Dav Pilkey and “Cancel Culture”: A Conversation with Deborah Caldwell-Stone

Intellectual Freedom Issues
Deborah Caldwell-Stone
Deborah Caldwell-Stone

It seems rather difficult to talk about Scholastic’s recent decision to pull Dav Pilkey’s The Adventures of Ook and Gluk: Kung-Fu Cavemen from the Future without mentioning Seuss Enterprises’ similar decision to pull six of their own books. And while there do seem to be some important differences in each publisher’s response (Pilkey, for example, is donating his advance and royalties to various charities, while Seuss Enterprises has made no such promise), the two events seem to herald a new era in which publishing houses are willing and eager to critically evaluate their publication histories. What sort of unforeseen consequences—positive or negative—might this development bring? 

For her part, Deborah Caldwell-Stone, Director of the Office of Intellectual Freedom, welcomes a moment in which “publishers and content creators are becoming more mindful of their content and the potential impact on communities of color and marginalized communities.” Of course, the issue is a complicated one; she is careful to stress that each time a publisher delists a title, the decision should be carefully appraised, so as to not unwittingly allow publishers to “silence marginalized or controversial voices that we need to hear and should hear from.” 

The Adventures of Ook and Gluk

Nevertheless, Caldwell-Stone is unequivocally opposed to any attempt by Scholastic to “remove current copies [of The Adventures of Ook and Gluk] from stores and libraries.” In fact, as Caldwell-Stone reminds us, libraries are “buying title” to a book when they purchase a physical copy. This is to say, libraries are “not obligated to do anything the publisher may ask,” even if the publisher, at some point, decides to cease publication of a given title and demand that it be removed from the shelves. It’s the job of librarians—not publishers—to critically evaluate and maintain existing collections. 

In times of social upheaval (one is reminded of the Black Lives Matter protests over the past summer, as well as the United States’ long overdue reckoning with the racism faced by Asian Americans), this pivotal role played by librarians reaches a new level of importance. Thankfully, Caldwell-Stone has provided a list of professional resources for library staff, should they choose to (re)examine their collections:

  • The Selection and Reconsideration Policy Toolkit, a web page developed by ALA, chock-full of resources for those looking for advice on whether or not to remove a title from collections. 
  • The Library Bill of Rights acts as a sort of general primer on the role libraries should strive to play within their communities and is useful when one needs a reminder of the promise we, as librarians, have made to do our best to serve all patrons. 
  • The ALA’s Code of Ethics, as its name suggests, can offer “guidance on…ethical dilemmas,” specifically when addressing the question of collection maintenance. 

First and foremost, however, librarians should familiarize themselves with their institution’s existing policies, because, as Caldwell-Stone notes, “we always have to be mindful of separating our personal preferences from our professional obligations.” It’s this institutional know-how, paired with a deep understanding of the communities we serve, that, in her words, best positions librarians to disseminate “information that both reflects patrons’ lives and expands their ability to consider all kinds of ideas.”

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