NYC Combats School Book Bans with Free Digital Library Cards
The New York Public Library and Brooklyn Public Library are on a mission to end censorship.
New York City's library systems are on a mission to let people read what they want.
In an attempt to fight against the increasing book ban efforts across the country—especially towards texts addressing sexual identity, race, religion, and even history—both the New York Public Library and the Brooklyn Public Library systems have come up with solutions to stand up to censorship.
How can I access banned books via the New York Public Library?
In a partnership with publishers Hachette Book Group, Macmillan Publishers, and Scholastic, the NYPL is offering free digital access to a selection of often banned or challenged books to anyone in the country.
Starting today, the book selection will be available in an e-book format through the end of May with all fines and wait times waived. The initiative is part of NYPL's "Book For All" project, which aims at highlighting the censorship issues affecting the country while making a statement in favor of supporting free knowledge and diverse perspectives.
"These recent instances of censorship and book banning are extremely disturbing and amount to an all-out attack on the very foundation of our democracy," New York Public Library President Anthony W. Marx said in an official statement. "Knowledge is power; ignorance is dangerous and breeds hate and division. Since their inception, public libraries have worked to combat these forces simply by making all perspectives and ideas accessible to all, regardless of background or circumstance."
The project features books that have either been added to the American Library Association lists of most commonly banned books or have recently been the subject of criticism and attempted bans. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender, and The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger are all part of the project, and will be free to read online. It is important to note that, as per NYPL policies, readers ages 12 and under can only access children's books.
Curious minds looking to browse and read the "unbanned" e-books will be able to do so via SimplyE, the free reading app created by NYPL in 2016. While thousands of books will primarily be available to New Yorkers with NYPL library cards, the Books For All collection will be open to anyone in the country, with or without a library card, and will feature a number of out-of-copyright and public domain books. The unbanned books will be part of the Books For All collection, and there won't be any wait times to read them. To download the SimplyE app, you can visit this website.
What about through the Brooklyn Public Library?
Similarly, the Brooklyn Public Library announced its own version of NYPL's "Book For All" initiative, dubbed "Books UnBanned." BPL's anti-censorship project is tailored to teens and young adults aged 13 to 21 nationwide, and aims at granting students access to books and texts that might have been banned from their own school libraries.
For a limited time, those belonging to the selected age group will be able to apply for a free digital library card from BPL, which allows them to tap into a vast collection of digital material. For one year, BPL card owners will have access to 350,000 e-books, 200,00 audiobooks, and over 100 databases.
"Access to information is the great promise upon which public libraries were founded," President and CEO of Brooklyn Public Library Linda E. Johnson said in a statement. "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."
Amongst the "Books UnBanned" collection will be a BPL-curated selection of frequently challenged or banned books and, similarly to the NYPL's initiative, they will be available with no holds or wait times for all BPL cardholders through the online catalog or the Libby app. Titles include Dean Atta's The Black Flamingo and Tomboy by Liz Prince as well as The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones.
To foster communication and knowledge sharing, teens will also be able to connect to their peers in Brooklyn (including members of BPL's Intellectual Freedom Teen Council) to recommend books to one another and share resources to fight censorship. To apply for the card, you can send a note to BooksUnbanned@bklynlibrary.org or via BPL's teen-curated instagram account @bklynfuture. The $50 fee normally charged for out-of-state library card requests will be waived.
Why is it important to have access to these books?
According to the American Library Association's Office of Intellectual Freedom, over 729 complaints were filed last year in an attempt to remove 1,597 "uncomfortable" books from the shelves of libraries across the country, making it the highest number of complaints since the association started keeping track of it over 20 years ago. In comparison to 2019, the number of complaints filed in 2021 more than doubled.
While decisions about which titles are worthy of sitting on shelves tend to vary depending on the state, there's been a universal tendency to try and ban the same categories regardless of geographical location. Books featuring LGBTQ characters, sexual identity, and racial issues (even historical ones, such as the rise of the KKK) are all subject to stark criticism from some parties and organizations.
Matt Karause, the chairman of the Texas House of Representatives General Investigating Committee, told public schools to "account" for 850 books deemed sexually explicit or racially preferential. The list includes titles such as the National Book Award winner How to be an Antiracist by Ibram Kendi. A librarian in Llano County, Texas, was fired after opposing the order to remove books from the library shelves. One of the titles the librarian was instructed to remove was about a teenager who identified as transgender.
"Moms For Libraries," a new initiative born within the conservative group Moms for Liberty (which counts over 70,000 members across the country), is on a mission to remove all books tackling and exploring sexual identity and racial polarization from local libraries.
Tennessee's McMinn County School Board decided to vote against the reading of Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust from the eighth-grade curriculum. Lawmakers in Indiana took it even further, and considered a bill that would legally allow librarians to be arrested and put in jail for featuring what is considered inappropriate content.
There's even censorship in our own backyard. The New York State Education Department removed a tweet from the New York State Librarian where she recommended reading Gender Queer: A Memoir because, according to the NYSED, it contained graphic content the department was not aware of.
Why is library leadership promoting this initiative?
Both the NYPL and BPL are determined to provide free access to knowledge and culture without borders, and are set to fight censorship with their new initiatives.
"The Library's role is to make sure no perspective, no idea, no identity is erased," said Marx. "It has always been our role: to connect people with the trusted information. 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 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."
Added PBL's Chief Librarian Nick Higgins: "Brooklyn Public Library stands firmly against censorship and for the principles of intellectual freedom—the right of every individual to seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. Limiting access or providing one-sided information is a threat to democracy itself."