This perspective was contributed by Laszlo Jentes, Student Intern for New Tactics in Human Rights.
Access to information is a foundational right for all societies, but a recent increase in attempted book bans in the United States threatens this free access. The battlegrounds include public libraries as well as schools, and the majority of the ban attempts target books that contain content about racial justice and LGBTQ+ issues. In 2022, over 2,500 different books were “objected to,” according to the American Library Association, compared to 1,858 in 2021, and 566 in 2019.
The result of these book bans is a loss of access to diverse literature. Bans such as this restrict young people from reading a variety of viewpoints, limiting their ability to understand the world around them and form their own opinions about important issues. Book bans represent a fundamental violation of the freedoms of opinion and information, as well as education, which are laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Fortunately, there are many organizations and initiatives in the United States utilizing new tactics to combat book bans. In this blog, I will summarize a few of them, with tactics that range from providing banned books, to advocating against bans, to protecting and expanding the public’s basic right to information and education.
MoveOn’s Banned Bookmobile, Little Free Libraries, and Public Libraries
To push back against the restrictions on banned books’ availability, several initiatives have arisen that directly counteract book bans by providing the books for free.
Some readers may be familiar with the concept of a “bookmobile”: a truck or other vehicle that drives around and serves as a mobile library. In response to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ new legislation on book bans, MoveOn created a Banned Bookmobile. This bookmobile provides free copies of frequently banned books and gives them out in areas that are most impacted by these restrictions. The bookmobile is traveling through multiple states, including Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Illinois, Ohio, Virginia, South Carolina and more. It directly provides access to banned books, as well as fundraising and education about political action that voters can take in upcoming elections to help prevent future book bans.
A picture of the Banned Bookmobile (image credit: MoveOn Campaign website)
Readers may also have heard of “Little Free Libraries,” where small boxes with shelves are set up on the street so anyone can donate or take a book. These are maintained by volunteers, called stewards, who keep them in good repair. They often serve as a vital source of books in areas where public libraries are underfunded or inaccessible, making them key in securing the right to information and education. In response to a rise in book bans, Little Free Library partnered with Harper Collins in 2022 to provide 1,000 free copies of banned books to library stewards around the country, with preference for those in impacted areas.
A Little Free Library (image credit: New York Times)
Another initiative is utilizing public library spaces to create exhibits of books that have been banned in other locations, like schools. In the past, many libraries would have an exhibit during Banned Books Week, but the city of El Paso in Texas took this a step further in response to new legislation being considered. The legislation would ban books that contain content on sexual orientation, gender identity, and sexual activity from being taught or available in schools. In response, the resolution passed by the city “declares that every public library in the city would have a banned books section, highlight the books year-round and form a partnership to accept the books from the YWCA.”
These three methods are great examples of direct action to secure everyone’s rights to information, opinion, and education. Because these book bans don’t cover all public spaces, these groups have leveraged workarounds like mobile libraries in order to promote these universal rights.
Freedom to Read Advocacy Institute, Unite Against Book Bans
There are also tactics activists and human rights defenders are using to prevent bans in the first place, by empowering citizens to advocate against censorship. One of these innovative methods of fighting back against book bans is the Freedom to Read Advocacy Institute, created by PEN America. This online institute was aimed at educating high school students on how to become advocates against book banning and effectively protect their own rights to information and education. It was held in February 2023, and was open for application by anyone in high school. The institute hosted a number of guest speakers, ranging from authors to other student activists. By the end of the institute, students had learned about their rights to education and information, as well as a variety of strategies for community engagement, including how to navigate school board meetings (where bans are often discussed). Attendees were also invited to become “Freedom to Read Ambassadors,” building a lasting network of advocates who can support each other in the future.
Another innovative tactic is the Unite Against Book Bans toolkit and the Freedom to Read Statement. The latter was originally created by the American Library Association, as well as the Association of American Publishers. It opens with the powerful statement: “The freedom to read is essential to our democracy. It is continuously under attack,” and goes on to outline the benefits of having free access to information and literature. It also emphasizes that the freedom to read is an essential and universal human right. After signing the Freedom to Read Statement, people are encouraged to explore the toolkit, which provides a handy guide to talking points, how to contact local government officials about the issue, and how to get involved with grassroots organizing.
Both of these initiatives represent a less direct, but still essential, method of fighting back against book bans. Instead of providing books directly to those affected, it gives people the tools and knowledge that they need to make change in their own communities, and protect their own rights. This also builds a broader movement that can help support nationwide efforts that go beyond book banning.
National Coalition Against Censorship, Teach Banned History
One of the organizations on the frontline against book bans is the National Coalition Against Censorship. The NCAC was established in 1973 after a Supreme Court decision that narrowed First Amendment protections. Now, it is made up of “an alliance of more than 50 national non-profits, including literary, artistic, religious, educational, professional, labor, and civil liberties groups,“ all supporting direct advocacy and education to ensure not only the freedom to read, but the freedom of expression as a fundamental and universal human right. They do this by providing direct support to students, teachers, activists, artists and others that face censorship in their own communities. Individuals anywhere in the United States can access their resources, including guidebooks, as well as create/view censorship reports to share information with a national network.
Another initiative doing essential work to combat US book bans is the Teach Banned History campaign created by the Zinn Education Project and The New Press. The Zinn Education Project is based on the idea behind Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which emphasized the contributions of working-class individuals, people of color, women, and organized social movements. These individuals and movements are often overlooked in traditional American textbook curriculums. The project seeks to provide a nationwide alternative to these traditional styles and give students a more well-rounded education and access to historical information that they may not have otherwise. To support this, the New Press provided 300 copies of banned books to teachers in states that had banned the books, in order to ensure that diverse perspectives are heard in the classroom.
The books provided for free through the Teach Banned History campaign (image source: zinnedproject.org)
Both of these organizations, while not strictly addressing book bans, are working on the broader goals of expanding and protecting the people’s rights to information, expression and education.
Conclusion and Resources
Book bans are a symptom of restrictions of our fundamental human rights, but not the root cause. Overturning bans will not make lasting change until these rights are fully recognized, valued and protected in the United States. Until then, utilizing creative new tactics like those mentioned above can serve to promote our rights to education, information, and freedom of opinion. We all have a fundamental right to explore and form our own opinions. It is up to us to make sure that everyone’s story is heard, and use them to build a community of understanding.
A united effort can indeed safeguard diversity of thought within our society. Through strategic planning and tactical action from libraries, grassroots campaigns, and community engagement, we can foster an environment where open dialogue thrives. This is not the first nor the last time activists and human rights defenders will triumph over censorship to ensure that our literary landscape remains rich, varied, and truly reflective of the human experience.
If you feel moved to explore this issue further, below is a list of the organizations and resources highlighted in this blog: