“BOOKS UNBANNED”: BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY TAKES ON CENSORSHIP

According to the American Library Association, the number of individual books challenged in 2021 was 1,597, the highest number since they’ve been tracking it.  In response to this increase in attempted censorship, the Brooklyn Public Library launched an initiative called Books Unbanned, which will make e-versions of books like Stamped, The Bluest Eye, and The Black Flamingo, available to young readers nationwide.  President and CEO of the Brooklyn Public Library Linda E. Johnson joins us to discuss the issue of book banning today, in addition to sharing the library’s role in combating the negative impact of censorship and in making sure information is easily accessible to all.

Aired on August 2, 2022

TRANSCRIPT

> WELCOME TO 'METROFOCUS.'

I'M RAFAEL PI ROMAN.

ACROSS THE COUNTRY, MORE AND MORE STATES AND SCHOOL DISTRICTS ARE BANNING BOOKS FROM SCHOOLS, LIBRARIES AND UNIVERSITIES.

IN FACT, LAST YEAR, MORE THAN 1,500 BOOKS WERE CHALLENGED TO BE REMOVED FROM LIBRARIES.

THAT'S THE HIGHEST NUMBER SINCE THE AMERICAN LIBRARY ASSOCIATION BEGAN KEEPING TRACK OF SUCH CHALLENGES.

IN RESPONSE THE BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY LAUNCHED AN INITIATIVE CALLED BOOKS UNBANNED.

WHAT EXACTLY IS THIS INITIATIVE, AND WHAT DOES IT HOPE TO ACCOMPLISH?

JOINING US NOW TO TALK ABOUT THE QUESTIONS AND THE LIBRARY'S ANNIVERSARY AND YEAR LONG CELEBRATION, THE PRESIDENT WITH CEO OF THE LIBRARY, LINDA JOHNSON.

LINDA, WELCOME TO THE PROGRAM.

THANK YOU FOR HAVING ME.

FIRST OF ALL, COULD YOU TELL US WHAT THE BOOKS UNBANNED INITIATIVE IS AND HOW EXACTLY IT CAME TO BE?

SURE, SO THE INITIATIVE IS AN EFFORT TO PROVIDE ACCESS TO WHAT WE CALL YOUNG ADULTS, 13 TO 21-YEAR-OLDS, WHO LIVE ACROSS THE COUNTRY BUT IN MANY CASES LIVE IN AREAS WHERE BOOKS THAT THEY WOULD LIKE ACCESS TO, BOOKS THEY WOULD LIKE TO READ HAVE BEEN FULLED FROM THE SHELVES OF THEIR LIBRARIES AND SCHOOLS.

AND SO IN AN EFFORT TO GET THEM THE MATERIAL THAT THEY WOULD LIKE -- AND HONESTLY, MOST OF THE BOOKS THAT HAVE BEEN BANNED EITHER RELATE TO CRITICAL RACE THEORY OR LGBTQ ISSUES, SOME HOLOCAUST ISSUES.

BUT THESE ARE BOOKS THAT ARE REALLY IMPORTANT TO THE DEVELOPMENT OF YOUNG ADULTS, AND THEY FEEL -- AND WE KNOW THIS BECAUSE THEY'VE SENT US EMAILS TO THIS EFFECT.

THEY FEEL ISOLATED AND WOULD LIKE TO BE ABLE TO READ ABOUT THESE TOPICS.

SO IF THEY SEND US AN A MAIL AND LET US KNOW THEY WOULD LIKE A DIGITAL CARD AND ACCESS TO OUR COLLECTIONS IN BROOKLYN, WE PROVIDE THAT CARD FOR FREE FOR A YEAR.

WE'LL TALK ABOUT ALL THE THINGS THAT YOU'RE ACTUALLY DOING WITH THIS INITIATIVE BEYOND THAT, BUT THERE ARE THREE LIBRARY SYSTEMS IN NEW YORK CITY.

SOME PEOPLE DON'T KNOW THAT.

THERE'S YOURS, THE BROOKLYN, THE QUEENS BOROUGH LIBRARY SYSTEM AND MANHATTAN, STATEN ISLAND, AND THE BRONX.

YOU'RE ALL VERY INDEPENDENT OF EACH OTHER, BUT YOU HAVE SIMILAR SOMEWHAT INITIATIVES LIKE THIS.

YOURS IS THE MUCH MORE ELABORATE AND AMBITIOUS.

DID YOU COORDINATE THIS?

NO, THIS WAS SOMETHING THAT WE DEVELOPED ON OUR OWN.

WE DO OFTEN PARTNER WITH THE OTHER TWO SYSTEMS.

WE ALWAYS NEGOTIATE FOR OUR BUDGETS TOGETHER, SO WE HAVE A GOOD RELATIONSHIP.

