answer that without a lot more thought.”

Calling Out MelVil Dewey

Those who know their library history see an irony in suggesting weeding books based on the behavior, or alleged behavior, of the man responsible for the work. To oust anything connected to someone accused of sexual harassment would mean ditching not only the Dewey Decimal Classification but the modern library as we know it. Melvil Dewey—the “Father of Modern Librarianship,” creator of the Dewey Decimal Classification, and the co-founder of the American Library Association (ALA) and SLJ’s sister publication Library Journal—was banned from the ALA in the early 1900s because his sexual conduct toward female colleagues on an ALA cruise was so bad many women were moved to report him. Much like the #MeToo stories of today, his actions were already well-known within his circles, but women feared the repercussions of reporting it. The cruise trip was so bad they were moved to say something at a time when reporting a powerful man for sexual harassment was much more difficult than it is today.

In 2018, a vital part of #MeToo is accountability. Asher denies the accusations but was dropped by his agent and banned by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Alexie apologized for some behavior, denied other accusations, but was stripped of an award and his publisher has delayed the paperback edition of his memoir You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me.  Dashner apologized for not understanding or honoring the “boundaries of power dynamics” and said he’ll seek counseling but lost his agent.

While agents, publishers, and bookstores can distance themselves, librarians can’t make decisions the same way. Some librarians are finding a way to stick to their professional ethics but not completely betraying their personal belief systems either. Colleagues at the Bergen County (NJ) Cooperative Library System discussed the issue and agreed to leave the books on the shelves, but some are still taking some kind of action. Stacey Shapiro, young adult/emerging technologies librarian at Tenafly (NJ) Public Library, took The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian off her recommended reading list.

“I don’t feel right recommending [his] books after the allegations came out,” she wrote in an email. “I would much rather recommend a book by a woman, and if I could, a book by an Indigenous woman, instead of someone who abused their power like that.”

If the book stops circulating for a few years, she says she’d be “open to weeding it.” She knows that won’t be the case with others.

“I can’t with James Dashner’s books,” she wrote. “They still go out constantly.”

In Allendale, NJ, another BCCLS library, Alessandra Nicodemo will not put the books written by any of the accused on display and will only buy the minimum copies needed to meet her patrons’ demands. She, too, will take them off the shelves only if the books meet her general weeding requirements.

“I feel this is the best balance between my responsibility to give my patrons the materials they want, and my desire to hold these men accountable for their actions and stop rewarding them financially,” she wrote in an email.

This isn’t the first time Nicodemo has had to make a decision about an author whose behavior crosses a line for her.

“I personally feel that Orson Scott Card’s support (both financially and vocally) of anti-LGBTQ+ organizations is reprehensible, and I have no intention of reading any of his books,” she wrote. “That being said, I have kept his books on my shelves (except for an Ender’s Game sequel that recently came up on my weeding list), because I do not feel it is ethical for me, as an information professional, to make those kinds of choices for anyone other than myself.”

These decisions and the conversations surrounding them will continue as librarians weigh their responsibility to students and patrons and put aside their personal feelings to follow their career guidelines.

“We as professionals have to be somewhat dispassionate about our choices when it comes to collection development,” says McGinley. “We have to be a little cold sometimes to our own feelings when it comes to making decisions for the populations we serve, that’s why I felt like the ‘Little Bill’ series should be defended even though that man’s actions certainly can’t.”

Kara Yorio About Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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Comments

  1. alissa says:

    This is an issue I have come to feel strongly about. And while my opinion may be unpopular, here goes:

    As a librarian, I do my best to separate the the book itself from the author and whatever his or her alleged actions, beliefs, etc. may be. Some of those books are excellent, and, in some cases, award-winning and full of literary merit. And not recommending them, or pulling them from the shelves altogether, based on one’s personal opinion of the author does a disservice to the library patrons who might really enjoy or benefit from reading those books. Such censorship also does a disservice to the library profession. Because that’s not who we are.

    While I don’t agree with the alleged actions of these authors, I do my best to distance myself from the drama and focus on the very core of what’s important to me as a library professional: Supplying great literature, regardless of what the author may or may not have done. Sharing amazing books! That’s a big reason why I got into this profession in the first place. That said, I will continue to provide these authors’ books if asked for them. And I will do so without judgement. Furthermore, I will continue to recommend these books if I feel a patron would really and truly enjoy them. And I will rest easy at night with the knowledge that I may have handed someone their next favorite book.

  2. It’s curious that those librarians who would be happy to weed some of these authors’ books, should the opportunity arise, don’t seem prepared to consider the books’ literary merits at all in their decisionmaking. Typically when an award winning book shows up on my weeding list (usually an older title that has been out of print for some time), I will take its literary status into consideration and keep it in the collection for posterity and for patrons who will one day come looking for this award winning book. If one day a National Book Award winning book that positively touched the lives of so many young readers shows up on my weeding list, I would weigh those facts heavily against a decision to weed it. I think it’s at that point that library professionals need to be able to separate their feelings about the creator’s personal actions and the art that they have created.

