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Buena Vista Public Library. Courtesy image

“There’s More to the Story” as Requests to Ban Books Up 1,100 Percent Nationally since 2020

This is officially National Library Week. If you’re like millions of American families, public libraries are at the center of your family activities. If you’re someone who considers the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to be a sacred trust between our government and the people, the news this week from the American Library Association is grim.

To mark “Banned Book Week”, the American Library Association (ALA) released the list of the top 10 most challenged books in the U.S. on Monday, April 24, along with its full State of America’s Libraries Report (this outtake by CBS News):


Their report on the rise in censorship efforts is stark; the efforts to pull titles from library shelves and block what the rest of us can read are accelerating.

In 2020, there were only 200 books on that banned request list. In 2022, there were attempts to restrict access to 1,651 book titles. By April 2023, there have been requests across the fifty states to ban a record number of 2,571 book titles. That is a spike of 1,100 percent in just two years.

Did we somehow become more prolific writers? Were book publishers so desperate for titles they accepted anything? That is doubtful.

The summer reading program for kids, teens and adults at the Buena Vista Public Library is a popular program. Image courtesy of Instagram.

In fact, a new report issued by Penn America documents the rapid rise of school book-banning requests: during the first half of the 2022-23 school year PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans lists 1,477 instances of individual books banned, affecting 874 unique titles. This represents an increase from the prior six months, from January to June 2022, in which 1,149 instances of book banning were recorded.

Many of the books targeted by bans touch on race or L.G.B.T.Q. issues. Books that focus on L.G.B.T.Q. or Black characters have been targeted most often, the association said, with Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer” the most frequently challenged book in the country.

Those who seek to determine what is appropriate reading material for all (and darn let’s ignore the First Amendment and its legal protections for freedom of speech) are causing bitter rifts on school and library boards. The organized effort is spreading across the country through social media and political campaigns.

Over the course of the past two years, the book-banning effort now crosses 37 states. In some places such as in the entire state of Missouri, public libraries have been threatened by politicians and community members with a loss of funding for their refusal to remove Constitutionally-protected book titles.

“While a vocal minority stokes the flames of controversy around books, the vast majority of people across the nation are using life-changing services that public and school libraries offer,” wrote ALA President Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada in the annual report.” Our nation cannot afford to lose the library workers who lift up their communities and safeguard our First Amendment freedom to read.”

The book-banning momentum has become much more organized, more divisive, and more ideological. Organized groups use social media and political campaigns, focused morality and “wokeness” fear-tactics (a new conservative term for anything deemed culturally threatening). While in the past a single book might have been the topic of objections, now libraries are receiving long lists of books with demands to remove titles, especially books with themes related to the LGBTQ+ community and to race.

The effort to control the information the rest of us read and consume doesn’t stop with books. Members of the Proud Boys, an extremist right-wing group (paragons of virtue, several of whose members are currently on trial for their role in the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol), showed up to protest at a school board meeting in Illinois, where book access was on the agenda. They have appeared at drag queen story hours in the south and in California.

But other new organizations with innocent-sounding names are exerting conflict. The Mom’s for Liberty group (which is neither made up of all moms nor does it stand for Constitutionally defined liberty) announced this week that it has 115,000 members in 275 chapters in 45 states. Their power move; “We endorsed candidates in 500-plus public school board races.” What they don’t add — many of those candidates didn’t even have children in public schools — but that doesn’t stop them from their conservative goal of telling schools and other parents what should be taught to their children.

The American Library Association (ALA) is the oldest and largest library association in the world, with 49,727 members as of 2021. A nonprofit organization based in the United States, it promotes libraries and library education internationally. Its theme for National Library Week 2023, “There’s More to the Story”, focuses on the essential services and programming that libraries offer through and beyond books.

As this recent AVV news story about the importance of public libraries to America’s psyche demonstrates — there is indeed “more to the story.”

Editor’s Note: “Let Freedom Read” is the theme this week at the Brooklyn Regional Library System, New York