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Banned Books Week 2023: Let Freedom Read, featuring the Uncensored Library in Minecraft

Libraries and schools nationwide are working overtime to repel an unprecedented level of attacks on the freedom to read. Vigorous debate, advocacy, and coalition-building remain the backbone of the fight against book banning. But some libraries, groups, and individuals have recently taken innovative approaches to ensure information access for all.

Books Unbanned is one of the most prominent examples. The program, launched by Brooklyn (N.Y.) Public Library (BPL) in April 2022, allows young adults ages 13–21 to apply for a free ecard to check out BPL’s ebooks and use its learning databases. Seattle Public Library joined the program in April 2023, and three more—Boston Public Library, Los Angeles County Library, and San Diego Public Library—joined in September 2023. Each participating library has slightly different program rules for requesting a card and borrowing materials.

BPL Chief Librarian Nick Higgins says the idea for Books Unbanned emerged from hearing about cases of large-scale book banning. “We decided to offer it to anyone in the country to make it a pro-library story about the freedom to read, rather than targeting specific initiatives or area of the country,” he says.

About 7,000 young adults have requested ecards from BPL through the program and they check out about 18,000 books per month. Thousands of other people have reached out to the library to offer encouragement or donate to the program. But the positive response to Books Unbanned is also heartbreaking, Higgins says. “The full weight of the state, in some cases, is being marshalled to tell a young person who’s already going through so many changes that they don’t deserve to belong in a community,” he says.

The impact is more than simply access to books. Higgins says when the library asked its teen interns how they wanted to be involved, they developed the Teen Intellectual Freedom Council, a group of teens from across the country who meet monthly to discuss issues they face and how to better advocate for themselves.

Some other examples of innovative initiatives in the fight for intellectual freedom include:

  • The Digital Public Library of America launched a similar program to Books Unbanned in July 2023. The Banned Book Club uses GPS-based geo-targeting to offer access to ebook versions of books that are banned in a user’s location. These titles are available for loan via Lyrasis’s Palace app.
  • Since 2020, the nonprofit Reporters without Borders has operated The Uncensored Library, which contains reporting that is banned in several countries. The Uncensored Library operates in the sandbox game Minecraft, which is generally available in countries where other media is blocked. The Uncensored Library won a Peabody Award in 2022 “for turning one of the largest digital platforms for youth into a global movement to fight censorship.”
  • In Meridian, Idaho, a vending-machine operator collaborated with a banned book club to repurpose a vending machine to sell historically banned books. The machine is located inside a local brewery.
  • The Internet Archive’s Banned Books collection includes nearly 5,000 titles that have been banned or challenged. Some books are freely available, while others can be accessed for one-hour or 14-day loans or are available only to users with print disabilities.

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