Unbanning Books: LJ’s 2023 Librarians of the Year

Brooklyn Public Library's Nick Higgins, Amy Mikel, Karen Keys, Jackson Gomes, and Leigh Hurwitz have been named LJ's 2023 Librarians of the Year for their work on Books Unbanned, providing free ebook access to teens and young adults nationwide to help defy rising book challenges across the country.

In 2022 Brooklyn Public Library’s Books Unbanned Team began providing free ebook access to teens and young adults nationwide, defying rising book challenges across the country

In the past year, book challenges became part of the national discourse. Efforts to censor what materials U.S. kids, teens, and young adults can access—primarily content about race and LGBTQIA+ issues—are increasing, often in the places those resources are needed most. From January to August 2022, the American Library Association (ALA) logged 681 attempts to ban or restrict access to 1,651 unique titles—the highest number of challenges since ALA began tracking them. From July 2021 to June 2022, the freedom of expression nonprofit PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans listed 2,532 instances of individual books being banned, affecting 1,648 titles.

It has become increasingly clear to many that these censorship efforts go beyond complaints from individual concerned parents. Libraries and classrooms have become the targets of coordinated political campaigns frequently led and/or funded by right-wing activists.

As a large and well-resourced institution in the relatively liberal jurisdiction of New York City, Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) is well positioned to ensure access to the full range of books it deems valuable for its community of readers. The library also provides free digital cards to New York State residents, and previously offered out-of-state cards for a fee. But several staff members, as well as President and CEO Linda E. Johnson, felt that BPL could—and should—do more for those beyond the borough’s borders.

ACCESS FOR EVERYONE The team at BPL’s Central Library shows off the QR code to connect to Books Unbanned; l.-r.: Amy Mikel, Jackson Gomes, Karen Keys, Nick Higgins, and Leigh Hurwitz. Photo by Matt Carr

Chief Librarian Nick Higgins wondered if the library could offer its more than 350,000 ebooks, 200,000 audiobooks, and 100 databases to all teens and young adults experiencing censorship across the country, free of charge. The idea was ambitious, broad in scope, and held the potential to affect thousands of young readers. And thanks to the team that made the initiative a reality—Higgins; Director of Customer Experience Amy Mikel; Coordinator of Young Adult Services, Youth & Family Services Karen Keys; Young Adult Internship Coordinator Jackson Gomes; and Coordinator of School Outreach Services Leigh Hurwitz—Books Unbanned has proved successful far beyond their original hopes. To date the campaign has issued nearly 6,000 BPL ecards to teens in every U.S. state, DC, and Puerto Rico. For their efforts to ensure free access to books for young people who want and cannot get them, and to raise awareness of the current threat to intellectual freedom and the harm it causes, BPL’s Books Unbanned team has been named LJ’s 2023 Librarian(s) of the Year, sponsored by Baker & Taylor.



The stories about book bans and censorship were being driven by people “who show up at a school board meeting, who shout down educators and librarians, and try to impose a very strict set of rules on what can and cannot be spoken about within their communities,” says Higgins. “We wanted to resituate that conversation about freedom to read and intellectual freedom where it belongs, in public libraries and in schools.”

BPL has always advocated for freedom to read and mounted displays around Banned Books Week, but Higgins felt that a library with BPL’s resources and strong leadership should go further. “How do we help a young person in Murfreesboro, TN, for instance, who’s seeing their entire community speak out against how they feel as an individual, a person, a human being?” he wondered.

As the national news media began to ramp up reports of book bans in February 2022, Higgins and Mikel discussed potential action. Half-jokingly, he recalls, he suggested simply giving everyone a free BPL card—and the conversation grew from whether it was possible to how it could be implemented.

The concept they came up with was simple: Books Unbanned offers free BPL ecards to teens and young adults aged 13 to 21 anywhere in the United States, giving them unlimited access to the library’s collection. To apply, all they need to do is send a note via email to BooksUnbanned@bklynlibrary.org or through the library’s teen-run Instagram account, @bklynfuture, describing the censorship challenges they are experiencing and why they feel libraries should have diverse collections. They are also encouraged to share videos, essays, and stories on the importance of intellectual freedom and the impact that book challenges and bans have had on their lives.



“The good news is that we had a few things in place that made it much easier than building something from scratch,” explains Mikel. BPL already had an ecard application system that granted immediate access through a bar code and PIN, and an out-of-state cardholder program. “Our challenge was to figure out how you then take this very particular subset—out-of-state residents between the ages of 13 and 21—and pass them through where they wouldn’t be charged a $50 membership fee.” (In July 2022, the library phased out its fee-based out-of-state card program for adults to focus on Books Unbanned.)

The solution—to ask applicants to contact the library with their requests and stories, which Mikel and Keys would read and approve manually—made sense, given their expectation of a few hundred responses. This would prove to be a serious underestimation of interest, but it was enough to get the project off the ground.

The campaign had three priorities built in from the outset, says Higgins: To bring local teens into the advocacy work and let them lead; to invite young people from across the country to participate through access to BPL’s collections; and to allow BPL to take more control of the narrative about book bans and censorship.

