The New York Public Library wants to put banned books in every American’s hands — and for free.
It’s about availability, says the head of the NYPL, as the strain around allegations of censorship and banned books has heightened in step with a fraught political climate.
With a new program announced Wednesday, anyone — not just New York Public Library cardholders — can browse, borrow and read a selection of challenged (and often banned) books through a complimentary download. The program, dubbed Books for All, runs through the end of May.
The campaign features a short list of titles that have received extra attention — some for decades, and others in recent months — as those championing the parental right to select the books their children and others have access to at school and in public arenas have sounded off against those who remember the much higher stakes that book banning has historically stood for. The difference perhaps right now is that some states are putting these complaints into law.
“The library’s role is to make sure no perspective, no idea, no identity is erased,” Tony Marx, president of the New York Public Library, said in a post Wednesday.
“People have the right to read or not read what they want, but those books need to be available — for the teen who has questions and wants to privately find answers; for the adult who is curious about subjects for which they have no personal experience; for those who want to do their own research and make informed decisions based on fact,” he wrote.
While there are hundreds of thousands of titles in the app available to New Yorkers with a local library card, select books will be available through the Books for All Collection, with or without a library card, and with the added bonus of unlimited downloads. That includes no waits and no fines.
The first round of offerings include:
- “Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson (Square Fish / Macmillan Publishers)
- “King and the Dragonflies” by Kacen Callender (Scholastic)
- “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers / Hachette Book Group)
- “Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger (Little, Brown and Company / Hachette Book Group, with special thanks to Matt Salinger)
Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, said data collection shows the number of “challenged” books in 2021 jumped from recent years.
“A year ago, we might have been receiving one, maybe two reports a day about a book being challenged at a library. And usually those calls would be for guidance on how to handle a challenge or for materials that support the value of the work being challenged,” Caldwell-Stone told The Associated Press. “Now, we’re getting three, four, five reports a day, many in need of support and some in need of a great deal of support.”
“‘Libraries have been beacons of this kind of independent curiosity and learning, and it is unacceptable that they be censored in any way.’”
The NYPL, in fact, has its own age guidance in place with its Books for All program. Per the policy on materials accessible to SimplyE users under the age of 13, only “King and the Dragonflies” is available to those with children’s accounts.
Regulating school curricula and titles on offer for pleasure reading is the latest controversial topic up for national debate, joining the tension around COVID-19 mask and vaccine mandates, a large gap in the understanding of Critical Race Theory and an imperfect reckoning with U.S. institutional racism.
But the rights of parents to decide what their children are exposed to, and whether that control limits access for others, is also at issue. States and local governments do have greater control than some may realize, including in Republican presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis’s Florida, where instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity for younger children has been made illegal and has caused its own swirl of backlash.
“On the right side of the political spectrum, where much of the book banning is happening, bans are taking the form of school boards’ removing books from class curricula,” writes Erica Goldberg, associate professor of law and a First Amendment scholar with the University of Dayton, in a column for The Conversation.
Politicians have also proposed legislation banning books that are what some legislators and parents consider too mature for school-age readers, such as “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” which explores queer themes and topics of consent. Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison’s classic “The Bluest Eye,” which includes themes of rape and incest, is also a frequent target.
“‘Decisions made in public schools are analyzed by the courts differently than censorship in nongovernment contexts.’ ”
Most books targeted for banning in 2021, says the American Library Association, “were by or about Black or LGBTQIA+ persons.”
State legislators have also targeted books that they believe make students feel guilt or anguish based on their race or imply that students of any race or gender are inherently bigoted, Goldberg said in her commentary.
There are also some attempts on the political left to engage in book banning, as well as the removal from school curricula of books that marginalize minorities or use racially insensitive language, like the popular “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
For Goldberg, “it’s hard to definitively say whether the current incidents of book banning in schools are constitutional or not. The reason: Decisions made in public schools are analyzed by the courts differently than censorship in nongovernment contexts.”
Censorship, she says, is a colloquial term, not a legal term.
For NYPL’s Marx, the role of his institution and any library across the U.S. is to make books available to as many readers as possible. From there, the curious and their families can launch the discussions or further the exploration that will provide the necessary context of new, and sometimes challenging, ideas.
“Since the founding of our great nation, libraries have been beacons of this kind of independent curiosity and learning, and it is unacceptable that they be censored in any way,” Marx said.
The Associated Press contributed.