“I know the internet exists and obviously it’s very useful for kids to access things they don’t have access to in school, but often the kids who go to these conservative schools also live in very conservative homes,” Lau says.
Books are being banned from US school libraries in record numbers, mostly by lawmakers and conservative activists. This week, libraries and anti-censorship groups are among those hosting Banned Books Week to draw attention to the growing problem. More than 1,651 individual titles were banned from schools between January and August alone according to PEN Americaincluding “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 these same titles is only increasing online, as educators and librarians attempt 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 such as Libby. Meanwhile, some lawmakers are cracking down on the online technology used by libraries, hoping to block certain content.
A book about sexuality or racism might not be allowed in your school, local library, or even your own home. But online, it can be found as an e-book in another library, less legally on torrent sites or for purchase at any online bookstore. The concepts in this book, deemed too dangerous for young minds by some lawmakers or parents, are freely available on educational websites and Wikipedia, summarized on social media, and documented in mainstream articles.
Pulling a physical book out of a school library seems minor, when there are online alternatives. 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’ll get it,” says Linda E. Johnson, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Public Library. “Either the elected officials or the parents or the school administrators are naive, or there is something else at stake.”
The Brooklyn Public Library is at the center of the national battle between limiting and expanding access to books for teens. In April, she launched her Books not prohibited program, offering free online access to its entire collection for 13-21 year olds who email. Johnson says he has already issued more than 5,100 cards and verified 20,000 documents under the program. The program is independently funded, which is why it can donate books to people out of state.
The simple act of directing students to the program site has already created a problem for a teacher. In August, a high school English teacher in Norman, Okla. was disciplined and then quit after posting a QR code in her class related to the Brooklyn program. The state has one of the strongest laws in the nation against teaching students about race and gender.
Like many attempted book bans, the incident created a bit of Streisand effect, amplifying the very thing he was trying to silence. The Brooklyn program saw a surge of apps, and the QR code started popping up online and even on lawn signs in Norman. Johnson says the library can see what’s happening in different states just by interest in their site – there are spikes in demand in districts after schools try to ban titles.
Not all teens have free access to these resources or even know they exist. And bans in schools and libraries affect students beyond finding individual books.
“In theory, the Internet and the access it provides gives the impression that people can still access books. I think what’s missing is that there’s something very tangible and irreplaceable about a library that has books in it,” said Jonathan Friedman, who runs the free expression and education program. from PEN America. “The whole idea of a school library is to encourage literacy, exploration and access to information.”
For five decades, the book “Our bodies, ourselves” fought against bans in schools and libraries. The educational book on women’s sexuality and health was both branded obscene and used by women to get the kind of information they couldn’t find elsewhere on everything from puberty to rape.
It ceased publication in 2018 but was relaunched in September as fully online resource focusing on health, sexuality and reproductive justice. Its banning story was one of the reasons organizers were eager to create a site that was free and open to anyone on the internet, says Amy Agigian, its executive director and professor of sociology at Boston’s Suffolk University.
“I believe that having information online is absolutely useful for people looking for things that are prohibited,” Agigian said. “But there’s so much a library can offer that the internet can’t make up for.”
Banned Books Week is an annual event to raise awareness about banned or contested books. Local libraries usually publish books that have been banned in the past and organize events.
“It was a bit quaint for a while, every library had a display,” said Johnson, the director of the Brooklyn Public Library.
This year, libraries and organizations like PEN America, The American Library Association and The National Coalition Against Censorship hope to inspire more activism and greater resistance to organized attempts to block teens’ access to books – even teens themselves.
“There is an effort to really change the way access to information is really available to the country as a whole“, said PEN America’s Friedman. “And in many places, students are a little freer right now to express themselves more than teachers and librarians.”
For now, teens are looking for books and resources online and increasingly ending up at the public library — but this time it’s online and in Brooklyn, New York.
Lau, the high school student, volunteers at the Brooklyn Public Library and hopes it can help kids who have struggled like him.
“If I had that [program] back then, I would have felt a lot less alone,” Lau said.