Sep 22, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Attempts to ban books at public libraries surge at record levels

Book ban attempts by state, 2023
Adapted from the American Library Association; Map: Axios Visuals

As attempted book bans continue to surge in schools across the U.S., the challenges are now increasingly extending to public libraries, according to new American Library Association data.

By the numbers: ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom data shows there were 695 attempts to censor library materials and services in the first eight months of 2023, compared to 681 during the same period in 2022 — a year that saw attempted book bans reach record levels.

  • There were also challenges to 1,915 unique titles from Jan. 1 to Aug. 31 — marking a 20% increase from the same period last year.
  • Challenges to books in public libraries accounted for 49% of the attempted bans documented, compared to 16% during the same reporting period in 2022.
Book ban attempts by state, 2023
Map: Axios Visuals

The big picture: Book bans have become ammunition for conservatives in a culture war over what kids should be exposed to.

  • "Expanding beyond their well-organized attempts to sanitize school libraries, groups with a political agenda have turned their crusade to public libraries, the very embodiment of the First Amendment in our society," said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director for ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom, in a statement this week.
  • "This places politics over the well-being and education of young people and everyone's right to access and use the public library," she added, telling Axios that there's an attack on the idea that libraries should provide a forum to "voices of individuals who raise questions about the status quo."

Of note: As book bans reached record levels last year, a vast majority of the target books were written by or about a person of color or a member of the LGBTQ community, according to the ALA.

Zoom in: The largest contributor to the rise in both the number of censorship attempts and the increase in titles challenged continues to be a single challenge by a person or group demanding the removal or restriction of multiple titles, per the ALA.

  • So far this year, 9 in 10 of the overall number of books challenged were part of an attempt to censor multiple titles, just as in the previous year.

Zoom out: Cases documenting a challenge to 100 or more books were reported in 11 states, compared to six during the same reporting period in 2022 and none in 2021.

The bottom line: "Libraries and library workers have always welcomed questions about books, and have invited people to raise concerns and to work with them through the process," Caldwell-Stone told Axios.

  • "We very much want to have these conversations. But we also want folks to understand that public libraries are a shared public resource and that they have to serve everyone in the community," she added.

More from Axios:

Go deeper