Efforts to remove books from school libraries and public libraries across the US gained momentum in the 2021-22 school year. A new report from PEN America shows that last year there were more than 2,500 book bans in 140 school districts representing nearly 4 million students.
The unprecedented increase in attempts to remove books from school libraries has often been spearheaded by individuals and groups objecting to books dealing with racism, gender identity or sexual orientation. The most common objections to book challenges relate to sexual content, profanity, and content that is “not appropriate for any age group,” according to the American Library Association. A poll conducted earlier this year on behalf of the ALA found that the vast majority of voters oppose efforts to remove books from school and public libraries.
A local library (a very large one) is taking steps to ensure all teenagers in the US have access to books that may have been removed from their school or local libraries. The Brooklyn Public Library launched Books Unbanned, a website where anyone between the ages of 13 and 21 can apply for a free library card to download e-books from their collection.
This week also marks the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week – a great time to learn about bans and purchase a free library card to find books that may no longer be available at your school.
How are books removed from school libraries?
Many public school districts are governed by local boards of elected officials who have power over the policies of their school libraries. These school boards often allow for book “challenges” – arguments from an individual or group explaining why a book should not be made available to students.
School districts typically have committees of librarians or other school officials that review book challenges. If the committee or government group decides to remove the book from school libraries, the school district will consider the book “banned.”
Earlier this year, The New York Times reported that “parents, activists, school board officials and legislators across the country are challenging books at a pace not seen in decades.” The PEN America study found that a total of 1,648 individual book titles were removed from school libraries in 32 states in the last school year.
However, PEN America also notes that only 4% of book bans in 2021 are due to official challenges. The vast majority were “initiated by school administrators or board members … sometimes in response to comments from community members at board meetings.”
Which books will be removed?
The ALA’s Banned Books website contains lists of commonly contested books and the top 10 most contested books of 2021 and past years.
Most of the banned books are written for teenagers, and the main reasons are sexual content, profanity, violence, racism and LGBTQ+ content, according to the ALA.
Book Challenges have been criticized for focusing on black or LGBTQ+ writers. The ALA notes that in 2021, “Most books were by or about Black or LGBTQ+ people.”
Of the 1,648 books banned last school year, 41 percent “explicitly address LGBTQ+ issues or have protagonists or prominent supporting characters who are LGBTQ+,” and 40 percent “contain protagonists or prominent supporting characters of color,” according to the latest PEN America report.
How can teens get a free Brooklyn Public Library card to read banned books?
Anyone between the ages of 13 and 21 can now get a free map from the Brooklyn Public Library as part of the Books Unbanned project. The free account can be used to borrow e-books or audio books online.
However, there is no online application. Teens must email the library at [email protected] to request their free card.
The library’s unlocked books list currently contains 23 books, available immediately to everyone as e-books, with no bans or waiting times. Titles include Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.
Teens with free library cards can also access the Brooklyn Public Library’s full online catalog — 350,000 e-books, 200,000 audiobooks, and multiple online databases.
The Brooklyn Public Library has given out more than 5,100 free cards to teens across the country since the program started in spring 2022, according to CNN. These teenagers have been making about 18,000 checkouts a month so far.
Though the library’s website still says that free maps for teens will be available everywhere “for a limited time,” the CNN report notes that based on the program’s success, the library plans to extend it indefinitely.