BUT THIS WAS HOMEGROWN.

AND THERE'S ANOTHER COMPONENT TO IT, WHICH THAT WE'VE SET UP A TEEN COUNCIL IN BROOKLYN.

WE CALL IT THE TEEN INTELLECTUAL COUNCIL, AND THEY ARE REACHING OUT TO TEENS WHO HAVE ASKED FOR CARD, AND THEY HAVE BOOK DISCUSSIONS, AND THERE'S A LOT OF TALK ABOUT HOW THEY CAN ADVOCATE FOR THEMSELVES.

SO, YOU'VE TALK ABOUT A COUPLE OF THINGS, BUT BEFORE I GET TO THAT, YOU'VE TALKED ABOUT THE TYPE OF BOOKS THAT ARE BEING BANNED ACROSS THE COUNTRY.

CAN YOU GIVE US SOME EXAMPLES OF SPECIFIC BOOKS THAT ARE BEING HIT?

SURE.

SO, THE ONES, THE TITLES THAT HAVE COME UPMOST FREQUENTLY ACROSS THE COUNTRY, THE 1619 PROJECT BY NICOLE HANNAH JONES WHO'S ACTUALLY A BOARD MEMBER OF THE BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY.

THE BLUEST EYE BY TONI MORRISON.

LONG BOY BY JONATHAN EVANSTON.

ON EARTH WE'RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS.

AND JULIETTE TAKES A BREATH BY GABBY RIVERA.

TELL US AGAIN WHAT THE GENERAL THEMES OF THESE BOOKS ARE.

IT'S EITHER CRITICAL RACE THEORY OR GENDER ISSUES, LGBT ISSUES.

YEAH.

SO YOU TALK ABOUT A COUPLE OF THINGS.

I WANT TO YOU ELABORATE ON ALL THE STEPS YOU'RE TAKING.

YOU HAVE ABOUT FIVE OR SIX STEPS THAT ARE TRULY AMBITIOUS.

I WONDER IF YOU CAN GO OVER THEM.

FIRST IS WE SENT OUT A PRESS RELEASE COUNTRYWIDE AND SAID, IF YOU FALL INTO THIS CATEGORY OF A 13 TO 21 AND WOULD LIKE ACCESS TO OUR COLLECTION, SEND US AN EMAIL.

IT TOOK OFF.

IT STARTED IN APRIL, AND NOW WE'VE ALREADY ISSUED OVER 4,000 CARDS.

SO, THE DEMAND WAS MORE THAN WE ANTICIPATED, AND THAT'S BOTH HEARTENING AND DISSPIRITING AT THE SAME TIME FOR, YOU KNOW, REASONS THAT THE NEED IS SO GREAT, BUT ALSO HEARTENING BECAUSE WE'RE ABLE TO HELP.

IT'S ALSO A CALL TO ACTION.

WE'RE HOPING THAT OTHER LIBRARY SYSTEMS ACROSS THE COUNTRY WILL JOIN US IN THIS EFFORT, DO SOMETHING SIMILAR IF THEY CAN AFFORD TO DO THAT, OR SOMETHING MORE MODEST, BUT WE NEED TO FIGHT THIS REAL CHALLENGE TO OUR DEMOCRACY.

YOU SHOULD BE ABLE TO READ WHAT YOU WANT TO READ REGARDLESS OF WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK, AND SO WE ARE FIERCELY DEDICATED TO THIS INITIATIVE BECAUSE IT'S AT THE CORE OF WHAT WE STAND FOR.

WE DO THE WORK WE DO BECAUSE WE BELIEVE LIBRARIES ARE THE MOST DEMOCRATIC INSTITUTIONS IN OUR SOCIETY.

SO, THE FIRST EFFORT WAS TO GET PEOPLE TO RESPOND.

WE THEN ARE ISSUING CARDS.

AND ALREADY WE'VE SEEN 16,000 ITEMS CHECKED OUT OF OUR COLLECTION BY THESE PEOPLE WHO HAVE THEIR CARDS NOW.

AS I SAID, OVER 4,000.

SO NOT ONLY HAVE THE CARDS HAVE BEEN ISSUED, BUT THEY'RE BEING ACTIVELY USED.

YOU'RE ISSUING THE CARDS FOR FREE.

GETTING A LIBRARY CARD IS ABOUT 50 BUCKS?

WELL, YES, I MEAN, IF YOU LIVE IN BROOKLYN, EVERYTHING WE DO IS FREE.

BUT THESE ARE FOR OUT OF STATE PEOPLE.

AND SO SOME -- MANY SYSTEMS CHARGE FOR THESE CARDS.

