Books Unbanned at the Brooklyn Public Library

by Klara Pokrzywa

The Brooklyn Public Library’s Books Unbanned was created as a response to the American Library Association’s report on book banning in 2021. That year saw the greatest number of book challenges and bans since the ALA began collecting data in 2000, with most bans occurring in school and public libraries. The report’s findings prompted an outcry among library professionals and teachers—and in April 2022, the Brooklyn Public Library announced that they would allow teenagers and young adults (13-21) from around the country to receive an electronic BPL library card. Since children and teenagers are the most impacted by these book bans, Books Unbanned seeks to provide them with electronic copies of commonly banned books, as well as the tools to prevent or challenge bans in their communities.

            The National Teen BPL eCard gives teens across the country access to a list of “always available” books in addition to the BPL’s full electronic catalog. These “always available” titles are chosen based on data from the ALA’s list of frequently banned books, and, as the BPL and ALA both note, are overwhelmingly by or about LGBT people and/or people of color. By removing the long waits for popular titles that often plague ebook checkout, the BPL ensures that teens will have access to these books as quickly and as easily as possible. Despite the complexities of licensing permissions this surely took, this tactic is not only beneficial to potential readers, but also beneficial for the BPL, as it ensures that they can accommodate for the spike of interest in popular titles in the wake of media coverage about the bans. By making some titles always available, the BPL is signaling that they understand the bans are an exceptional problem that requires exceptional solutions.

            One caveat of the project, however, is the lack of communication about how long the eCards will be available. On the sidebar where the BPL website encourages teens to apply, it notes that the eCards are always available for teens in New York State, and available “for a limited time” for teens nationwide. That specification may cause a website visitor who is planning to apply for the first time to wonder whether the national card will be eventually discontinued, or what the parameters of receiving one are. This information is easy enough to locate through external sources: each eCard will be active for one year after receiving it, with the option to renew, and the initiative will be run indefinitely, meaning that readers need not worry about their card being discontinued after receiving it. Unfortunately, the Books Unbanned webpage itself does not communicate this, which could discourage potential readers who do not seek out an answer on their own from applying.

            In addition to electronic catalog access, Books Unbanned offers a variety of resources and programming related to the surge in book bans. The project is closely affiliated with existing programming for teens at the BPL, such as the Teen Bookmatch service, where teens trained in reader’s advisory can recommend books to their peers looking for their next read. By referring visitors to the Books Unbanned page out to these existing resources, the BPL is demonstrating an eye for the longevity of the program beyond the initial window of media attention: integrating new readers into a community of teen patrons will both encourage them to continue reading habits access to the BPL’s collection might foster, and ensure that the BPL is integrating the new initiative into existing outreach efforts. This is also evident in the creation of the Intellectual Freedom Teen Council, which meets once a month to discuss book bans and other censorship issues relevant to teenagers. These meetings are virtual so that teenagers around the country can join. The variety of outreach programming on this topic helps underscore the BPL’s commitment to their teen readership and ensure that the project is not only reacting to the bans, but also proactive about trying to combat and prevent them.

            These efforts are particularly important to note in light of the perhaps obvious fact that the BPL typically serves a more local, albeit sizable, population. Books Unbanned employs familiar tactics for expanding outreach to a new demographic: creating community between existing patrons and new ones, ensuring that different access needs are being met, and using existing resources, such as an already-extensive electronic catalog, for new purposes. The unusual scope of the project—public libraries do not often serve a national population—complicates and raises the stakes of these tactics, particularly given the charged political context in which they occur. The library’s expanded reach has also come with expanded risks for both librarians and patrons: Summer Boisimer, a teacher in Oklahoma, was reprimanded by her school’s administration and publicly castigated by her state’s education secretary for referring students to the Books Unbanned program. She was placed on administrative leave, and, in September, resigned from her position. While this story in many ways only further highlights the necessity of Books Unbanned, it is also a reminder that outreach projects can have unintended consequences that libraries must take into account when proposing and defending their programs.

            Despite these risks, Books Unbanned has been overall popular: in a September 2022 interview with CNN, the BPL’s chief librarian Nick Higgins spoke of the program’s success, saying that over 5,000 eCards have been issued to young people across the country. Teenagers from all 50 states and Washington, D.C. have received cards, going above and beyond the initiative’s goal of providing books to students nationwide. This success underscores an outreach thesis Books Unbanned has in common with smaller projects: that expanding access to new demographics and innovating new methods of responding to changes in the profession is worth the time and funding it takes to do so. Books Unbanned is a complex project that relies heavily on technology, external promotion, risk mitigation, and the engagement of patrons librarians will never meet face-to-face. Its payoff is a convincing argument to internal and external BPL stakeholders for the continued funding of such projects, since the risk the library took on investing a great deal of resources into serving a new—and very distant—population was rewarded not only by increased usage, but also frequent and positive national coverage. The precedent set by Books Unbanned means that the staff at BPL has a persuasive case to point to when fundraising for future projects: in this, as with so much library outreach, success may beget further success.

Further Reading:

“Brooklyn Public Library has issued 5,100 free library cards to make banned books available for teens” by Nicole Chavez for CNN

“How the Brooklyn Library Helped Fight Book Bans in Oklahoma” by James Barron for The New York Times

“Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2021” by the American Library Association

“The Library Bill of Rights” by the American Library Association