The Impact of Access: Libraries, Bookstores, Literacy Programs Continue to Provide Banned Titles to Teens

Getting books to kids who are denied them elsewhere is a critical piece in the ongoing fight for intellectual freedom. 

Providing access to banned books will not solve the crisis of ongoing censorship attempts, but the libraries, bookstores, and programs offering these titles to kids who are denied them elsewhere are a critical piece in the ongoing fight for intellectual freedom. Hearing from the teens themselves leaves no doubt of the value.

“Good books are pretty hard to come by in my area. My school library has been entirely cleared out and locked in a closet,” wrote a 16-year-old patron from Ohio who signed up for Books Unbanned through the Seattle Public Library (SPL).

A 17-year-old from Texas explained, "Being a queer kid in Texas, finding information on my community's history and books about people is hard. Most of my knowledge comes from online. It will be nice to read a book on the subject for once!"

Books Unbanned is the program started by the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) in 2022. It provides free e-cards to anyone aged 13 to 21 from anywhere in the U.S. The program has provided unlimited access to the library’s more than 350,000 ebooks, 200,000 audiobooks, and 100 databases. Since April 2022, BPL has issued almost 6,500 ecards to teens and young adults in all 50 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico, according to Leigh Hurwitz, BPL’s Coordinator of School Outreach Services, who along with four other colleagues responsible for Books Unbanned were named Library Journal’s 2023 Librarians of the Year.

In April 2023, SPL announced it was joining Books Unbanned, adding its extensive collection to resources available to students across the United States.

SPL’s chief librarian Tom Fay says that in his 40 years in the profession, he’s never seen such coordinated levels of book banning. That inspired him to want to not just start their own program but to join with BPL.

“One of the things you see with book bans is similar efforts across the country; and we said, ‘Let’s actually do this where we aren’t just creating marketing on our own. Let’s get it under one banner,’” Fay says. “Strength in numbers, but also make this coast-to-coast in how we’re going to fight back.”

Seattle’s program took off quickly. By May, 2,060 new accounts had been approved with signups from all 50 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico.

Hearing directly from young readers signing up shows just how important the program is to young readers. For Fay, the stories from teens are a testament to the role school and public libraries play in protecting intellectual freedom, standing “as a place to step out of echo chambers and actually see different viewpoints.”

“These are important things to wrestle with as a people and a country,” Fay says, but it’s also a reminder that everyone needs to make their voice heard. “We have to start activating those voices through these larger support networks. The message has to be it can’t just be libraries defending First Amendment rights.”

In addition to lending books, another important part of Books Unbanned is the Intellectual Freedom Teen Council, a group of teen volunteers who have been instrumental in the program from the start.

Hurwitz says the Brooklyn teens have been able to connect with teens from around the country “to figure out how to advocate for themselves and what to do on the ground.”

More importantly, they’ve also provided “an outlet to talk about what’s going on,” Hurwitz says.

“Access is so important for teens around the country who feel alone, knowing that there’s someone who cares about them.”

Every effort counts

In Texas—which holds the dubious distinction of having the most instances of books banned in the country—advocates are working hard to make their voices heard and provide needed access.

Leticia Urieta is the program director for the Austin Bat Cave, a writing program that works with students ages 6 to 18 in schools and communities with limited access to creative arts programming. In 2019, the program purchased a used metro bus and worked with local artists and craftspeople to turn it into a mobile classroom.

Filled with foam tentacles and coral hanging from the ceilings, the Bat Mobile (pictured), as it’s called, spent its first year visiting students around the city before evolving into a bookmobile in response to COVID. Now, it’s taken on even greater significance with the rise of book bans.

“Because we’re a nonprofit that operates independently, we don’t have the same level of oversight and pressure as schools and school librarians when it comes to book banning or parent complaints,” Urieta says. “So that affords us a freedom to curate books we feel our students are going to love.”

The Bat Mobile is often a special surprise for students, who have the chance to take home a few high-quality books that have been donated through community partners as well as newer organizational partners including Texas literary organization BookSpring and the Texas Book Festival.

Urieta doesn’t want to suggest that the Bat Mobile is the answer to book bans in the state. Most days spent stacking books don’t feel like “revolutionary work,” she says. “But we all have this responsibility to push back against increasingly fascist legislation and control.”

Offering students a space where they can “choose and reflect and be more critical about their rights and what they should be able to do with their access to books” is an important contribution. It’s also a key message to the rest of the country.

“For folks not in Texas, there’s a feeling that nothing is being done, or it’s these people just keep voting against their interests,” Urieta says. “There are many people trying to do the work, day in and day out.”

Another group doing that work is the Austin Public Library (APL). Last summer, APL partnered with BookPeople, the state’s largest independent bookstore, to create Banned Camp, an initiative that brought kids and adults together in conversation about book banning through story times at local parks and libraries, book discussions, panels, and author visits.

Initially planned only for the summer of 2022, the program was so successful that APL extended it through September, and now plans to keep it as an ongoing series. One of the strongest reactions to the program has come from Austin’s teens.

Last summer, a group from the Vandegrift High School Banned Book Club hosted a panel, sharing tips and trading stories about speaking out at their school board meetings against book bans. Kathleen Houlihan, an APL teen services librarian, says it’s been inspiring to see so many young people want to participate.

“Some of them hadn't heard of book banning before and their eyes were really opened, and they made commitments to get more involved, and others were already involved and looking for a supportive community to help with their work,” Houlihan says. “It was awesome.”

APL is currently in talks with BPL to learn more about their Teen Intellectual Freedom Council with a goal of expanding it through a new chapter in Austin.

“We’re so grateful for the larger community of folks who are working on pushing back against book bans in ways that make it possible for those of us in states like Texas with extremely high numbers of book bans to learn from and find support and community in fighting for intellectual freedom—for everyone,” Houlihan says.

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