How Teens Can Get Free Brooklyn Library Cards to Read Banned Books

Efforts to remove books from schools and public libraries across the US picked up pace during the 2021-22 school year. A new report from PEN America shows that there were more than 2,500 book bans last year from 140 school districts representing a total of almost 4 million students.

The unprecedented increase in attempts to remove books from school libraries has often been led by individuals and groups who object to books dealing with racism, gender identity or sexual orientation. The most common objections in book challenges are for sexual content, profanity and content “unsuited to any age group,” per the American Library Association. A survey conducted earlier this year on behalf of the ALA found that the vast majority of voters oppose efforts to remove books from schools and public libraries.

One local library (a very big one) is taking steps to make sure that all teenagers across the US have access to books that may have been removed from their school or local libraries. The Brooklyn Public Library has launched Books Unbanned, a website that allows anyone 13 to 21 years old to apply for a free library card that will let them download ebooks from its collection.

This week also marks the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week — an opportune time to learn about bans and to grab a free library card to find books that may no longer be available in your school.

How are books removed from school libraries?

Many public school districts are run by local boards of elected officials who have power over the policies of their school libraries. These school boards often allow for book “challenges” — arguments from an individual or group explaining why a book should not be made available to students.

All Boys Aren’t Blue is one of ALA’s top 10 most challenged books.

Zach McAuliffe/CNET

School districts usually have committees of librarians or other school officials who will review book challenges. If the committee or ruling group decides to remove the book from school libraries, the book is considered “banned” by the school district.

Early this year, The New York Times reported that “parents, activists, school board officials and lawmakers around the country are challenging books at a pace not seen in decades.” The PEN America study found that a total of 1,648 individual book titles were removed from school libraries in 32 states during the last school year.

However, PEN America also notes that only 4% of book bans in 2021 resulted from official challenges. The vast majority were “initiated by school administrators or board members … sometimes in response to comments from community members at board meetings.”

Which books are being removed?

The ALA’s Banned Books website includes lists of frequently challenged books as well as the 10 most challenged books of 2021 and past years.

Most of the books being banned are written for teenagers, and the biggest reasons are sexual content, profanity, violence, racism and LGBTQ+ content, per the ALA.

Book challenges have been criticized for focusing on Black or LGBTQ+ authors. The ALA notes that, in 2021, “most targeted books were by or about Black or LGBTQ+ persons.”

Of the 1,648 books banned last school year, 41 percent “explicitly address LGBTQ+ themes or have protagonists or prominent secondary characters who are LGBTQ+” and 40 percent “contain protagonists or prominent secondary characters of color,” according to PEN America’s latest report.

How can teens get a free Brooklyn Public Library card to read banned books?

Anyone 13 to 21 can now get a free card from the Brooklyn Public Library as part of its Books Unbanned project. The free account can be used to check out ebooks or audiobooks online.

There is no online application, however. Teens need to email the library at [email protected] to request their free card.

Picture of a physical Brooklyn Public Library card

Teens won’t get a physical card, but they can check out anything from the online collection.

Brooklyn Public Library

The library’s Books Unbanned List currently has 23 books that are always instantly available for everyone as ebooks, with no holds or wait times. The titles include Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson, and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.

Teens with the free library cards will also be able to access the full online catalog of the Brooklyn Public Library — 350,000 ebooks, 200,000 audiobooks and several online databases.

According to CNN, the Brooklyn Public Library has issued more than 5,100 free cards to teens across the country since the program launched in spring 2022. Those teens have accounted for about 18,000 checkouts per month so far.

Although the library website still says that free cards for teens everywhere will be available “for a limited time,” the CNN report notes that, due to the success of the program, the library plans to extend it indefinitely.

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