Once he had the main concept ironed out, says Higgins, it was an easy sell to library leadership. At the outset, he and Johnson considered partnering with libraries in the most severely impacted states, but many of them were concerned about repercussions for stepping forward. “If you are a library and you want to embark on an initiative that’s going to fly in the face of some legislation, you’re fearful of jeopardizing your funding stream,” notes Johnson. “Same is true with for public schools that are worried about accreditation. So, we just decided that we would go it alone.”

The initiative would be paid for through private support, not city money; BPL would fundraise for Books Unbanned, and any additional ebook licenses needed, as an intellectual freedom and social justice cause. (To date the campaign has raised almost $200,000, including over 800 individual gifts, along with contributions from several foundations. Individuals can donate at bit.ly/SupportBooksUnbanned.)

BPL has a strong cohort of local teen interns, so Keys and Gomes brought them into the planning process, “to talk about intellectual freedom, and what we could do in the context of this project,” says Keys. The newly formed Intellectual Freedom Teen Council came up with the hashtag #BooksUnbanned to help young people share their stories on social media when they applied for a card, and that became the project’s official name.



BPL launched its Books Unbanned campaign on April 13, 2022, to coordinate with National Library Week, with a press release from the library and an interview on NPR News. (At the same time, the library made a collection of frequently challenged books immediately available for all BPL cardholders.) The national press picked up on the initiative right away, leading to coverage first by Book Riot, TimeOut NY, and Teen Vogue, and eventually by the New York Times, CBS News, Seventeen, Politico, and CNet, among others. The project went viral on Twitter, and even turned up in New York Magazine’s Approval Matrix. People made yard signs, t-shirts, and stickers with the website’s QR code.

BPL leadership and staff members were similarly enthusiastic. People were worn down after two difficult years of work during the pandemic and more services were still needed in Brooklyn, but most agreed that this was a critical focus for the library. And as Books Unbanned began getting recognition, “it really helped give everybody that boost that we were missing,” says Mikel. “There were staff writing to us who said this is what they needed to feel proud to work at the library again.”

Originally, the team had designed a teen-led engagement campaign to help drum up interest—“We were worried that nobody would care, or hear about it,” says Mikel—but it soon became clear that the issues faced by Books Unbanned were not the ones they had anticipated. Within a few weeks, hundreds of inquiries began arriving daily.

The team truly came together, Mikel adds, “when we realized we had something really big on our hands, and that it needed to be a team effort to make sure that we were handling it correctly and staying true to the spirit of the campaign.”

She and Keys continued to read and respond to each application on an individual basis, but the sheer number threatened to overwhelm them—as did the content, with teens reaching out to tell stories that were affecting, inspiring, and very often heartbreaking. Messages poured in from teens of color, LGBTQIA+—particularly trans—teens, and teens isolated in rural areas. “We are on the verge of becoming adults,” they wrote. “I want to finally be able to read the books that were taken from me.”

“We wanted to read their stories and acknowledge them,” says Keys. “But it definitely got overwhelming at points, because you’re just like, oh, no—is giving a library card enough?”

“By early May, we felt like we were drowning,” says Mikel. That’s when Hurwitz, Higgins says, “came in on a white horse.” A former young adult librarian, they understood how critical the communication component was. “It’s really important, in our correspondence with the teens and parents, to affirm them, to let them know that someone cares about them and is hearing them,” Hurwitz says. “I feel like that’s just as important as giving them the card.”

The number of adults writing in was surprising and gratifying as well—“parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, youth pastors, neighbors, teachers, trying to get their teens access,” says Hurwitz. The response drove home the fact that the majority of U.S. adults are on the side of freedom of expression. “They’re just as frustrated, and sometimes feeling as hopeless, as the teens.”

The Books Unbanned team has extensive experience working with teens. While they have not encountered youth in acute crisis during this project, they have, occasionally, in submissions to BPL’s annual teen writing contest. In those instances, staff flag entries that concern them and reach out to the teens to see if they are okay, offering to connect them to resources.

Hurwitz brought fresh eyes to the process, organizing a group of staff volunteers who could help handle requests with compassion and kindness, including Brendan Crain, manager of NYC Culture Pass; Stef Sinn, manager of BPL’s Rugby branch; and Rakisha Kearns-White, YA librarian at the Central Youth Wing. Ellen Halliday, principal administrative assistant in the Youth & Family Services Department, created custom application links for each prospective cardholder.

“Giving a library card never felt like such a sense of duty before, or such an act of significance,” says Mikel.



Originally assembled by Gomes and Keys from various BPL internships, the Intellectual Freedom Teen Council served as ambassadors for Books Unbanned from its inception. They all care deeply about fighting censorship, says Gomes. “Even though it didn’t affect them here in New York City, they were reading about what was happening across the country.”

Teen council members discuss the campaign with everyone from their peers to the national news media—Gomes says that many of them are more comfortable in front of the camera than he is. And they meet regularly online with teens across the country who have received BPL cards to talk about censorship, access issues, and what’s going on in their communities. The council also offers readers’ advisory through the BookMatch Teen service, which lets young users fill out an online form about their interests, favorite books, and what they’re looking for.

