Book banning efforts are at their highest in 20 years, but while the federal government seems to have reacted with a collective shrug, the New York Public Library (NYPL) has swept in to save free speech through its “Books For All” program.
The program is in response to a recent report from the American Library Association (ALA) in which 729 challenges to library, school and university materials and services in 2021 resulted in more than 1,597 individual book challenges or removals. “The most targeted books were by or about Black or LGBTQIA+ persons,” the report revealed.
“Young people need to have access to a variety of books from which they can learn about different perspectives,” said ALA President Patty Young in a statement. “ So, despite this organized effort to ban books, libraries remain ready to do what we always have: make knowledge and ideas available so people are free to choose what to read.”
The NYPL plans to combat nationwide censorship by making “banned” titles widely available to download through their e-reader app SimplyE, with or without a library card, through the end of May. Titles available include Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, and The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger.
“The New York Public Library’s mission is rooted in the principles of free and open access to knowledge, information, and all perspectives,” the NYPL said in a statement. “The recent instances of both attempted and successful book banning — primarily on titles that explore race, LGBTQ+ issues, religion, and history — are extremely disturbing and amount to an all-out attack on the very foundation of our democracy. The Library’s role is to make sure no perspective, no idea, no identity is erased. People have the right to read or not read what they want, but those books need to be available — for the teen who has questions and wants to privately find answers; for the adult who is curious about subjects for which they have no personal experience; for those who want to do their own research and make informed decisions based on fact. Since the founding of our great nation, libraries have been beacons of this kind of independent curiosity and learning, and it is unacceptable that they be censored in any way.”
In addition to the “Books For All” program, the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) is also focusing on widening digital access beyond the city limits, offering free library cards to readers aged 13-21 nationwide under the “Books Unbanned” initiative. Said Linda E. Johnson in a statement: “Access to information is the great promise upon which public libraries were founded. We cannot sit idly by while books rejected by a few are removed from the library shelves for all. Books UnBanned will act as an antidote to censorship, offering teens and young adults across the country unlimited access to our extensive collection of ebooks and audiobooks, including those which may be banned in their home libraries.”
However spine chilling it is to live in a world where library employees face potential criminal charges for stocking a diverse range of books, perhaps other municipal library programs will join the NYPL in fighting for the right to free information for all. And if you’re looking for additional ways to fight censorship, check out Book Riot’s Anti-Censorship Tool Kit. But at least for now, we can take heart that all of the top 10 most-challenged books are available in-person at libraries citywide. Although when our photographer turned up at the Columbus Branch on 10th Avenue to take pictures there were no banned books available. Hell’s Kitchen locals had already signed all the hard copies out!