Oct 30, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Banned books often get circulation bump, new study finds

Illustration of a hand reaching for a row of books that are falling like dominoes.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Readers want what other readers can't have, apparently.

The big picture: As attempted book bans continue to surge in schools and public libraries across the U.S, a new study reveals the unintended consequences of the effort: an increase in readership for the titles in question.

What they found: A new study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and George Mason University found that the dissemination of banned books increased.

  • Banning a book in one state led to increases in circulation of that book in states that did not ban it, per the report.
  • "This increase often featured books by lesser-known authors, suggesting that new and relatively unknown authors gained from a rise in consumer support," researchers wrote.

By the numbers: Circulations of banned books increased 12% on average compared to similar non-banned titles, the study found.

What they're saying: "The primary goal of book bans is to restrict access to books, but conversations about the bans often garner attention on a wider scale," study co-author Ananya Sen said.

  • "This increased attention can either deter people from reading the book or influence consumers to read it, which would be an unintended consequence," Sen, an assistant professor of information systems and economics at Carnegie Mellon, added.

Of note: In Republican-leaning states, efforts to transform book bans into a political issue tended to increase the amount of donations that Republican House candidates received relative to Democrats, per the study.

Details: Researchers utilized book circulation data from a large library content and services supplier to major public and academic libraries in the U.S.

  • The data set contained more than 17,000 titles, including over 1,500 that were banned, as identified by 2021 and 2022 lists from the American Library Association and PEN America.

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