BUT FOR THIS PARTICULAR COHORT, THESE CARDS ARE FREE OF CHARGE, BECAUSE WE FEEL THAT WE'RE FILLING A NEED.

AND WE'RE DOING IT ALL WITH PRIVATE MONEY, JUST TO BE CLEAR, THAT WE'RE NOT USING MONEY THAT WOULD OTHERWISE BE GOING TO SERVE PEOPLE.

AND DONATIONS FOR THIS --

DONATIONS FOR THIS, PLEASE.

WELCOME.

PEOPLE ARE WELCOME TO CONTACT US ABOUT DONATIONS.

YOU ALSO HAVE AN INTERESTING -- SHARE VIDEOS, ESSAYS, STORIES AND OPINIONS -- YOU'RE ASKING KIDS TO DO THAT OR TEENAGERS TO DO THAT?

YES, THIS IS WORKING THROUGH THE TEEN COUNCIL, BUT WE'RE ASKING FOR PEOPLE TO PARTICIPATE IN BOOK CLUBS AND TO WRITE TO US.

AND WE ARE ACTUALLY PROVIDING INFORMATION AND COUNSEL ON HOW PEOPLE CAN ADVOCATE FOR THEMSELVES AND MAKE SURE WE BRING THIS ISSUE, THE IDEA OF FREEDOM OF SPEECH INTO THE FOREFRONT IN THEIR COMMUNITIES.

SO, YOU KNOW, I READ ABOUT -- AS I WAS READING ABOUT YOUR INITIATIVE, I WAS REMINDED -- AND I'M SURE YOU'RE FAMILIAR WITH IT -- WITH A 'NEW YORK TIMES' EDITORIAL BY ITS EDITORIAL BOARD THAT CAME OUT IN MARCH, WHICH ADDRESSES AND LAMENTS THE VERY ISSUE THAT YOU'RE RESPONDING TO -- YOU KNOW, THE SPATE OF ACTIONS BY ELECTED OFFICIALS ACROSS THE COUNTRY TO BAN THE BOOKS THAT YOU DESCRIBE, THEREBY STIFLING INTELLECTUAL FREEDOM, BUT THEY ALSO IN THE EDITORIAL LAMENTED THE FACT THAT SO MANY LIBERALS AND PROGRESSIVES, WHO USED TO BE AT THE FOREFRONT OF THE FIGHT FOR FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION, HAVE NOW TOO OFTEN CONFLATED HATE SPEECH WITH SPEECH THAT THEY SIMPLY DISAGREE WITH, SPEECH THAT CHALLENGES THEM, THAT OFFENDS THEM.

THIS HAS RESULTED IN, ACCORDING TO THE EDITORIAL, TO THE CANCEL CULTURE, WHICH HAS IN TURN RESULT IN THE PEOPLE BEING AFRAID TO SPEAK OUT, AND THEREFORE IT TOO, HAVING THE EFFECT OF STIFLING FREEDOM OF SPEECH AND FREEDOM OF THOUGHT.

DO YOU AGREE WITH THAT ASSESSMENT BY 'THE NEW YORK TIMES'? AND WHAT CAN LIBRARIES DO?

IF IT'S HAPPENING, IT'S A REAL PROBLEM.

WHAT CAN LIBRARIES DO TO ADDRESS THIS WIDER THREAT?

I THINK THAT WHAT WE DO AND HAVE DONE FOR 125 YEARS IS PROVIDE ACCESS TO THE WORLD'S KNOWLEDGE.

IT SOUNDS LOFTY AND ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE, BUT IT IS REALLY TRUE, THAT IS OUR JOB, AND THAT IS WHAT WE DO EVERY DAY, AND WE ENCOURAGE EVERYBODY WITH THE INCLINATION TO WALK THROUGH OUR DOORS, EVEN OUR ELECTRONIC DOORS, TO COME AND TAKE ADVANTAGE OF WHAT WE HAVE HERE, AND NOT JUST THE MATERIAL, BUT ALSO THE STAFF WHO'S HERE TO GUIDE AND CURATE.

AND SO WE ARE OPEN TO ALL THOUGHT.

SOMETIMES WE MIGHT NOT AGREE WITH IT, BUT WE FEEL STRONGLY THAT WE WILL DEFEND BOOKS WE PERSONALLY AGREE WITH AS WELL AS THE ONES WE DON'T AGREE WITH, AND IT'S IMPORTANT THAT YOU MAKE THAT POINT, SO THANK YOU.

SO, LET'S TURN NOW TO THE 125th ANNIVERSARY OF THE BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY.

AS YOU KNOW, THERE ARE A LOT OF PEOPLE WHO SAY THAT THE BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY, PARTICULARLY ITS MAIN BRANCH, WHICH IS AWESOME, IS ONE OF THE CITY'S HIDDEN GEMS.

