Aren Lau knows what it’s like to have to sneak around to read controversial books.
“I know the internet exists and it’s obviously very useful for kids to access things they can’t access in school, but a lot of times kids who are in these conservative schools are also in very conservative homes,” Lau says.
Books are being banned in U.S. school libraries in record numbers, led largely by conservative lawmakers and activists. This week, libraries and anti-censorship groups are among those hosting Banned Books Week to call attention to the growing issue. More than 1,651 titles were banned from schools between January and August alone, according to PEN America, including “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, “Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag” by Rob Sanders and “Sulwe,” a children’s book by Lupita Nyong’o.
Demand for many of those same titles is only growing online, as educators and librarians try to fill the void with internet-based resources. Some libraries have removed physical copies of controversial books but still offer them as digital checkouts through apps like Libby. Meanwhile, some lawmakers are going after the online technology used by libraries, hoping to block certain content.
A book about sexuality or racism might not be allowed in your school, your local library or even your own home. But online, it can be found as an e-book in another library, less legally on torrenting sites or for purchase from any online bookstore. The concepts in that book, deemed too dangerous to young minds by some legislators or parents, are freely available on educational websites and Wikipedia, recapped on social media and documented in mainstream articles.
Pulling a physical book out of a school library seems like it should be a minor roadblock when online alternatives exist. The reality is more complicated. Finding books takes work and unfiltered internet access.
“The fact is, if you’re an enterprising teenager and you want a copy of ‘Gender Queer,’ you’re going to get it,” says Linda E. Johnson, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Public Library. “Either the elected officials or parents or school administrators are naive, or there’s something else at play.”
The Brooklyn Public Library is at the center of the national battle between limiting and expanding book access for teenagers. In April, it launched its Books Unbanned program, offering free online access to its entire collection for 13-to-21-year-olds who send an email. Johnson says it has already issued more than 5,100 cards and checked out 20,000 materials as part of the program. The program is funded independently, which is why it can offer books to people out of state.
Simply pointing students to the program’s site has already created an issue for one teacher. In August, a Norman, Okla., high school English teacher was punished and then quit after posting a QR code in her classroom that linked to the Brooklyn program. The state has one of the strictest laws in the nation against teaching students about race and sex.
Like many attempts at book banning, the incident created a bit of a Streisand effect, amplifying the very thing it was trying to silence. Brooklyn’s program had a surge of applications and the QR code started showing up online and even on lawn signs in Norman. Johnson says the library can see what’s happening in different states just by the interest in its site — there are spikes in demand in districts after schools attempt to ban titles.
Not every teenager has open access to these resources or even knows they exist. And bans in schools and libraries affect students beyond being able to find individual books.
“In theory, the internet and the access that it provides gives the appearance that people can still access books. I think what is missed is there is something quite tangible and irreplaceable about a library that holds books,” says Jonathan Friedman, who directs PEN America’s free expression and education program. “The whole idea of a school library is to encourage literacy and exploration and access to information.”
For five decades, the book “Our Bodies, Ourselves” was battling bans in schools and libraries. The educational book about women’s sexuality and health was simultaneously labeled obscene and used by women to get the kind of information they weren’t able to find elsewhere about everything from puberty to rape.
It ceased publication in 2018 but was relaunched in September as a fully online resource focused on health, sexuality and reproductive justice. Its history of being banned was one of the reasons organizers were eager to make a site that was free and open to anyone on the internet, says Amy Agigian, its executive director and a sociology professor at Suffolk University in Boston.
“I believe having information online is absolutely helpful to people who are seeking things that are being banned,” Agigian says. “But there’s so much that a library can offer that the internet can’t make up for.”
Banned Books Week is an annual event to raise awareness about books that are banned or challenged. Local libraries usually put out books that have been banned in the past and host events.
“It was kind of quaint for a while, every library had a display,” says Johnson, the Brooklyn Public Library head.
This year, libraries and organizations including PEN America, the American Library Association and the National Coalition Against Censorship are hoping to inspire more activism and greater pushback against the organized attempts to block teens’ access to books — even from the teens themselves.
“There is an effort to really change the way in which the access to info is really available to the country as a whole,” PEN America’s Friedman says. “And in many places, students are a little bit freer right now to speak out more than teachers and librarians.”
For now, teenagers are seeking books and resources online and increasingly finding themselves right back at the public library — but this time, it’s online and in Brooklyn.
Lau, the high school student, volunteers with the Brooklyn Public Library and hopes it can help kids who have struggled like he did.
“If I had had this [program] back then, I would have felt so much less alone,” Lau says.
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