Congress Orders Up A Beatrix Potter Bonfire
Did you ever lick a book as a child? Tear a page out and eat it? Then eat all the rest of the other pages? I loved books as a child, but I digested them the metaphorical way. And a good thing that was, too, because, back then, we didn't have the Federal government at the ready to order booksellers and libraries to ditch pre-1985 children's books like we do now...get this...in hopes of protecting the children.
Overlawyered's Walter Olson, one of the few voices of reason on this, writes for City Journal of the cost to children who read from the ridiculous law, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, passed in a panic last summer in a panic over lead in toys from China:
At any rate, CPSIA's major provisions went into effect on February 10. The day before, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) published guidelines telling thrift stores, as well as other resellers and distributors of used goods, what they could safely keep selling and what they should consider rejecting or subjecting to (expensive) lead testing. Confirming earlier reports, the document advised that only "ordinary" children's books (that is, made entirely of paper, with no toylike plastic or metal elements) printed after 1985 could be placed in the safe category. Older books were pointedly left off the safe list; the commission did allow an exception for vintage collectibles whose age, price, or rarity suggested that they would most likely be used by adult collectors, rather than given to children.
Since the law became effective the very next day, there was no time to waste in putting this advice into practice. A commenter at Etsy, the large handicrafts and vintage-goods site, observed how things worked at one store:I just came back from my local thrift store with tears in my eyes! I watched as boxes and boxes of children's books were thrown into the garbage! Today was the deadline and I just can't believe it! Every book they had on the shelves prior to 1985 was destroyed! I managed to grab a 1967 edition of "The Outsiders" from the top of the box, but so many!
People who deal in children's books for a livelihood now face unpleasant choices. Valorie Jacobsen of Clinton, Wisconsin, who owns a small used-book store and has sold over the Internet since 1995, commented at my blog, Overlawyered: "Our bookstore is the sole means of income for our family, and we currently have over 7,000 books catalogued. In our children's department, 35 percent of our picture books and 65 percent of our chapter books were printed before 1985." Jacobsen has contacted the CPSC and her congressional representatives for guidance, but to no avail. "We cannot simply discard a wealth of our culture's nineteenth and twentieth children's literature over this," she writes. She remains defiant, if wary: "I was willing to resist the censorship of 1984 and the Fire Department of Fahrenheit 451 long before I became a bookseller, so I'd love to run a black market in quality children's books--but at the same time it's not like the CPSC has never destroyed a small, harmless company before."
...A further question is what to do about public libraries, which daily expose children under 12 to pre-1985 editions of Anne of Green Gables, Beatrix Potter, Baden-Powell's scouting guides, and other deadly hazards. The blogger Design Loft carefully examines some of the costs of CPSIA-proofing pre-1985 library holdings; they are, not surprisingly, utterly prohibitive. The American Library Association spent months warning about the law's implications, but its concerns fell on deaf ears in Congress (which, in this week's stimulus bill, refused to consider an amendment by Republican senator Jim DeMint to reform CPSIA). The ALA now apparently intends to take the position that the law does not apply to libraries unless it hears otherwise. One can hardly blame it for this stance, but it's far from clear that it will prevail. For one thing, the law bans the "distribution" of forbidden items, whether or not for profit. In addition, most libraries regularly raise money through book sales, and will now need to consider excluding older children's titles from those sales. One CPSC commissioner, Thomas Moore, has already called for libraries to "sequester" some undefinedly large fraction of pre-1985 books until more is known about their risks.
The risk? The risk is that children will not read these books, really valuable books that made me love reading and set me on the path to becoming a writer.
Walter wisely closes with this:
Whatever the future of new media may hold, ours will be a poorer world if we begin to lose (or "sequester" from children) the millions of books published before our own era. They serve as a path into history, literature, and imagination for kids everywhere. They link the generations by enabling parents to pass on the stories and discoveries in which they delighted as children. Their illustrations open up worlds far removed from what kids are likely to see on the video or TV screen. Could we really be on the verge of losing all of this? And if this is what government protection of our kids means, shouldn't we be thinking instead about protecting our kids from the government?
UPDATE: As Walter Olson posted in the comments below, Snopes is WRONG. His blog item on that is here.
MORE from Walter here.