Remember when Banned Books Week used to be billed as a “celebration” of the freedom to read? This year, Banned Books Week (running October 1–7) will once again be more like a call to arms, as new surveys and reports show that a well-organized right-wing political movement is continuing to drive record numbers of book bans across the nation.
In a September 19 release, the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) reported 695 attempts to censor library materials between January 1 and August 31—and while that’s up only slightly from the 681 documented attempts at this point last year, the number of unique titles challenged jumped an eye-opening 20%, with 1,915 targeted compared to 1,651 in 2022. The rise in unique titles challenged is consistent with the rise of organized political groups using shared lists for bulk book challenges, ALA explained. Prior to 2021, more than 90% of challenges tracked by ALA came from individuals objecting to single titles. In 2023, that has now flipped: 90% of the books challenged were “part of an attempt to censor multiple titles.”
The data also suggests that the surge in book bans is moving from school libraries to public libraries. Challenges to books in public libraries accounted for nearly half of the challenges (49%) thus far in 2023, compared to 16% during the same reporting period in 2022.
For more than 40 years, the ALA’s Banned Books Week has spotlighted attempts to censor books in libraries and schools, uniting librarians, booksellers, publishers, and readers in support of free expression. Reading advocate, writer, and actor LeVar Burton is leading this year’s Banned Books Week as honorary chair. And the event, which features the customary array of solid programming, will culminate with Let Freedom Read Day on Saturday, October 7—billed by ALA as the first Banned Books Week “day of action.” Advocates will be encouraged to call or write to local leaders, and buy and check out banned books.
“We’re still very much in the midst of an organized campaign undertaken by people who absolutely want to censor whole genres of books because they don’t fit their moral or political agenda,” ALA’s Deborah Caldwell Stone said. “We’re also at a time when certain advocacy groups are attacking the very idea of the public library.”
Meanwhile, in another report, “Banned in the USA: The Mounting Pressure to Censor,” PEN America found 3,362 instances of books banned in public schools in the 2022–2023 school year—a 33% increase over the previous year. “School book bans continue to spread through coordinated campaigns by a vocal minority of groups and individual actors and, increasingly, as a result of pressure from state legislation,” the report found. Citing “hyperbolic and misleading rhetoric about ‘porn in schools,’ ‘sexually explicit,’ ‘harmful,’ and ‘age inappropriate’ materials,” the report points out that the vast majority of books banned involve race or the LGBTQ community. And more than 40% of all book bans tracked by PEN America occurred in school districts in Florida (1,406). Texas was a distant second (625).
“Together, the pressure exerted by advocacy groups and the demands of newly passed state legislation are having a profound chilling effect on the availability of books in public schools,” the report concluded.