I KNOW THAW AGREE THAT IT'S A GEM, BUT I WONDER IF YOU THINK THAT IT'S HIDDEN, THAT NEW YORKERS -- OR TOO MANY NEW YORKERS STILL DON'T KNOW ABOUT THIS INSTITUTION.

YES, IT'S CERTAINLY A GEM, AND THANK YOU FOR CHARACTERIZING IT THAT WAY.

I THINK OVER THE COURT OF OUR 125-YEAR HISTORY, WE'VE COME IN AND OUT OF HIDING SEVERAL TIMES.

I HAVE BEEN HERE 11 YEARS, WHICH IS DIFFICULT TO BELIEVE, AND WHEN I GOT HERE, THERE WAS A LOT OF TALK ABOUT A FORCED MARCH TO OBSOLESCENCE.

THE TRUTH IS IT'S ANYTHING BUT OBSOLETE THESE DAYS.

AND THE ADVENT OF TECHNOLOGY THAT WAS DRIVING THAT ARGUMENT HAS ACTUALLY CREATED A NEED FOR LIBRARIES THAT SURPASSED WHAT'S BEEN GOING ON FOR YEARS.

IT MAY BE THAT THE CIRCULATION OF HARD COPY MATERIAL HAS NOT CONTINUED TO INCREASE AT THE RATE THAT IT WAS 20, 30 YEARS AGO.

BUT ATTENDANCE IS UP.

WE HAVE ALMOST A MILLION CARD HOLDERS IN A BOROUGH OF 2.6 MILLION PEOPLE, SO THAT TELLS YOU SOMETHING ABOUT THE FACT THAT WE ARE HERE IN PUBLIC WAVING THE FLAGS AND ANYTHING BUT HIDDEN THESE DAYS.

WHAT IS THE ONE THING OR TWO THINGS QUICKLY THAT YOU THINK NEW YORKERS DON'T KNOW ABOUT THIS LIBRARY THAT MAYBE THEY SHOULD?

WELL, ONE THING IS WE OFFER ALL KINDS OF THINGS.

YOU CAN BORROW FROM US HARD COPY BOOKS IN ENGLISH, WHICH IS WHERE THE LIBRARY STARTED 125 YEARS AGO, BUT YOU CAN ALSO BORROW BOOKS, DIGITAL, ON WHATEVER COMFORTABLE.

AUDIO, DIGITAL, HARD COPY, IN WHATEVER LANGUAGE YOU'RE MOST COMFORTABLE.

WE OFFER SERVICES IN OVER 30 LANGUAGES.

BUT IN ADDITION TO THE TROVE OF BOOKS WE HAVE TO OFFER, WE'RE OFFERING ENGLISH AS A SECOND LANGUAGE.

WE OFFER CLASSES ON CITIZENSHIP FOR PEOPLE WHO ARE STUDYING TO TAKE THE EXAM.

WE ARE VERY MUCH IN THE FOREFRONT OF CIVIC ENGAGEMENT, GETTING PEOPLE TO VOTE, AND IT GOES ON AND ON, IT IS EXTRAORDINARY THE NUMBER OF PROGRAMS WE HAVE.

FINALLY, THE CELEBRATION FOR THE 125th ANNIVERSARY IS A YEARLONG.

YOU'VE ALREADY HAD A NUMBER OF EVENTS.

THE US AS WE CLOSE, WHAT IS AN EVENT OR A COUPLE OF EVENTS THAT ARE COMING UP THAT YOU THINK MAYBE OUR VIEWERS MIGHT BE INTERESTED IN PARTICIPATING IN OR TAKING ADVANTAGE OF?

WELL, THE THING THAT'S COMING UP NEXT IS ACTUALLY ON SATURDAY, AND I THINK MY STAFF HAS BEEN -- IS AS EXCITED ABOUT THIS INITIATIVE AS ANY OTHER.

WE TURNED OUR BOOK MOBILES INTO CAKE MOBILES AND ARE OFFERING BIRTHDAY CAKE TO ANYBODY WITH A LIBRARY CARD.

REGISTER ONLINE, BKLYN.ORG.

REGISTER ONLINE AND GET A PIECE OF CAKE.

I DON'T KNOW WHERE WE'RE GOING TO AIR THIS.

WE'RE SHOOTING THURSDAY THE 28th, SO IT MAY BE AFTER THIS CAKE BONANZA, BUT IN ANY EVENT, PEOPLE SHOULD VISIT THE LIBRARY AND TAKE ADVANTAGE OF IT.

I KNOW FOR A FACT.

LINDA, THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR JOINING US.

IT'S BEEN A PLEASURE.

THANK YOU.

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