As some public and school libraries pulled books from their shelves earlier this year, New York City’s Brooklyn Public Library made access to thousands of books easier for teens across the country.
In the past several months, the Brooklyn Public Library has issued more than 5,100 free electronic library cards to young people nationwide, Nick Higgins, the library’s chief librarian told CNN.
The library launched its “Books UnBanned” initiative in April as a way to stand against censorship and the growing number of book bans in schools and public libraries.
Since then, readers between 13 to 21 years old in every state of the country and Washington, DC have applied for the electronic cards, Higgins said, and an estimated 18,000 e-books or audiobooks have been checked out every month.
“On one side, it’s great that we were able to step in and support people in their time of need with access to robust library collections, but it’s also really telling that there are significant censorship efforts going on across the country that a lot of us need to band together to push back on,” Higgins said.
Higgins said the library has received hundreds of messages from teens and their families who shared their gratitude, how they’ve seen books being removed from shelves and even the frustration that some feel for not having a library near their homes.
Due to the success of the initiative, the Brooklyn Public Library plans to run the program indefinitely. Young people will continue getting their free electronic library card for one year and will have the option to renew it, Higgins said.
Cardholders have access to the library’s archive of 350,000 e-books; 200,000 audiobooks and over 100 databases. The library also provides access to “a selection of frequently challenged books” with no holds or wait times for cardholders, including “The Black Flamingo” by Dean Atta, “Tomboy” by Liz Prince, “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, “The 1619 Project” by Nikole Hannah-Jones, “Juliet Takes a Breath” by Gabby Rivera, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuong, and “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison.
As part of the initiative, a group of teens in New York who are members of the library’s Teen Intellectual Freedom Council invited teens who got their electronic cards to meet virtually. Now, teens in Texas, Alabama and other states meet once a month to discuss censorship and ways to push back in their own communities.
“Seeing a group of teams connect to one another across state lines, just to get together to try to find a shared understanding of a particular topic and how it impacts them is really inspiring. It’s really what this whole initiative is really about,” Higgins said.
An April analysis by PEN America, found that more than 1,500 books were been banned in 86 school districts from July 31, 2021, to March 31, 2022. The American Library Association published similar findings, noting that books about LGBTQ and Black people were among the most challenged in 2021.
Public libraries have been engulfed in the nationwide debate over what titles people, especially children, have access to as conservative groups and individuals single out books that deal with race, gender or sexuality.
Like the Brooklyn Public Library, librarians in other parts of the country have been doing their part to push back against censorship. In Texas, the Austin Public Library partnered with an independent bookstore and held talks and events at library branches, bookstores and even in community parks featuring discussions with authors of banned and challenged books and even silly drag queen story hours.
In recent weeks, the Louisiana Association of School Librarians urged members to stand up against censorship if they feel comfortable doing so. Amanda Jones, president of the organization and a middle school librarian in Livingston Parish, said members want to inform community members about public policies on school libraries and educate them on the job they do because there is confusion.
“These fringe groups capitalize on that lack of knowledge from everyday citizens, and they use rhetoric, like pornography and erotica to describe books, especially books around LGBTQ+ themes and sexual health books that written by experts like the American Psychological Association,” Jones told CNN earlier this month. “They are not interested in the truth.”