Brooklyn’s Books Unbanned Continues to Grow

Since April, Brooklyn Public Library’s (BPL) Books Unbanned program has offered free library cards to teens and young adults across the United States who live in communities impacted by book bans, enabling them to access the library’s collection of more than 500,000 ebooks, e-audiobooks, digital magazines, and more. BPL Chief Librarian Nick Higgins recently talked to LJ about how the idea for the program originated and how it has grown during the past six months.

Books Unbanned logoSince April, Brooklyn Public Library’s (BPL) Books Unbanned program has offered free library cards to teens and young adults across the United States who live in communities impacted by book bans, enabling them to access the library’s collection of more than 500,000 ebooks, e-audiobooks, digital magazines, and more. BPL Chief Librarian Nick Higgins recently talked to LJ about how the idea for the program originated and how it has grown during the past six months.

“We started to pay attention to stories about the increase in censorship efforts” in communities around the country, Higgins said, citing examples such as the list of 850 books that Texas state lawmaker Matt Krause sent to K–12 schools statewide last fall, asking superintendents to inventory their collections and notify his office if the schools or their libraries held any of the titles, which the letter said “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.” The huge list of titles ranges from Between the World and Me, the recent bestseller by Ta-Nehisi Coates, to John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, to Tim Federle’s YA novel The Great American Whatever and children’s books such as "Pink is a Girl Color"... and other silly things people say, by Stacy and Erik Drageset.

“This seems beyond the pale to us,” Higgins said. “So, we wanted to see if there was a way to support those librarians and school administrators and teachers” in communities facing book bans throughout the United States. “We were discussing things that we can do as a library…maybe more of a direct intervention in this conversation. [BPL] will still do Banned Books Week, book displays, and will still support authors who have been challenged and were banned and that kind of thing, but we were wondering if there was a way to directly support people” impacted by bans.

BPL already had a program offering out-of-state residents the opportunity to obtain a BPL card and borrow ebooks and other content from the library for a $50 annual fee. In April, the library launched Books Unbanned by expanding that program to offer free access to anyone age 13 to 21 who was been impacted by book bans. From the outset, verification has been an individualized process, but teens and young adults simply have to email BooksUnbanned[at] or reach out to BPL via @bklynfuture on Instagram to explain why they need a BPL library card to obtain one. They “talk to us about the challenges that they’re facing in their communities, what libraries mean to them, how important it is to have a broad spectrum of reading material available to them in their communities and how that’s being challenged,” Higgins said. “Basically, we follow up with them, and we have a small team here…of librarians and other library workers, who respond to each one….. We want to make sure that we make that personal connection with them.”



The library sent out a press release announcing the program during National Library Week, but Higgins said that participation started out “pretty slowly.” Early news stories from outlets including CNN, Teen Vogue, The Verge, The Hill, and Mental Floss helped raise awareness, and eventually, it went viral on Twitter. Since then, Books Unbanned has been covered nationally by outlets including the New York Times, NPR, CBS, Seventeen, Politico, CNet, and more. In July, BPL sunset the for-fee out-of-state library card program to focus exclusively on Books Unbanned, Higgins said. During the past six months, the library has issued more than 5,500 free library cards to teens and young adults in all 50 U.S. states and Puerto Rico.

“We were, I think, surprised a little bit by the overwhelming response, but at the same time heartbroken too,” Higgins said. “Because it just indicated to us that these challenges, these bans, this active removal of individuals’ voices and perspectives that is happening…it’s a lot more than is being reported by [the American Library Association],” which reported almost 1,600 book challenges or removals in 2021. “It’s happening all over the United States in great numbers, and people are really feeling it where they are.”

Bans that target books with themes addressing racism, gender, or sexuality are especially harmful for young people who see their own experiences reflected in those stories, “particularly if they’re in a community [where] the only safe space might be the school’s library or a public library,” Higgins said. “All of a sudden, they go into these spaces and they find adults taking the stories that matter to them the most off the shelves. In a sense [the adults are] telling them that they don’t matter at all, and they have no right to belong in that community, and that’s devastating.”

So far, no publishers have partnered with BPL on the program, but no special licensing arrangements have been needed. Ebooks and other digital content used by these cardholders are counted against any circ limits and/or accrue any per-circ charges as if these patrons were cardholders in Brooklyn. Whereas the former for-fee out-of-state card was funded through its $50 annual fees, this program is funded through private donations, Higgins said. “If someone wants to donate specifically to the Books Unbanned project…it’s essentially supporting a young person in a different community in the United States to receive access to this collection,” he said.

BPL also launched the Intellectual Freedom Teen Council as part of the Books Unbanned project, initially to support local teens in Brooklyn who wanted to discuss freedom to read issues, book challenges, and banned books. “It’s since expanded to include other young people from across the United States who are now part of the Brooklyn Public Library community because of their e-cards,” Higgins said. “They meet once a month [online] and they talk about local efforts at banning books in communities like Murfreesboro, TN, or Llano, TX, or elsewhere. These peers, young people, are now talking with one another about how to become better advocates and how to push back on these bans.”

In addition to providing access to young people in communities where books are banned and facilitating discussions about intellectual freedom, a third goal of the project has been to take control of the public narrative around book bans, Higgins said. “We realized early on that a lot of the stories that are being generated are from the point of view of the folks who were disrupting school board meetings, [or] the loudest voices in the room at library board meetings—the ones actively trying to remove books from the shelves,” he said. “As a library, we wanted to take better control of the narrative, and situate this conversation about intellectual freedom and the freedom to read where it belongs—in a public library—and lead the effort at telling the story about what [access to books] means and why it is important to a democratic society.”



Promoting the Books Unbanned project has led to problems for at least one educator. In August, Summer Boismier, an English teacher in Norman, OK, posted a QR code in her classroom directing interested students to the Books Unbanned website. According to a report in the Norman Transcript, she later said that highlighting the program was in defiance of a new Oklahoma law (HB 1775) prohibiting teachers from teaching or discussing certain concepts about race or sex. A parent complained, accusing Boismier of directing students to pornography and said that Boismier should face criminal charges. Oklahoma Secretary of Education Ryan Walters publicly called on the state board of education to revoke Boismier’s teaching certificate. Boismier subsequently received hundreds of threats, including death threats.

Last week, Fox 25 in Oklahoma City reported that Boismier had been hired by BPL, and would be leaving Oklahoma to work there in person. Although she said “this was not an easy decision to make,” and “don’t think for a second I’m giving up on Oklahoma,” she told the news station the move was a “chance for me to live my life without looking over my shoulder. That's why I am leaving.”

Unfortunately, as stories such as Boismier’s indicate, this aggressive drive to ban books does not seem to be slowing down in many communities. Higgins said that BPL will continue to fight this trend with Books Unbanned and hopes to continue redirecting the narrative toward intellectual freedom.

“The response that we’ve received over the last several months indicates to us that we need to stay in the fight and continue to work,” Higgins said. “We don't see it slowing down anytime soon…so yes, we will continue this initiative and this series of interventions for as long as it takes.”

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Matt Enis


Matt Enis ( is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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