Attempts to Ban Books Accelerated in 2023

Attempts to Ban Books Accelerated in 2023

After several years of rising book bans, censorship efforts continued to surge last year, reaching the highest levels ever recorded by the American Library Association.

Last year, 4,240 individual titles were targeted for removal from libraries, up from 2,571 titles in 2022, according to a report released Thursday by the association.

Those figures likely fail to capture the full scale of book removals, as many go unreported. The American Library Association, which has tracked book bans for more than 20 years, compiles data from book challenges that library professionals reported to the group and information gathered from news reports.

“I wake up every morning hoping this is over,” said Emily Drabinski, the president of the organization. “What I find striking is that this is still happening, and it’s happening with more intensity.”

The stark rise in book challenges comes as libraries around the United States have emerged as a battleground in a culture war over what constitutes appropriate reading material. While book bans aren’t new, censorship efforts have become increasingly organized and politicized, with the rise of conservative groups like Moms for Liberty and Utah Parents United, which encourage their members to file complaints about books they deem inappropriate and have lobbied for legislation that regulates the content of library collections.

Some librarians and free speech advocacy groups are also alarmed by the rise in book removals and challenges at public libraries. Book challenges at public libraries rose by 92 percent in 2023 compared to the previous year, totaling 1,761 individual titles. In school libraries, challenges rose by 11 percent, according to the report.

“What we’re seeing is absolute evidence that there is actually an organized effort to remove particular books from both school libraries and public libraries,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the library association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. “They are targeting the same titles with the same tactics, these mass challenges.”

Disputes over what books belong in library collections have divided communities and school boards, and have led to attacks on librarians, who have increasingly come under scrutiny for the books in their collections. Some librarians have faced accusations that they provide pornography and have been harassed online by people calling for their firing or even arrest. Some libraries that have refused to remove books have been threatened with a loss in funding.

Librarians and school districts are now seeing more complaints that demand the removal of multiple titles, sometimes dozens or even hundreds of books, according to the library association’s report.

The spike in book removals also stems in part from new legislation that aims to regulate the content of libraries. Last year, more than a dozen states passed laws that targeted libraries, sometimes by imposing restrictions on the types of materials they can stock or by exposing librarians to criminal penalties if they fail to comply, according to an analysis by EveryLibrary, a political action committee for libraries.

Many of the titles that drew challenges feature L.G.B.T.Q. characters, or deal with race and racism, the American Library Association said. Such books accounted for nearly 50 percent of challenges, according to the report. The same titles often get targeted in libraries around the country; in recent years, some of the most challenged books have included classics like Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” popular young adult titles like John Green’s “Looking for Alaska,” and works with L.G.B.T.Q. themes like Juno Dawson’s “This Book Is Gay” and Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer.”

In response to growing book bans, some free speech organizations, publishers, authors, booksellers and library groups have launched a counter movement. Some have joined lawsuits that challenge legislation that has led to the rise in book removals. Around 20 states have introduced legislation that aims to protect the “right to read,” sometimes by ensuring that libraries are able to curate collections without externally imposed limitations, according to Caldwell-Stone.

“My sincere hope is that we aren’t talking about this in a year, that we’ll see a growing understanding that libraries need to serve everyone,” Caldwell-Stone said. “There’s always going to be books on the shelves that we might not agree with, but they’re there for another reader.”

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