Banned Books Week goes dark as scores of city libraries close following bomb alert
This year’s Banned Books Week took a dangerous turn when libraries in at least three major US cities received threats deemed serious enough to shut several branches for the day.
Authorities have not publicly linked the threats to widespread and unprecedented campaigns to ban books. But it’s hard to ignore the timing. In years past, Banned Books Week has typically been a celebration of reading specific titles. This year, anti-censorship activism anchored a week punctuated by violent threats against public libraries.
First up was Fort Worth, which evacuated and closed 17 library branches on Sept. 19 after receiving three bomb threat emails. According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, police traced the threats to emails that came from outside the United States.
Schools in Texas banned most books in the past year, according to a Sept. 19 report by PEN America. Outside of Fort Worth, for example, Keller ISD officials pulled more than 40 books off shelves just before school started after passing a new policy requiring all books with complaints to be checked a second time before being returned to classrooms. It’s not surprising, then, that Keller’s public library system published a post for Banned Book Week celebrating the most censored titles of 2021 — and then removed it at the direction of city officials who feared the post would spark further controversy would, abruptly removed.
On September 21, Denver library officials closed branches and halted bookmobile stops after receiving a “digital threat.” And then came Nashville. At around 10:30 am on September 22, library staff at the downtown branch informed police that they, too, had received an email with a bomb threat. The library management decided to close all branches for the rest of the day.
Tennessee is also a hotspot of the book ban: McMinn County made international headlines when school board members pulled Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus off the shelves. Nashville libraries fought back by issuing 5,000 limited-edition, bright yellow library cards that read “I read banned books with my library card” as part of an effort to combat censorship.
While last week’s sweeping closures were new, libraries and their staff have become increasingly targeted. In June, the American Library Association released a statement condemning the threats “in response to an alarming increase in aggression against library staff and patrons.”
A sampling of incidents this month includes police in Salt Lake City sweeping public library branches on September 12 following reports of a bomb threat. On Sept. 13, Downers Grove Library, southwest of Chicago, canceled a drag queen bingo program for teens after receiving multiple threats, telling the NBC News affiliate that the “severity” of the threats led to the decision. And a branch of the New York Public Library in the Bronx canceled a reading and Q&A event on September 17 after the sophomore, who was scheduled to read from his book Be Amazing: A History of Pride, canceled several had received threats about the event via Instagram.