Any teenager in the U.S. can now get unmetered access to banned and challenged books thanks to the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), which announced this week that teens can now register for a library card and receive access to hundreds of banned and challenged books in digital and audiobook formats.
Books UnBanned is a teen-led initiative from BPL that aims to push back against recent attempts to remove reading materials from schools and libraries in the U.S. By giving people ages 13 to 21 a library card, the program is providing access to BPL’s digital catalogs regardless of location, with the hope of reaching marginalized teens who frequently find themselves targets of bigoted and racist attacks.
Nick Higgins, the chief librarian at BPL, says that in the first two days since the initiative was announced, around 200 teenagers have signed up, with over 700 applications received in total. He says that teenagers should not have to walk into a library only to be told they don’t belong because they don’t see themselves reflected in the collections.
“Intellectual freedom, the right to read, is foundational to any functioning society,” Higgins told Motherboard. “Any hope for civil discourse among people of a diverse community requires having access to multiple points of view, and it just makes us richer in the long run.”
Last year, the American Library Association (ALA) reported the highest number of challenges to libraries and individual book bans since the ALA began gathering this information two decades ago. Most of the targeted books were for a teen audience and were written by or about Black or LGBTQ+ persons. Republicans have made a concerted effort over the last two years to criminalize, discourage, or ban the teaching of issues relating to systemic racism and LGBTQ+ issues in places like Texas, Florida, and other conservative strongholds.
“The removal of these stories and experiences from the shelves of a library will immediately signal to a young person of color or to LGBTQ teens that not only do their experiences not matter but that any evidence of their existence has no place in the community,” Higgins said.
Earlier this month, the American Library Association released its list of the top 10 banned books of 2021. Half of the books on that list contain LGBTQIA+ content, including titles like “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe, “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson, and “Beyond Magenta” by Susan Kuklin.
Gillian Branstetter, a communications strategist for the ACLU, says there has been a particularly alarming spike in challenges to books by transgender authors or featuring transgender characters.
“This is an alarming trend and part of a broader effort to tell trans kids that their experiences and voices do not matter,” Branstetter told Motherboard. “It’s heartening, though hardly surprising, to see librarians stand on the front lines of this fight defending free speech and diverse stories.”
Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, said the initiative is opening up access to materials for teens that deal with their experiences or reflect the experiences their friends might be going through.
“To be able to access those books, to be able to read them and understand that their experiences and lives can be affirming and even life-saving for a gay teen or a trans teen,” Caldwell-Stone told Motherboard. “This is creating a lifeline for these young people.”
According to the ALA, around 90 percent of book challenges go unreported. This is when individuals take it upon themselves to keep books from being found in libraries. The ALA calls this “silent censorship.” With silent censorship, books will often be listed in library catalogs but never able to be found when patrons look for them. This type of censorship is difficult to keep track of, if not impossible.
Higgins says that the book bans that affect teens come from a small but loud minority of adults.
“These are always the adults at the front of the line at a council hearing or at the school board, demanding that their kids not be exposed to one thing or another in the library or classroom, demanding that certain books be pulled from the shelves and hidden away,” he said. “In a different time, they’d be the ones holding the match over a pile of books. They are always proven to be the villains of history. That is what they are today.”
“The fact is, as it has always been, that the kids are all right, but it’s the adults who are living in fear,” he added. “Let’s just hope these kids know enough to see it for what it is.”