ALA Decries ‘Attacks on Our Freedom’ With Record Book Challenges So Far in 2023

The data reflects a growing right-wing movement to restrict the topics taught in public schools and the media that children have access to.

By Olivia Rosane. Published 9-20-2023 by Common Dreams

Banned Books Week installation on the second floor of Kennedy Library on Monday, September 24, 2018. Photo: Kennedy Library/flickr/CC

A record number of library books were challenged during the first eight months of 2023, the American Library Association revealed Tuesday.

The ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) documented 695 attempts to remove a total of 1,915 library titles as of August 31. That’s up from the 681 challenges to 1,651 distinct titles for the same period in 2022, and last year as a whole broke the overall record for book challenges since data collecting began more than two decades ago.

“These attacks on our freedom to read should trouble every person who values liberty and our constitutional rights,” ALA OIF director Deborah Caldwell-Stone said in a statement. “To allow a group of people or any individual, no matter how powerful or loud, to become the decision-maker about what books we can read or whether libraries exist, is to place all of our rights and liberties in jeopardy.”

The data reflects a growing right-wing movement to restrict the topics taught in public schools and the media that children have access to. In 2019, the ALA only counted 377 challenges to 566 titles, The Associated Press reported. In 2020, the number fell even further as libraries were closed because of Covid-19 lockdowns. Then, in 2021, it surged with a then-record 729 challenges targeting 1,597 books, the ALA said. In 2022, that record was broken again with a total of 1,269 challenges to 2,571 titles, 32% more than the previous year’s record, ALA executive director Tracie D. Hall pointed out in an opinion piece for Time.

“This attempt to weaponize the right to read, and by extension the libraries that steward and protect that right, should be especially distressing to all of us as recent nationwide polling indicates that the vast majority of adults in this country, regardless of political party, oppose banning books,” Hall wrote.

One sign that this is a censorship wave pushed by far-right groups like Moms for Liberty is the fact that the number of challenges targeting multiple books is rising. So far in 2023, 11 states reported challenges to 100 or more books, up from six states in 2022 and none in 2021, the ALA said. In 2022, 9 out of 10 challenges named more than one book.

This is leading to situations in which parents sign on to challenges backed by extreme groups despite never having read the books in question.

“If we have come to a time in this country when parents can be successfully swayed into restricting access to books they haven’t read, what does that mean for our future as a nation?” Hall asked.

Another alarming trend is that challenges increasingly target books in public as well as school libraries, at 49% in 2023 versus 16% in the first eight months of 2022, according to ALA figures.

“The irony is that you had some censors who said that those who didn’t want books pulled from schools could just go to the public libraries,” Caldwell-Stone told AP.

In a separate statement, she said that public libraries were the “very embodiment of the First Amendment in our society.”

“This places politics over the well-being and education of young people and everyone’s right to access and use the public library,” she said of the mounting challenges.

Finally, the challenges target the growing diversity of U.S. society, as the majority of them focused on books about or penned by members of the LGBTQIA+ community or people of color. The three most challenged books of 2022 were Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer, George Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

“What this data set does not reveal are the people who want books that speak to their lived experience and librarians who want to make books accessible to people who find them relevant,” ALA president Emily Drabinski said in a statement. “Both are under attack.”

This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

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