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In 2021, there were over 1,500 book bans in US school districts, representing over 1,000 unique titles. The books targeted are primarily books by and about people of color (especially by Black authors), books with LGBTQ content, and any title that could be interpreted as promoting social justice.
In response, Brooklyn Public Library, one of the largest library systems in the US, has launched the Books UnBanned initiative, which allows anyone across the country between the ages of 13 and 21 to get a free eCard from BPL, which will give them access to 350,000 ebooks and 200,000 audiobooks, as well as access to databases.
The BPL is also making a selection of frequently challenged books available with no wait times for all BPL cardholders, including The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Lawn Boy by Jonathan Eveson. These ebooks can be read on phones, computers, tablets, or ereaders.
The President of Brooklyn Public Library, Linda E. Johnson, explained:
“Access to information is the great promise upon which public libraries were founded. 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.”
The card will be good for one year. (Typically, out-of-state BPL library cards are available with a $50 annual fee, but it’s waived under this program.) Teens utilizing this card will also be connected with BPL’s Intellectual Freedom Teen Council, which provides resources to fight back against censorship and book challenges.
Teens can apply for the card by either emailing BooksUnbanned@bklynlibrary.org or messaging their teen-run Instagram account, @bklynfuture.
Brooklyn Public Library has also invited teens 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.”
This is a great resource for teens to get digital access to titles they might otherwise be barred from, though of course it’s only one tool in our anti-censorship toolkit. Not all teens have easy access to technology and reliable internet access, and it’s extremely important that these books be available physically in school libraries, not just on an individual basis through a work around.
The Books UnBanned initiative is an excellent way for teens to temporarily get around censorship in their communities, but it’s not a replacement for having these books in schools and libraries — it especially can’t stand in for a diverse and inclusive curriculum that includes the stories and history of LGBTQ people, people of color, disabled people, and more.
I applaud Brooklyn Public Library for using their resources to address the wave of book bans in the most far-reaching way possible for just one institution. It’s on all of us, though, to move the needle in our communities and make initiatives like this unnecessary, especially considering that the most vulnerable kids and teens will likely have the least access to reliable technology. And, of course, kids 12 and under also deserve access to diverse and inclusive literature in both their curricula and libraries.
To join the fight against censorship yourself, check out the Anti-Censorship Tool Kit. You can also keep up to date with Book Riot’s weekly Censorship News Round Up, which always includes both news and ways to help. These past two years have shown right-wing groups showing up in organized and attention-grabbing ways to censor books, and we need to be just as organized and loud in support of students’ freedom to read.