ALA: 2022 Likely to See More Books Than Ever Banned and Challenged

The American Library Association's Office of Intellectual Freedom tracked 729 attempts to ban or restrict library resources in K–12, higher ed, and public libraries in all of 2021, targeting 1,597 unique titles—itself the highest number of attempted book bans since ALA began keeping track of challenged books more than 20 years ago.

Banned Books Week logoIn recognition of Banned Books Week, September 18–24, the American Library Association (ALA) has released preliminary numbers of book bans and challenges for the first eight months of 2022. They are already on track to surpass those of 2021, noted ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF)  Director Deborah Caldwell-Stone. Between January 1 and August 31, 681 challenges were recorded, seeking to remove or restrict 1,651 different titles.

OIF tracked 729 attempts to ban or restrict library resources in K–12, higher ed, and public libraries in all of 2021, targeting 1,597 unique titles—itself the highest number of attempted book bans since ALA began keeping track of challenged books more than 20 years ago.

CHALLENGES SCALING UP

Not only did the volume of challenges increase in 2021—their scope expanded as well. In the past, most challenges to library resources only sought to remove or restrict a single title. Last year, however, more than 70 percent of attempts to restrict library resources targeted multiple titles at once. Often 15 or 20 books—sometimes hundreds—were challenged together, with challenges made across entire districts rather than at individual schools. This represents a significant change.

“In the past, we’d have a parent or a community member see a young person reading a book, or see a book on display, pick it up, read it and find something of concern to them, take that book to a librarian or an educator, and discuss those concerns,” Caldwell-Stone told LJ. “Sometimes that led to a request that the book be removed from the library or classroom. What we’re seeing now is a well-funded, well-organized campaign targeting particular kinds of books.” Children’s and YA books relating to race, gender, and sexual identity comprise the most frequently challenged titles.

The number of threats against libraries and library workers increased last year; in 27 instances, police reports were filed against library staff over the books on their institutions’ shelves. Members of Proud Boys and other groups affiliated with the far right protested at school and library board meetings, some of them armed. Grassroots organizations such as Moms for Liberty and No Left Turn in Education, as well as conservative think tanks such as the Manhattan Institute and the Heritage Foundation, have stepped up their campaigns. The rhetoric of groups like MassResistance and QAnon, once considered to be fringe organizations, has become normalized through right-wing media news and social media. Local organizations have turned their attention to school and library board elections, mounting disinformation campaigns with results that range from changing book selection policy and school curriculums to defeating the ballot measures that fund libraries. 

“We’re seeing a campaign to target books based on their content, based on their viewpoint, to silence particular voices reflecting the voices of marginalized communities—limiting the ability of young people to read those books and ultimately limiting the ability of entire communities to have access to that information,” said Caldwell-Stone.

ADVOCATES, STEP UP

While most of the recorded challenges have been aimed at K–12 schools and public libraries, academic libraries have also been targeted by anti–critical race theory legislation. And the recent legal attempt to restrict sales of two books at a Virginia Beach, VA, Barnes & Noble, although unsuccessful, is “a pointer to the future,” said Caldwell-Stone. “Now they’re turning their attention to booksellers, so we need to be mindful of that.”

ALA’s Unite Against Book Bans campaign has enlisted library leaders and workers along with allies—authors, educators, publishers, and free expression and civil liberties organizations—to help mobilize action and awareness. The Tuesday of Banned Books Week, September 20, is also National Voter Registration Day. Unite Against Book Bans will be encouraging people to register to vote or make sure their voter registration is valid, and to learn where their candidates stand on issues like access to information and freedom to read. More resources can be found through ALA’s Unite Against Book Bans Campaign action toolkit and Banned and Challenged Books webpage.

The upswing in book challenges “demands a response from each of us,” said Caldwell-Stone, “as readers, as community members, as anyone who’s interested in ensuring that not only do we have access to information, but that our young people have access to information that can only improve their education, their literacy, their understanding of the world.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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