Book bans are not going away anytime soon. One of the ways that several major U.S. libraries have elected to push back is to make many, if not all, of the books being targeted across the country available to as many people as possible. This is, of course, not a solution to the underlying problem, and every library on this list would wholeheartedly agree. These are bandaids.
But like bandaids, they have value. This is especially true for the people most hurt and impacted by book bans: those under the age of 18 who, through no fault of their own, have lost access to a wide swath of books written with them in mind and for them to connect.
This list is as comprehensive a roundup as possible of all the U.S. public libraries offering access to banned books. It includes the name of the library, the people who are being granted access to the collections, materials within the collections, as well as any other pertinent or relevant information.
The list will be updated as more libraries engage in this kind of access activism. Note that many of these programs operate under the banner of “Books Unbanned.” Though they will be quite similar because laws regarding libraries differ state by state and because every library collection differs from another, the breadth of access and catalogs differs in each variation of the program. Folks who qualify may apply for cards at each of the Books Unbound programs—you’re not limited to just one.
Brooklyn Public Library: Books Unbanned
The Brooklyn Public Library’s Books Unbanned program was the first of its kind to offer access to collections to teenagers and young adults nationwide. It has expanded to several more libraries (outlined below).
The details of the program:
- Available to anyone in the U.S. between the ages of 13 and 21.
- Access includes all ebook collections and learning databases.
- Teenagers in New York State have the ability to get a regular Brooklyn Public Library ecard.
- Cardholders have access to the entire catalog of ebooks and digital audiobooks, but Brooklyn Public Library has also made 23 of the most challenged and banned books available at any time, including All Boys Are’t Blue, Gender Queer, The Bluest Eye, and more. That means no waiting!
- Invites any teenagers 13-19 who’d like to get involved in the work of anti-censorship to join the Intellectual Freedom Teen Council. The group meets once a month virtually and is an opportunity to learn, connect, and chat with other teens concerned about book bans across the country.
The program also just launched a limited-run podcast, Borrowed and Banned, featuring stories of book banning and censorship.
Boston Public Library: Books Unbanned
Launched in 2023, the Boston Public Library has gotten involved with Books Unbanned. Here are the program details:
- Anyone between 13 and 26 within the U.S. can get a Boston Public Library Books Unbanned card.
- The card gives access to ebooks and eaudiobooks across the entire Boston Public Library catalog.
- Users can borrow up to 10 titles for 14 days each.
- Residents or property owners in the state of Massachusetts can get a regular Boston Public Library card, expanding access to those across the state to even more materials.
Los Angeles County Public Library: Books Unbanned
The L.A. County Public Library has joined in the Books Unbanned efforts. The details of this program include:
- Anyone between the ages of 13 and 18 across the country can get a digital library card.
- All materials in the L.A. County Public Library’s ebook and digital audiobook collections are available for those cardholders.
- Up to five items at a time can be borrowed.
L.A. County hinted at the development of this program in June 2023 and made its official launch in September.
San Diego Public Library: Books Unbanned
In conjunction with the Library Foundation of San Diego, the San Diego Public Library launched their chapter of Books Unbound in 2023. Here are the program details:
- Anyone between 13 and 26 may apply for a Books Unbanned card.
- The materials available to these cardholders include banned or restricted titles in ebook or digital audiobook form.
- Up to three items at a time may be borrowed, while three more can be put on hold.
- Young people who live in California, own property in San Diego, or serve in the armed forces and are stationed in the city are eligible for a full San Diego Public Library card.
Seattle Public Library: Books Unbanned
Seattle’s chapter of Books Unbanned was the second in the nation to launch in spring 2023. The details for Seattle’s program:
- Anyone between 13 and 26 may acquire a card.
- The entire collection of ebooks and digital audiobooks are available with the card.
- Users can borrow 10 books at a time and put holds on up to 5 at a time.
For all of the Books Unbanned programs, the cards expire in one year’s time, but those cards can be renewed.
New York Public Library: Books For All
The New York Public Library’s program is quite different from the Books Unbanned chapters, though it, too, offers access to banned books to young readers across the country. NYPL partnered with the American Library Association to develop Books for All.
- Throughout the year, the Books For All program offers a Teen Banned Books Club.
- Utilizing the SimplyE app, which is the NYPL’s ereader app, one banned book will be made available to read by anyone interested in accessing it.
- Through November 30, 2023, anyone 13 and older with the app can read Each of Us a Desert by Mark Oshiro.
Books For All not only offers this book club, but they also have created programming around the books to get readers especially excited. Oshiro will have an online event with NYPL for anyone to attend on Tuesday, November 28, at 4:30 p.m. Eastern.
Although the NYPL program is not as robust as others, the sharing of a single title is a smart way to open not just access but to cultivate community around banned books and the freedom to read.
Digital Public Library of America: Banned Books Club
The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) is a Boston-based nonprofit organization that works to amplify and highlight the offerings of public libraries and other cultural repositories across the country. Among their offerings are digital collections that showcase materials from across these institutions, their development of digital tools to help libraries share digital resources, and help educate library leaders about new and exciting technology they can implement into their libraries.
The Banned Books Club launched in summer 2023 with the goal of providing access to banned books. This program differs from others in that it is based on geographic location—books that are targeted in your own community are the ones you’ll be granted borrowing access to. Details of the program are as follows:
- Using GPS, the DPLA creates virtual libraries of banned books.
- Access is through the Palace Project App.
- The app is connected via GPS, and if you’re affected by the book ban, you’ll see the book available to borrow.
- A list of digital libraries and available titles is located here (though if you do not have location tracking set on your phone or laptop, this will not work).
The DPLA is a well-funded, well-publicized anti-book ban initiative, but it is also limited by geography, knowledge of book bans and challenges, and their status by DPLA (does it include books pulled from shelves while being “reviewed” or only books that have been removed post-review?), and it requires use of an app that is not well-tested or widely established in libraries. There is also something worth questioning about the use of geolocation, particularly for teens being directly impacted by book bans—what happens if data from the Palace App is breached?
That doesn’t mean there isn’t benefit to this program, of course, but rather, this one has yet to be as robust as those like Books Unbanned.
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