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San Luis Obispo's library preemptively responds to consumer protection strictures

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Just when you thought the world of fairytale hijinks couldn’t get tougher, Jack and his beanstalk are on the chopping block. As are Miss Muffet. And her tuffet. In all, the San Luis Obispo County Library system has more than 150,000 items in its children’s section, and 1,500 of these books are under review. If it turns out that any of these works were released prior to 1986, they get tossed out.

The average cost of a children’s picture book is $17, which—for any of you non-math geeks—works out to a whopping $25,500 bill for a library system that’s already strapped for cash. But according to Margaret Esther, assistant director of the San Luis Obispo County Library, the situation’s not nearly as bad as it sounds.

“That doesn’t mean anywhere near 1,500 books will be replaced,” she said. Not to mention the fact that any book that’s survived 20 years in the children’s section, a veritable literary torture fest with teething infants and children who haven’t yet learned that paper is fragile, probably doesn’t get checked out all that often to begin with. Anything that’s really popular—the Dr. Seuss books and Curious George volumes, for example—has already been replaced several times over since their initial release. So, for some books, the situation is more akin to being retired than replaced.

The effort began in August, right after the summer reading program concluded, and is expected to be completed by the end of the year. The library system is making the change to comply with the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, a bill intended to protect children younger than 12 from exposure to lead products. There is, however, some confusion among librarians as to whether the law applies to them.

“We are doing it of our own volition,” Esther said of the library’s efforts to comply. “Basically we’re not waiting for attorneys to make a case against us. They’ve never said that it applies to libraries. They’ve never come through and said it doesn’t apply to libraries, either.”

According to Alex Filip, deputy director of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Office of Information and Public Affairs, the commission’s chairman did, in fact, issue a statement to the effect that libraries wouldn’t be held subject to the new rules. That statement was made in August 2009, after a general outcry from a number of libraries established concern. But the chairman’s statement hasn’t made itself into the text of the act itself.

The 1986 cutoff date was established because ink used in print before that year had sufficiently high levels of lead to fail the new standards. It’s possible to test the levels of lead contained in the ink, but the tests would ultimately be more expensive than replacing the books. Filtering out books printed before 1986 is time consuming, Esther admits. But reducing the odds of exposing children to potentially unhealthy quantities of lead is worth the inconvenience, she insists.

“Librarians are extremely cautious people,” she explained. “To be really, really cautious, we would have to do the testing on the book. It’s costly, and you destroy the book.”

As for the act itself, it has encountered criticism from a number of business owners, especially in the toy industry. Critics contend that the ban is too broad, effectively punishing businesses that had nothing to do with the first alarm over lead. The effect on toy products hasn’t even hit its full stride.

“By February 10, 2009, products designed or intended primarily for children 12 and younger may not contain more than 600 ppm of lead,” Section 101 reads. By August 2009, the amount was to be reduced to 300 ppm, and then 100 ppm by Aug. 14, 2011. However, in late January, the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a one-year stay of implementation. Businesses that don’t comply with these regulations will be subject to the increased fines and jail time threatened by the act.

The American Library Association (ALA) addressed the confusion on its website, including the fact that on Jan. 15, 2010, the Consumer Product Safety Commission released a report to Congress about the various difficulties it was having implementing the law.

“The report notes that used books have emerged as a particular problem due to the retroactive nature of the law, adding that the retroactive applicability of the lead limits creates problems for libraries,” adds the ALA website.

A discussion draft to alter the act’s language to exclude ordinary books circulated throughout Congress in early 2010, but thus far nothing has been decided. The ALA has engaged attorneys and lawmakers in discussions about the act, and its significance to libraries, but nothing concrete has come from any of the actions.

When the subject of confusion over the law’s application came up, Filip pointed out that the Consumer Product Safety Commission has a system in place for the public to send its queries and for the commission to respond.

“We get thousands of requests from people saying, ‘What about this? What about that?’” he said.

But neither the ALA nor the San Luis Obispo County library system appear confident with the chairman’s assurances. In the meantime, the San Luis Obispo County Library is playing it safe, assuming the Consumer Product Safety Commission could swoop down at any moment, distributing fines to anyone accused of harboring the aging fairytale characters. It’s an unlikely possibility. But more likely, at least, than a handful of beans unleashing a behemoth beanstalk.

Contact Managing Editor Ashley Schwellenbach at aschwellenbach@newtimesslo.com.

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