How Teenagers Can Borrow Banned Books for Free From Brooklyn Public Library

In response to nationwide book bans, one New York public library is lending ebooks to all teens in the US.

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Books Unbanned art from the Brooklyn Public Library

The Brooklyn Public Library has issued about 6,000 free library cards through its Books Unbanned project.

Brooklyn Public Library

Book challenges that remove titles from school and public libraries continue to attract attention across the US. From January to August 2022, the American Library Association recorded 681 attempts to remove 1,651 unique books -- the most since the organization started tracking these challenges, according to Library Journal.

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 ALA. A survey conducted in March 2022 found that the vast majority of voters oppose efforts to remove books from school 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.

In January 2023, Library Journal named five librarians from the Brooklyn Public Library -- Amy Mikel, Jackson Gomes, Karen Keys, Nick Higgins and Leigh Hurwitz -- as its Librarians of the Year. According to the magazine, the library has issued almost 6,000 library cards to teens in every US state, Washington DC and Puerto Rico.

Read on to learn how the program works and how teenagers can apply for their own library cards.

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. 

The book All Boys Aren't Blue

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.

In January 2022, 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 teens, 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% "explicitly address LGBTQ+ themes or have protagonists or prominent secondary characters who are LGBTQ+" and 40% "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's no online application, however. Teens need to email the library at booksunbanned@bklynlibrary.org 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 can also access the full online catalog of the Brooklyn Public Library -- 350,000 ebooks, 200,000 audiobooks and several online databases.

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