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Challenging a Fallen Icon

Now that it’s National Library Week we get to find out what are the most challenged books of the past year. Surprisingly, perhaps, they’re not books that are filled with sex and profanity, the usual things that offend the easily offended American public.

No, this year it’s children’s books by Bill Cosby, once upon a time everyone’s favorite sitcom dad, now everyone’s least favorite angel fallen from grace.

It’s not like this was particularly widespread. It never is. The ALA recorded only 323 challenges in 2016. The head of the OIF claims this is because people are self-censoring, and perhaps so. Or maybe people were just too busy in 2016 to worry about something as useless as a book challenge.

And that number was a 17% increase from the previous year. It sounds a lot more impressive if you put it in percentages.

Regardless, with over 300,000,000 Americans and 16,000 public library branches, it’s not like this book challenge thing is a big deal.

The relative handful of Cosby books challenged were for “criminal sexual allegations against the author.” Which is a little strange when you stop to think about it, or at least when I stop to think about it.

It’s not like the little kids reading the books know anything about Cosby, unless their parents tell them, and what are the chances of that.

“You see this book we’re reading, little Billy? Well, the author has been accused by multiple women of drugging them and sexually assaulting them.”

Is that the kind of conversation people have with their children these days? I hope not.

Otherwise, the challenges are moving onto shaky ground, and hopefully most of them were ignored. Once you get away from the books to the life of the author, there could be almost limitless grounds for protest.

Why not challenge books because they’re by white women or Asian men? The obvious answer is that those categories of people aren’t criminal, but try telling that to the myriad sexists and racists roaming the countryside.

All it takes is some gamergate idiots to start challenging the role of women in the production of children’s books and we’re on our way.

That’s an easy one, I admit, but what about more political or religious issues? It’s well known that the author of Goodnight Moon was a radical communist who thought we should say goodnight to everything because it all belongs to us, including the moon. We see the same sentiment in Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”

The Berenstain Bears might themselves be innocuous, but what if the Berenstains themselves regularly presided over occult orgies at their cabin in the deep woods? Could you prove they didn’t if someone challenged a book?

This is a case where the librarians might feel a twinge of regret fighting the challenge. Few librarians are going to be much concerned with a swear word or a character’s budding sexuality, and those are actually in the books.

But Cosby has fallen so far and so fast it’s hard not to get a bad taste in one’s mouth thinking about his crimes.

Still, that’s not in the books, at least not until his new children’s series on the joys of Rohypnol, so hopefully the librarians involved can separate that from a good story, if his books have good stories. Otherwise, as with all other challenges, if libraries get rid of books that offend someone, even the librarians, there wouldn’t be many books left.



  1. jillibrarian says:

    A bad taste is all it takes. We got rid of all our Cosby books knowing nobody in our community would ever check them out again. In fact, we didn’t even keep them for a subsequent book sale – who would want to buy them? To the recycling center they went. Nobody wants creepy books by creepy old men sitting around.

    • But – there are a lot of books in libraries written by creepy old men, creepy young men, creepy old women, and creepy young women. Some of them are worse than just creepy. At what point is the life of the author justification for removing a book from the shelves?

    • Bill Cosby’s children’s books are based on the assertion that (Little) Bill Cosby is fit to teach moral lessons and feature jacket blurbs describing him as America’s most beloved comedian and storyteller. Both of which should trigger a deaccession on grounds of factual inaccuracy.

  2. Are you really saying that sexists and racists are on par with people who don’t like rapists? People are offended by rapists because they de-humanized and hurt another human being, racists and sexists don’t like people based off of their race and sex – not their actions.
    It’s really a case of separating the art from the artist (which I don’t personally believe in, but I understand that isn’t a proper basis to justify getting rid of certain materials from the library).

  3. jillibrarian says:

    @Mary – at what point? The point at which nobody would ever pick up the book again. Pretty simple. Not that these every circulated in my tiny rural library to begin with, but the most recent revelations were just nails in the coffin for these books.

    • @jillibrarian great, but that’s not what you said above. “not that these ever circulated to begin with” is different from saying they weren’t wanted because they were written by creepy old men. Low or nonexistent circ stats are one metric that justify weeding in a public library; an author being “creepy” is not. Unfortunately, being a despicable human being doesn’t mean that you don’t write well. I don’t think you can separate the art from the artist; who the artist is informs the art after all. While “creepy” is enough to keep something out of my personal collection – maybe – it doesn’t cut it for a library.

  4. G.B. Miller says:

    Having personally been on the receiving end of book censorship, I can tell you a lot of people are narrow-minded with a seriously personal agenda when it comes to books that are “offensive”.

    Pulling a book, for whatever reason, is a slippery slop to Big Brother, since as a country, we are notorious for being biased when it comes to “offensive” books. Bill Cosby? Yes! Mapplethorpe? No, that has “artistic merit”. Mien Kampf? No, “historical document”. Mark Twain? yes, it uses it the word that rhymes with chigger.

    I’m surprised that the moving Blazing Saddles hasn’t been pulled from the public libraries yet.

  5. jillibrarian says:

    @Mary – I totally get what you’re saying. Yes there are several reasons for these books to go (at my library), not the least of which is the association people will now make with them and the author. They should have gone a long time ago… because they never checked out. The point I was trying to make is that even if they checked out before, they certainly won’t now. We found them in the course of our regular weeding and couldn’t believe they were still here. They had virtually no circs in the last 10 or so years they had been here. I only started here in October, but it was a no brainer – they would have gone anyway, but the recent news made it that much clearer. Would we weed them had they circulated a million times? I suppose not… yet. But they certainly would have been flagged for review a year or two down the road in anticipation of a serious drop off in circulation. Perhaps not all communities are as predictable as mine.

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