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My library refused to be part of Oprah's Book Club's push for 'American Dirt.' Here's why.

Librarians like me are seen as trusted messengers. In a place like McAllen, Texas, being part of this book's branding efforts could have threatened that.
Image: American Dirt
"American Dirt," a novel by Jeanine Cummins and an Oprah's Book Club selection, is seen on the shelves at a Barnes & Noble store in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Jan. 30, 2020.Julia Weeks / AP file

Public libraries, like mine, and public librarians, like me, operate in the public trust, working on behalf of the communities they represent. As I frequently remind my staff, libraries aren’t merely information sources. Libraries transform lives through our services, which include: books and e-books; streaming films; classes in English as a second language, citizenship, general equivalency degrees and computer basics; as well as early literacy programs for babies and toddlers and free homework tutoring for teens.

Many libraries — including the McAllen Public Library, where I serve — also offer the chance to discuss with other patrons a variety of fiction and nonfiction books through our book clubs. People who participate in library book clubs tend to be fiercely devoted to their groups, excited to receive the latest book and committed to bringing their viewpoints to share with other community members. These tight-knit groups often develop trusting relationships as they get to know their fellow readers, sharing not only comments about the books, but also their origin stories, struggles and family values, secure in the knowledge that they are among friends. Librarians — who act as facilitators in these discussions — are seen as trusted messengers, ensuring that everyone has a voice in a safe environment.

For instance, our Lavender League book club at the McAllen Public Library (which began in response to patron demand) features books by and about the LGBTQ+ community. Some participants have expressed that the acceptance and support they received in the book club gave them the courage to come out publicly. Lavender League is one of six in-house book clubs, and we’re currently increasing that number, as our recently posted book list, The Latinx Experience, resulted in immediate requests for a Spanish language book club and one focusing solely on immigration and border life. In addition, community-based book clubs borrow our Lit Kits, which include 16 copies of a single title and discussion questions, and our youth clubs offer a junior detective club for children and a manga and anime club for teens.

So, when I received the invitation for my library to partner with Oprah’s Book Club and the American Library Association through hosting a book club discussion around her next book pick, I was initially honored. McAllen Public Library is located in the city of McAllen, Texas — which many people may have only heard of because of our proximity to the border wall and migrant detention and respite facilities — and I thought our participation would help to counter negative stereotypes of people here, in and around a border city.

The title of the selected book, though, was initially withheld from me: I was told only that the book would be a bestseller, and I was encouraged to create a video of an “unboxing” ceremony. After the boxes arrived, I gathered some of my staff together to join in the excitement — and we were all stunned to see that the selection was “American Dirt.”

I immediately knew I had a problem, because I had already read pre-release reviews of Jeanine Cummins’ book, written by trusted people who’d read it. It hadn’t occurred to me, before the unboxing, to connect what I’d read about the novel with the Oprah book I had been asked to promote to my library’s patrons. Knowing my community and cherishing the relationships I’d built with Latinx patrons, authors, teachers and professors in the area, I decided to craft a letter to declining the offer to partner with the organizations, sent it to representatives of Oprah’s Book Club and the American Library Association, and then shared it on Twitter.

I did so because I wanted the people who have so generously supported our library and our annual book festival to know where I stood. As a library director, I am equally opposed to silencing authentic voices as I am opposed to misinformation. Here was a book rife with inaccuracies by an author whose book was being lauded as the next great American novel, while too many talented Latinx authors’ books have not received the recognition they deserve — much less seven-figure advances. My staff gave me their full support, while Sara Montoya, our marketing and events coordinator, said it best: “This community is proud, intelligent, gritty, and resilient. We value authenticity and will quickly reject the lack thereof.”

The responses the library received on social media and which came to me via email have been overwhelmingly positive and grateful that I stood up for the Latinx community. A few people, however, misunderstood my stance and thought I was refusing to add the book to the library’s collection; in fact, we have a dozen print copies in circulation with more on order to meet demand, as well as a digital copy. Should our patrons request a book discussion on “American Dirt,” we will honor their request.

But let me be clear on this point: Agreeing to moderate a book discussion on a controversial book is not the same as further privileging an already overly-privileged book by agreeing to allow the library to be part of its branding as an Oprah pick. “American Dirt” is, as it should be, just another book in the stacks — albeit one that is filled with harmful stereotypes and hyperbole — rather than the centerpiece of the library’s focus and outreach.

Contrary to popular belief, librarians are not neutral; we make decisions every day about what to select, what to weed out and what to display. We listen to our patrons who voice opposition to materials in our collections, and most libraries have a process in place to address challenges, which typically requires the thorough examination of critical reviews before making a final decision.

Had the writer or publisher of “American Dirt,” Flatiron Books, gone through a more robust review process, querying Latinx writers and utilizing sensitivity readers in focus groups, it would have received valuable feedback that would have challenged the inaccuracies many readers have found offensive and been able to tailor their marketing campaign to address those concerns.

Flatiron Books appears to agree with me — sort of. Last week, Flatiron’s president and publisher, Bob Miller, released a statement, saying that, “We should never have claimed that it was a novel that defined the migrant experience,” and “We can now see how insensitive those and other decisions were, and we regret them.” Miller stated that Cummins’ book tour was canceled, alleging “safety concerns,” (they later said in a meeting with the founder of Dignidad Literaria that there were no death threats involved in their concerns) and announced that it will instead hold a series of town hall discussions.

Really? Why would anyone entrust those conversations to the same people who neglected to do their due diligence in the first place?

Let libraries take it from here; it is, after all, what we do as professionals. We are adept at advocating for our patrons and guiding discussions on difficult subject matters. By fostering public engagement, we act as change-agents by helping our constituents aspire to become a community that welcomes and celebrates diversity. We can distribute recommendations of books by Latinx authors, thereby turning attention away from one singular title to works that deserve a higher lift. Our responsibility is to the public we serve, not to the promoters of “American Dirt,” who now just want to save face.