What can you do to find banned books in libraries

Aren Lau knows what it’s like to sneak around to read controversial books.

The 17-year-old moved from Georgia in his freshman year of high school to live with his father in New York City. He says at least two of the three books he’s currently reading would have been a problem at home.

“I know that the Internet exists and it is obviously very useful for children to access things that they cannot access at school, but many times the children who attend these conservative schools are also in very conservative families,” says Lau.

Books are banned in US school libraries in record numbers, led in large part 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 problem. More than 1,651 individual 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 book by Lupita Nyong’o.

Demand for many of those same titles is only growing online, as educators and librarians seek to fill the void with Internet-based resources. Some libraries have removed physical copies of controversial books, but still offer them as digital checkouts via apps like Libby. Meanwhile, some lawmakers are researching the online technology used by libraries, hoping to block certain content.

A book on sexuality or racism may not be allowed in your school, your local library, and even your home. But online, it can be found as an e-book in another bookstore, less legally on torrent sites or for purchase at any online bookstore. The concepts in that 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 out a physical book from a school library seems like it should be minor when online alternatives exist. Reality is more complicated. Finding books requires work and unfiltered Internet access.

“The thing is, if you’re an enterprising teen 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 something else is at stake.”

The Brooklyn Public Library is at the center of the nationwide battle between restricting and expanding access to books for teens. In April, it launched its Books Unbanned program, which offers free online access to the entire collection for 13- to 21-year-olds who send an email. Johnson says yes already issued more than 5,100 papers and checked 20,000 materials as part of the program. The program is independently funded, which is why it can offer books to people out of state.

Simply referring students to the program site has already created a problem for a teacher. In August a Norman, Okla. The high school English teacher was punished and then left after posting a QR code in her class that connected to the Brooklyn program. The state has one of the strictest laws in the nation against teaching students of race and gender.

Like many attempts to ban books, the incident created a bit of a Streisand effect, amplifying just what it was trying to silence. The Brooklyn program had a wave of applications and the QR code started appearing online and even on street signs in Norman. Johnson says the library they can see what is happening in the different states just from interest in their site: there are spikes in demand in the districts after schools have tried to ban titles.

Not all teenagers have free access to these resources or even know they exist. And bans in schools and libraries affect students, as well as being able to find individual books.

“In theory, the Internet and the access it provides gives the impression that people can still access books. I think what is missing is that there is something quite tangible and irreplaceable in a library that contains books,” said Jonathan. Friedman, who directs PEN America’s free expression and education program. “The idea of ​​a school library is to encourage literacy, exploration and access to information.”

For five decades, the book “Our Bodies, Ourselves” has fought against bans in schools and libraries. The educational book on women’s sexuality and health was simultaneously labeled obscene and used by women to obtain the kind of information they weren’t able to find elsewhere on anything 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 prohibition was one of the reasons organizers were eager to create a site that is 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 having information online is absolutely useful for people looking for things that have been banned, “said Agigian.” But there is so much a library can offer that the Internet cannot compensate. “

Banned Books Week is an annual event to raise awareness of banned or contested books. Local libraries usually publish books that have been banned in the past and host events.

“For a while it was kind of quaint, every library had a display,” said Johnson, the head of the Brooklyn Public Library.

This year, libraries and organizations such as PEN America, The American Library Association, and The National Coalition Against Censorship hope to inspire more activism and greater pushback against organized attempts to block teens’ access to books, even from teens themselves.

“There is an effort to really change the way access to information is really available to the country as a whole Friedman said of PEN America. “And in many places students are a little freer right now to speak out more than teachers and librarians.”

For now, teens search for books and resources online and find themselves more and more in the public library, but this time it’s online and located in Brooklyn, New York.

Lau, the high school student, volunteers with the Brooklyn Public Library and hopes it can help children who have struggled like him.

“If I had had this [program] then I would have felt a lot less alone, ”Lau said.