NYC Libraries Offer Banned Book Access, Reading Challenges

As book banning and censorship continues to ramp up across the country, particularly of work aimed at teens and young adults, New York City public libraries are stepping up to help young readers connect with challenged books. 

logo reading NYC Banned Books ChallengeAs book banning and censorship continues to ramp up across the country, particularly of work aimed at teens and young adults, New York City public libraries are stepping up to help young readers connect with challenged books. This spring, Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) and New York Public Library (NYPL) each launched campaigns that would offer young people access to books they may no longer be able to find at their schools or local libraries.

Beginning May 23, BPL and NYPL will be joined by Queens Public Library (QPL) for a banned book reading challenge. Librarians from across the three systems have selected 10 banned or challenged books that “we believe are not only enjoyable, but can help develop greater understanding and empathy: the very tools needed to fight ignorance and hate,” according to the website. Copies of the books—The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline; Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan; Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen by Jazz Jennings; All Boys Aren't Blue by George M. Johnson; Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds; Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo; The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison; 1984 by George Orwell; Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez; and This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki—are available throughout all NYC libraries. Last Night at the Telegraph Club is available with no waits via the free e-reader app SimplyE through June 26.

 

UNBANNED IN BROOKLYN

With the Books Unbanned campaign, launched on April 12, BPL is offering free ecards to teens and young adults across the United States who request them. For a limited time, anyone age 13 to 21 can apply for a BPL ecard, giving them unlimited access to the library’s collection of more than 350,000 ebooks, 200,000 audiobooks, and 100 databases. To apply for the card, teens can send a note to BooksUnbanned@bklynlibrary.org, or apply via BPL’s teen-run Instagram account, @bklynfuture. The $50 fee usually charged for out-of-state cards is waived, and the card is good for one year.

The library has also made seven frequently challenged e- and audiobooks available to all BPL cardholders with no hold or wait times: 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. All are available through the library's online catalog or Libby app.

At BPL, Chief Librarian Nicholas Higgins told LJ, “We’ve noticed, just like everyone else has—including ALA [the American Library Association] and PEN America—that the challenges are becoming much more coordinated and the book bans are becoming much more successful in a lot of places.” Early this year, Higgins and BPL leadership began discussing kinds of interventions might reach more readers than banned book displays and discussion groups.

After considering targeting specific areas of the country, said Higgins, “We decided that it would be much more inclusive and powerful for teens who are experiencing some of these challenges if we just offered it to everyone.” The application, he added, simply asks young people to communicate that they’re experiencing book challenges where they live, and why they feel libraries should have diverse collections, and then they are issued a card. They’re then free to access materials from BPL’s catalog.

An intellectual freedom council made of up local Brooklyn teens helped brainstorm the idea and came up with the title. They also serve as spokespeople for the program, talking to the press and posting on social media about the issue of censorship—@bklynfuture has nearly doubled in followers since its launch—and will provide readers’ advisory for other teens who fill out a BookMatch form. To date, BPL has had about 3,500 inquiries about the ecard from teens in nearly all 50 states.

“The response has been wonderful,” said Higgins. “A lot of people are responding to it, giving heartfelt testimony on why this means the world to them—and if their parents are writing on behalf of their teens, why it means so much to their families to have this program.”

And while those numbers are encouraging, he noted, it’s also a troubling sign of how many young people are being affected by book challenges and bans—as well as the frontline library workers who experience pushback in the workplace while doing their best to serve them.

While the program’s end date hasn’t yet been decided, BPL is looking ahead to running similar campaigns, possibly during Banned Books Week. “We want to ultimately position libraries as important stakeholders in the conversation on freedom to read,” Higgins told LJ. “Not just hear stories about the coordinated efforts by adults who are pushing back on intellectual freedom and freedom to read in their communities, but have libraries join the conversation and be a little more full-throated in their support for teens in other parts of the country.”

 

NYPL’S BOOKS FOR ALL

In April, NYPL launched its own national campaign, Books for All, in partnership with Hachette Book Group, Macmillan Publishers, and Scholastic, to offer a selection of commonly banned ebooks to anyone in the country without wait times or fines. The titles—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 J.D. Salinger—can be accessed through the end of May via SimplyE. These books have all either appeared on American Library Association lists of most or commonly banned books or have been the subject of recent attempted bans or challenges.

SimplyE can be downloaded by anyone with an iOS or Android device. Once in the app, users select the “Books for All” collection, and can read any of the four selected works immediately. Those under 13 with children’s accounts may only access King and the Dragonflies; users are on the honor system to enter their correct birth year when signing up for a SimplyE account, but don’t need to enter any other information about where they are located.

While the four books represent only a tiny sample of work being banned or challenged, Books for All “really is an advocacy project about making a strong statement against all of the unprecedented book bans in school libraries, at public libraries, across the country,” NYPL Director of eReading Kathleen Riegelhaupt told LJ. “Our goal is to reinforce and support the mission of public libraries. We wanted to highlight that libraries are here to provide access to books, and that we encourage people to read these books on their phones or their tablets, but we want people to go to their libraries and read too.”

In addition to the four challenged titles, SimplyE users can access a number of other public domain books in the Books for All collection.

Feedback about the campaign has been positive, said Riegelhaupt. As of press time, NYPL has seen 7,219 checkouts of the featured titles since Books for All launched, and 34,456 new users—35 percent of whom are from New York City. Thirteen percent of the traffic came from Texas, Florida, and Pennsylvania—three states with particularly high numbers of book challenges.

The goal of the initiatives, agreed Higgins and Riegelhaupt, is to reinforce the importance—and use—of libraries wherever a user may be accessing the New York collections from. “This is the right space for libraries to be in,” said Higgins—“to help to help people access collections that speak to them, to let kids know that no matter who they are, they're not alone, and they can see their stories and their identities represented in a fully democratic space at the library.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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