“I know the internet exists and it’s obviously very useful for kids to access things they can’t access at school, but often kids who are in these conservative schools are also living in very conservative families,” says Lau.
Books are being banned from US school libraries in record numbers, led largely by conservative lawmakers and activists. This week, libraries and anti-censorship groups are among those hosting Banned Books Week to raise awareness of the growing problem. More than 1,651 individual titles were banned from schools between January and August alone, including Beloved by Toni Morrison, Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag by Rob Sanders and Sulwe, a children’s book, according to PEN America by Lupita Nyong’o.
Demand for many of these titles is only growing online as educators and librarians seek to fill the gap with Internet-based resources. Some libraries have removed physical copies of controversial books but continue to offer them as digital tills through apps like Libby. Meanwhile, some lawmakers are investigating the online technology used by libraries in hopes of blocking specific content.
A book about sexuality or racism may not be allowed in your school, your local library, or even your own home. But online it can be found as an e-book at another library, less legally on torrent sites, or for purchase at any online bookstore. The concepts in this book, deemed by some legislators or parents to be too dangerous for young minds, are freely available on educational websites and Wikipedia, are summarized on social media, and are documented in mainstream articles.
Getting a physical book from a school library seems like a trifle when there are online alternatives. The reality is more complicated. Finding books takes work and unfiltered internet access.
“In fact, if you’re an enterprising teenager and you want a copy of Gender Queer, you’ll get it,” said Linda E. Johnson, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Public Library. “Either the elected officials, or the parents, or the school administration are naïve, or there is something else at play.”
The Brooklyn Public Library is at the center of the national battle between restricting and expanding teen book access. In April, the Books Unbanned program launched, offering free online access to its entire collection for 13-21 year olds who send an email. Johnson says it has has already issued more than 5,100 cards and loaned 20,000 materials as part of the program. The program is independently funded, which allows it to offer books to people out of state.
Simply directing students to the program’s website has already created a problem for one teacher. In August, an English teacher at a Norman, Oklahoma high school was fined and then fired after posting a QR code in her classroom linked to the Brooklyn program. The state has one of the strictest laws in the nation against teaching students about race and gender.
Like many attempts to ban books, the incident created a certain Streisand effect and reinforced the very thing he was trying to silence. Brooklyn’s program had a surge in applications, and the QR code was popping up online and even on lawn signs in Norman. Johnson says the library can see what’s going on in different states by the interest in their website – demand in the districts is increasing after schools tried to ban titles.
Not every teenager has free access to these resources or even knows they exist. And bans in schools and libraries affect students beyond finding individual books.
“In theory, the internet and the access it provides makes it seem like people can still access books. I think what’s being overlooked is that there’s something very tangible and irreplaceable about a library that contains books,” said Jonathan Friedman, who directs PEN America’s Freedom of Speech and Education program. “The whole idea of a school library is to encourage literacy and exploration and access to information.”
For five decades, the book Our Bodies, Ourselves fought against bans in schools and libraries. The educational book on women’s sexuality and health was simultaneously labeled obscene and used by women to get information they couldn’t find anywhere else, from puberty to rape.
It was discontinued in 2018 but relaunched in September as a full online resource focusing on health, sexuality and reproductive justice. The history of the ban was one of the reasons the organizers were keen to create a website that would be free and accessible to everyone on the internet, says Amy Agigian, its executive director and a sociology professor at Suffolk University in Boston.
“I believe that having information online is absolutely necessary helpful for people seeking forbidden things,” Agigian said. “But there’s so much a library has to offer that the internet can’t make up for.”
Banned Books Week is an annual event to raise awareness of banned or contested books. Local libraries typically release books that have been banned in the past and hold events.
“It was kind of quaint for a while, every library had an exhibit,” said Johnson, the director of the Brooklyn Public Library.
This year, libraries and organizations like PEN America, The American Library Association, and The National Coalition Against Censorship hope to inspire more activism and resistance to the organized attempts to block teens’ access to books — even from the teens themselves.
“There are efforts to really change the way that access to information is really available to the country as a whole“ said Friedman of PEN America. “And in many places, right now, students are a little more free to express themselves than teachers and librarians.”
Right now, teenagers are looking online for books and resources, and more and more often they find themselves in the public library—but this time online and in Brooklyn, New York.
Lau, the high school student, volunteers at the Brooklyn Public Library and hopes she can help children who have struggled like him.
“If I had had that [program] I would have felt a lot less alone back then,” Lau said.