“A lot of teens were burned out by the pandemic, so this was a perfect opportunity for them to be able to see us face to face, give us feedback, work with us, and just be involved,” says Gomes.

Aren Lau, a 17-year-old senior at Edward R. Murrow High School, moved to Brooklyn from Georgia in 2019. He began working with the Intellectual Freedom Teen Council last year at Gomes’s request and has since talked to the Associated Press and Washington Post about Books Unbanned and spoken on a panel with former Oklahoma high school teacher Summer Boismier, moderated by the New York Times’ Alexandra Alter, for Banned Books Week in September 2022.

Promoting Books Unbanned has honed Lau’s awareness of social justice issues and politics, and has provided him with mentors and opportunities, introduced him to interesting people, and given him a connection to the library’s work. It’s also been “exhausting,” as a young transgender man, to learn more about the bigotry of censorship. “It’s so backwards and stupid how people are trying to ban books, especially queer topics,” he says.

THE WALL SAYS IT ALL At the Central Library’s youth area, a message created by Raquel Cion takes center stage; l.-r. Higgins, Mikel, Hurwitz, Keys, and Gomes. Photo by Matt Carr


Although Books Unbanned was a critical success from the beginning, broadening access for young people across the country has not been smooth sailing for everyone.

Oklahoma’s H.B. 1775, signed into law in 2021, prohibits teaching critical race theory in the state’s public schools. When the 2022–23 school year began in August, teachers at Oklahoma’s Norman High School were instructed to review the books in their classrooms and either pull titles that might be challenged, shelve them with spines inward, or cover them. In protest, Boismier, a 10th-grade English teacher, covered the shelves in her classroom library with rolls of paper on which she had written “Books the state doesn’t want you to read.” She also shared the QR code for Books Unbanned with her students. After a parent complained publicly, Boismier became the target of online threats and harassment, and Oklahoma Secretary of Education Ryan Walters urged the state board of education to revoke her teaching certificate.

Boismier resigned before that could happen. In October, BPL offered her a job. She accepted, and joined the Books Unbanned team in December. “They messed with the wrong teacher,” says Johnson.



While Books Unbanned was originally planned to run for a limited time, it has taken on a life of its own—one that continues to grow and change. With another surge of requests in August 2022, Mikel says, everyone began to wonder, “How do we make this something that is one of Brooklyn Public Library’s signature initiatives? It’s not a temporary thing anymore.”

A recent New York City–funded expansion for teen services, spaces, and programming across library systems will allow BPL to grow its youth-led engagement and help ensure the future of the Intellectual Freedom Teen Council and BookMatch Teen, which has been getting more than 50 recommendation requests a week.

Mikel and Hurwitz have also set up a virtual reference team to explain collection development to library users. “If you’re a self-published author, if you’re a small press, if you’d like to see a database or a program, that, to us, is intellectual freedom,” says Mikel—“that you understand the process and the decisions that are made about why a book or a service or a program isn’t available for you at the library, and what you can do to make sure that something is added.”

As they work to develop sustainable models for Books Unbanned, the team is building a plan for national advocacy and action, recruiting partners toward efforts to increase access to digital collections and to empower young people speak up, speak out, and organize among themselves.

This spring, BPL is partnering with PEN America to cohost the Freedom to Read Advocacy Institute, a four-week educational and training program for high school students. The free program will prepare and certify teens to combat book banning and fight for the freedom to read in schools, libraries, and communities across the country.

Higgins, Mikel, Keys, Gomes, and Hurwitz have evolved into a tightly knit leadership team as they work to stabilize and expand the campaign. All bring a wide range of strengths and talents to the table, sharing a deep affinity for outreach. “I’ve been in public libraries in NYC for 17 years and this has been the most inclusively collaborative work I have ever been a part of,” says Higgins.

In addition to Johnson, who “paved the way from the start,” Higgins says, the team offers kudos to BPL Press Officer Fritzi Bodenheimer; Executive Vice President of External Affairs David Woloch; staff photographer Gregg Richards; the IT, call center, and marketing teams; and the BPL board.

Thanks to everyone involved, Books Unbanned has been a success, with almost 52,000 checkouts to date. “We can see spikes in demand that tell us what’s going on in various parts of the country,” notes Johnson; states with the most cards issued include Texas, Florida, California, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina.

But, Higgins cautions, it’s important to understand what that success represents: “A lot of young people who are facing the prospect of seeing themselves, their family members, their friends, their identities, and their narratives fully removed from the shelves.” Banning the material they want and need “is less about book removal and more a campaign to tell someone that they don’t belong in their community.”

He adds, “If there’s a way the Brooklyn Public Library can support your library, and by extension the communities that you serve, we’re here to have that conversation and to see how we can support one another, and learn from one another, and face this challenge together.” 

Author Image
Lisa Peet


Lisa Peet is Executive Editor for Library Journal.

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