    • This is a really interesting take – thank you for your thoughts! I’ve personally never been one to be too concerned with “literary status.” I know my students generally aren’t!
      Keeping something because it “touched the lives of so many young readers,” even when it is up for weeding based on guidelines strays too close to letting (positive) emotional ties to a book outweigh the needs of my community, and is the flip side to weeding it because it has been challenged, in my most humble opinion. You’ve given me something to think on though!

  3. Is there a way of letting readers know? Like maybe put up a sticky note or a little thought bubble cut out
    & attached to the book, laying out the allegations and some alternative reads and trusting the reader to make the decision for themselves given the facts?

    • Gregory Short says:

      I think the book must be allowed to stand on its own. If a person chooses to research the author as part of their selection process, that is up to them. But most people, I think–myself included–don’t use the author’s background in that process. (The obvious exception to this would be nonfiction.) By posting “warnings” you’re inhibiting the person’s own criteria used in the process of choosing a book to read. And you’re openly making judgments on the book. Unless asked, that is not our job.

  4. Christina Stuck says:

    Ben Sharpio discusses this point in a recent podcast. His thought is that you can divide the author from the work and it becomes a good way to discuss the fallacy of man. He also discussed other figures, such as MLK, Diego Rivera, Bill Clinton, etc. who had embarrassing treatment of women, should remain. They all added to our society and to essential ban the books written by or about erase that fact. Of course, weeding criteria play a huge part but also as Kay states, you do have to weigh the literary merits against lack of circulation.

  5. Kaye Bellot says:

    Biographies, particularly biographies for elementary or middle schools are troublesome in this regard. I found myself debating on keeping the OJ Simpson bio, as well as the Winnie Mandela one and ended up keeping both because I felt that students checking these books out were more likely interested in the subjects’ achievements rather than their failings.

  6. Rebecca says:

    I usually am not a black and white thinker, for lack of a better term, but in my opinion, if you believe as a librarian it is your job to weed books because of the author’s behavior or make any reference to the author’s shortcomings as part of the way you shelve the books, you are in the wrong profession. Hello, censorship. Goodbye entire point of our profession.

  7. We have Mein Kampf in our collection.

    As poor a group of human beings the authors being discussed may well be, I think they probably pale in comparison to the author of that particular book. I would keep the items and then apply our weeding criteria.

  8. I agree with the “separate the work from the artist” crowd, and second the struggle on the biography issue. I have chosen to weed out older bios on some pop culture icons who are pretty much unrecognizable today from the time the bio was written (case in point, 1990 era Tom Cruise and Bill Cosby bios)…but I did consider a “Before they went crazy” display. Lol.
    Seriously though, I did have a struggle with Eric Greitin’s auto-bio about being a man of “Courage and Compassion”…as he is now also a man on trial for two felonies: one of a sexual/blackmail nature, another of dishonesty.
    In the end, I did remove the book, not based on my political feelings toward Gov Greitins, but based on the fact that he held himself up as such an example throughout the book of great moral character and behavior; and then destroyed his own credibility so publicly.

  9. Alessandra Nicodemo says:

    I am one of the librarians quoted in this article. I’d just like to add a link to this episode of the Better Library Leaders, which is connected to this conversation (though it is not about this specific issue) and I will say has certainly informed my opinions on this matter. http://betterlibraryleaders.com/2017/10/10/the-lesser-of-two-weevils-ala-code-of-ethics-part-2/

  10. Mary Ann Miller says:

    I was sexually harassed by a manager at work when I was a teen and had just left home. It went on for months. If not for a wonderful roommate, I don’t know how I would have gotten through it. But, after that statement, I have to say it makes me so sad to see so much judgement given against the authors mentioned. And I cringe when I read someone state that “I would much rather recommend a book by a woman, and if I could, a book by an Indigenous woman, instead of someone who abused their power like that.” (talking about Sherman Alexie) Did she really just say that women don’t abuse their power at times? We also need to realize that a lot of these people have been judged in a court of their peers and nothing has been proven. I know Bill Cosby has, and I have no doubt there are many more. I deplore men AND women that cheat on their spouses and destroy families because they can’t control themselves and act responsibly. Should we judge those people as well? We do have to separate books from their authors and let them stand on their own merit. I have seen too many books make a difference in a kid’s life to deny them the opportunity to read them because I had read something about the author that I didn’t like. That is censorship at it’s finest.

  11. Cricket Muse says:

    Working in a high school provides opportunities to awaken students to choices. Empowering them with information and giving them the ability to make personal decisions prepares them for post-secondary life. If I pulled books based on author behavior we would have empty slots for Wilde, Shelley, Woolf among others. Sometimes distance is needed to separate the work from the author.

  12. Linda Woodbury says:

    One reason I felt Sherman Alexie’s behavior as such a betrayal is that librarians across the country put their jobs on the line to defend his book and keep it on their shelves. But that means the arguments for keeping the book then are still valid now.

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