Brooklyn Public Library vs. the Book Banners

Issue 274

Newly-minted BPL e-cards are now available to young readers in all 50 states as book restrictions proliferate.

Eleanor J. Bader Sep 29, 2022

When the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) launched its Books Unbanned initiative in April, the library system did something unprecedented: It allowed 13-to-21-year-old readers living anywhere in the country to apply for free library e-cards. This, the BPL announced, is a direct rebuke to a dramatic spike in book bans and book removals from public and school libraries in towns and cities throughout the 50 states. It was also a clear repudiation of the well-coordinated campaign led by rightwing groups including the Heritage Foundation, Moms for Liberty, No Left Turn in Education and the Manhattan Institute to restrict what young people can find on the shelves of their community libraries.   

The newly-minted e-cards, library staff explained, give young readers access to the BPL’s entire digital catalog, approximately 350,000 e-books, 200,000 audio books and more than 100 databases.

Public response to the initiative, BPL spokesperson Fritzi Bodenheimer told The Indypendent, has been largely positive. In fact, since its start, the program has issued e-cards to more than 5,000 people from every nook and cranny of the United States. In addition, Bodenheimer adds, the number of teen library volunteers has more than doubled since the effort began. 

“Youth are often the people most impacted by book bans and censorship,” she explains. “They are typically the ones caught in the middle and denied access to materials they might want to read. We don’t keep records of what they’re downloading, but they should be able to read what they want.”

BRICKS AND CLICKS: The Brooklyn Central Library is located at 10 Grand Army Plaza. It has dozens of local branch libraries and a nationwide membership as well. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

High school English teacher Summer Boismier agrees, which is why she put both an anti-censorship statement and the BPL’s QR code on the books in her Norman, Oklahoma, classroom. But after parent Laney Dickson complained about Boismier’s messaging seen on a book her daughter brought home from school in early September, a brouhaha ensued, and in short order, Secretary of Education Ryan Walters — currently the Republican candidate for State Education Superintendent — issued a public call for Boismier’s teaching license to be revoked. Boismier has since resigned from her position. 

According to a statement issued by Walters, who did not respond to The Indypendent’s request for an interview, “There is no place for a teacher with a liberal political agenda in the classroom. Ms. Boismier’s providing access to banned and pornographic material to students is unacceptable and we must ensure that she does not go to another district and do the same thing.” 

Boismier, of course, is not the only educator to find herself in the rightwing’s crosshairs. Groups including the American Library Association have noted that librarians have been doxxed, harassed online and denounced as “pedophiles” and “groomers” for refusing to remove LGBTQIA+-affirming books from circulation. Some librarians, the New York Times reports, have resigned as a result. 

Not surprisingly, this has encouraged the right, and rather than petering out, censorship campaigns have continued to ramp up. The upshot is that numerous restrictions now limit what kids, and in some cases adults, can read and study in many parts of the country.

What’s more, this year is on track to have the highest number of book bans ever recorded by the ALA. Indeed, a report issued in mid-September cited 681 attempts to restrict 1,651 titles in the first eight months of 2022, up from 729 attempts to restrict 1597 titles in the 12 months of 2021. Books that address gender identity, race and sexuality are the most frequent targets, with Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer, Jonathan Evison’s Lawn Boy, George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue, Ashley Hope Perez’s Out of Darkness and Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give topping the list.   

Books that address gender identity, race and sexuality are the most frequent targets of right-wingers who want to control what young people read.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, told The Indy that while the BPL is the only library system to provide unlimited e-cards to young readers, other libraries are also finding ways to resist book bans and censorship. Some, she says, have instituted an “honor system” to allow library users to anonymously take and remove materials without having to formally check them out. In addition, she says that a host of locales have brought independent book sellers, civil libertarians and progressives together to sponsor book giveaways of texts such as Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust memoir, Maus, after it was opposed by conservatives in Tennessee last spring.   

“The fact that we do not have a federated library system in the U.S. means that everything is local,” Caldwell-Stone says, which leads to great disparities in the reading materials that people can obtain. “In places where people are very low-income or have limited internet access, they typically have limited access to information. Institutions like libraries are meant to serve everyone’s intellectual needs. Access should not depend on one group’s moral agenda or political priorities. Young people need information on gender identity, sexuality and sexual identity. This information can be lifesaving and help them become whole.” The same is true, she adds, for books that deal with race, racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Asian attitudes and Islamophobia.

Librarians, overall, see the preservation of intellectual freedom as a galvanizing issue, Caldwell-Stone continues, and a recently formed coalition between the ALA and 25 organizations including the American Federation of Teachers, The American Indian Library Association, the Chinese American Librarian’s Association, the Human Rights Campaign, the National Council of Teachers of English, the National Coalition Against Censorship and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund is now working to push back against rightwing efforts to suppress knowledge and curtail intellectual exploration.

The ALA is unequivocal in its denunciaton of book bans and attempts to limit the ideas that people are exposed to: “A few organizations have advanced the proposition that the voices of the marginalized have no place on library shelves,”  the group’s statement on censorship concludes. “To this end, they have launched campaigns demanding the censorship of books and resources that mirror the lives of those who are gay, queer or transgender, or that tell the stories of persons who are Black, Indigenous or persons of color. Falsely claiming that these works are subversive, immoral or worse, these groups induce elected and non-elected officials to abandon institutional principles, ignore the rule of law, and disregard individual rights to promote government censorship of library collections. The ALA strongly condemns these acts.”

Likewise, the Brooklyn Public Library. Although the e-cards were initially intended to give users access to materials for a one-year period, BPL recently announced that the cards will not expire but will instead continue to give youthful cardholders unlimited use of library resources.

The Indypendent is a New York City-based newspaper and website. Our independent, grassroots journalism is made possible by readers like you. Please consider making a recurring or one-time donation today or subscribe to our monthly print edition and get every copy sent straight to your home. 

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