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North Dakota State Library removes Dr. Seuss book, but not for racist imagery

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North Dakota State Library

North Dakota State Library in Bismarck, January 2021

North Dakota's State Library has removed a Dr. Seuss children's book discontinued by the publisher for its racist imagery.

The decision came after Christopher Coen, of Fargo, suggested the library move "If I Ran the Zoo" from the children collection to the adult collection.

The request was the library's first of its kind in at least 21 years, according to State Librarian Mary Soucie, who convened a committee that reviewed, read and then pulled the book due to its low circulation.

"The item wasn't being checked out by patrons, and that is in line with our policy," Soucie said. "If a book isn't earning its shelf space, then it does get removed."

Coen submitted the request in the wake of reading about Dr. Seuss Enterprises announcing in March that six of the author/illustrator's books will no longer be published because "These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong."

Coen, a Detroit-area native who is retired, said observing as a child his mother's volunteer work with Head Start contributed to his concerns over the book.

He suggested the library move the book to its adult collection away from children and for research purposes. The book contains racist imagery of Africans and Asians. It was the only title on the State Library's shelves of those discontinued.

Coen is not satisfied with the library removing the title or the reason why. He wonders how closely the library is following its own policies.

"I thought it should be kept in the library because I don't think we should get rid of history. I don't believe in erasing history," Coen said. But the book's images are "particularly hurtful" to racial minorities, especially children, he said.

Before submitting his request, he corresponded frequently with Soucie about the book's status, he said. He also inquired with the Fargo Public Library about the discontinued books.

"You can still buy these books in the private market if you wish to and have your children read them if you wish to. That's the freedom of our country," Coen said. "But should our government libraries, institutions, be maintaining these? It takes money to maintain these."

Coen expects students will research mid-20th century depictions of racial minorities. He intends "to keep looking at other books" to see if the libraries are adhering to weeding policies. He has compiled a small list of other books with content perceived as insensitive, such as "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" by Roald Dahl.

Soucie said Coen's suggestion to move "If I Ran the Zoo" to the adult collection is "not in line with our policy, and we are not a research library."

"One of our roles is to provide materials to residents of North Dakota and to supplement the materials that libraries are providing to their local patrons," she said. "I do think, again, there's value in us having those items, and there are other libraries across the state that have some of these Dr. Seuss books and it really is a local decision as to whether or not they remove them."

Soucie said the State Library does not weed its books as regularly as public libraries might. Its last "huge weeding project" was around 2012, and the library also weeds "as we go along," mostly for damaged items, she said.

The library's next large-scale weeding project is not scheduled but will occur in a year or so, according to Soucie. The Dr. Seuss book would have been pulled at that time, she said.

When the publisher announced its decision, Soucie consulted professional librarians who felt that "a publisher no longer publishing a book doesn't automatically mean we pull it from our shelves," she said.

The library very well may have other books with offensive elements, but "libraries do not participate in censorship," she said.

"One thing that libraries try very hard to do is have a well-balanced collection and not allow personal feelings to impact what we buy," Soucie said. "There's a lot of topics right now that are controversial, and libraries don't shy away from buying materials or from displaying materials just because it might happen to be a controversial topic. Libraries exist to educate people and to bring information to people that they may not otherwise have access to." 

The library considered a disclaimer for the book, "but in the end we didn't go that route because the book is not being checked out by patrons," she said.

The book will either be put in a lottery for other libraries, recycled or discarded.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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