The New York Public Library is making banned books free for everyone on its app

The New York Public Library wants to put banned books into the hands of all Americans – and for free.

It’s a matter of availability, the NYPL chief says, as tension over allegations of censorship and banned books has escalated in step with a difficult political climate.

With a new program announced Wednesday, anyone — not just New York Public Library cardholders — can browse, borrow, and read a selection of disputed (and often banned) books through free download. The program, dubbed Books for All, runs until the end of May.

The campaign features a short list of titles that have received particular attention – some for decades and others in recent months – as those that defend parents’ rights to select the books their children have access to school and in public arenas rang. against those who remember the far greater stakes than book banning has historically represented. The difference perhaps right now is that some states write these complaints into law.

These titles appear in the New York Public Library’s Books for All app, which is open to everyone.

New York Public Library

“The role of the library is to ensure that no perspective, no idea, no identity is erased,” Tony Marx, president of the New York Public Library, said Wednesday.

“People have the right to read or not to read what they want, but these books must be available – for the teenager who has questions and wants to find answers in private; for the adult curious about subjects for which he has no personal experience; for those who want to do their own research and make informed decisions based on facts,” he wrote.

While there are hundreds of thousands of titles in the app available to New Yorkers with a local library card, some books will be available through the Books for All collection, with or without a library card, and with bonus unlimited downloads. This includes no waiting and no fines.

Any reader can download these selections for free on any Apple AAPL,
GOOGL iOS or Android,
device with an app called SimplyE.

The first set of offers includes:

  • Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson (Square Fish / Macmillan Publishers)

  • king and the dragonflies” by Kacen Callender (Scholastic)

  • Stamped: racism, anti-racism and youby Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers / Hachette Book Group)

  • Catcher in the rye” by JD Salinger (Little, Brown and Company / Hachette Book Group, with special thanks to Matt Salinger)

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, said data collection shows the number of “disputed” books in 2021 has jumped from recent years.

“A year ago we were getting maybe one, maybe two reports a day about a disputed book in a library. And typically those calls would be for advice on how to handle a challenge or for materials that support the value of the challenged work,” Caldwell-Stone told The Associated Press. “Now we get three, four, five reports a day, many need support and some need a lot of support.”

“Libraries have been beacons of this kind of curiosity and independent learning, and it is unacceptable that they are censored in any way.”

— Tony Marx, President of the New York Public Library

The NYPL, in fact, has its own age guidelines in place with its Books for All program. Per SimplyE’s Accessible Content Policy for Users Under 13, Only “King and the Dragonflies” is available to those with child accounts.

Regulating school curricula and proposed titles for pleasure reading is the latest contentious topic of national debate, joining the tension around COVID-19 mask and vaccine mandates, a big gap in understanding race theory criticism and an imperfect account with American institutional racism.

But the right of parents to decide what their children are exposed to and whether this control limits access for others is also at issue. State and local governments have more control than some realize, including in Republican presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis’ Florida, where instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity for young children has been made illegal and caused its own whirlwind of backlash.

“On the right side of the political spectrum, where much of the banning of books occurs, bans take the form of school boards removing books from classroom curricula,” writes Erica Goldberg, associate professor of law and First Amendment scholar at the University of Dayton, in a column for The Conversation.

Politicians have also proposed legislation banning books that some lawmakers and parents consider too mature for school-aged readers, such as “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” which explores queer themes and topics of consent. Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison’s classic “The Bluest Eye,” which includes themes of rape and incest, is also a frequent target.

“Decisions made in public schools are analyzed by courts differently from censorship in non-governmental contexts.”

— Law Professor Erica Goldberg

Most of the books targeted for banning in 2021, according to the American Library Association, “were written by or about black or LGBTQIA+ people.”

State lawmakers have also targeted books that they believe guilt or distress students because of their race or imply that students of any race or gender are inherently bigoted, Goldberg said in his commentary.

There are also some attempts by the political left to engage in book banning, as well as the removal from school curricula of books that marginalize minorities or use racially insensitive language, such as the popular “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

For Goldberg, “it is difficult to say with certainty whether the current incidents of book bans in schools are constitutional or not. The reason: Decisions made in public schools are analyzed by courts differently from censorship in non-governmental settings.

Censorship, she says, is a colloquial term, not a legal term.

For NYPL’s Marx, the role of his institution and of any library across the United States is to make books available to as many readers as possible. From there, the curious and their families can initiate the discussions or deepen the exploration that will provide the necessary context for new and sometimes challenging ideas.

“Since the founding of our great nation, libraries have been beacons of this kind of curiosity and independent learning, and it is unacceptable that they should be censored in any way,” Marx said.

The Associated Press contributed.

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