To celebrate National Banned Books Week, September 18-24, Hamilton is proud to display the work of one of our own.
During her 11 years at the helm, she has overseen the library’s transformation from an analog system to one with state-of-the-art technology and digital collections that are freely available to all Brooklyn residents.
The library’s latest initiative, Books UnBanned, was launched in April to counter what it describes as a worrying and growing effort by lawmakers to remove books from library shelves – particularly books dealing with racial and LGBTQ+ issues. Through the program, young adults from across the United States can email the Brooklyn Public Library and request free access to their collection of more than half a million e-books and audiobooks. In the first four months, more than 5,000 subscribers from all 50 states checked out more than 16,000 items. As part of the initiative, a Council of Brooklyn Teens has been working all summer to compile book lists and host virtual book discussions with peers in other parts of the country.
Before becoming president of the Brooklyn Public Library, Johnson was president and CEO of the National Constitution Center, CEO of the Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation, and president of JCI Data, a provider of information services and database management. She serves Hamilton as Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees. We asked them to tell us more about Books UnBanned and the role of libraries today.
Why is it important to take a stand against book bans?
The Brooklyn Public Library stands firmly for the principles of intellectual liberty. We cannot stand by and see books rejected by a few being taken off the shelves for everyone. As a public library, we defend the books we approve with the same fervor as those we disagree with. The library is the modern city square that provides a platform to debate and discuss the dilemmas of our time.
How did Books UnBanned start?
Book bans were more extreme this year than in the past 20 years. We first thought about how we could help, particularly in parts of the country like Texas, where many of our textbooks are published, and Virginia, where censorship is extreme. As our progress was slow, we decided to tackle the problem by reaching out directly to the audience we want to help: young adults who can’t find the books they want to read on their school or public library shelves be able. We issued a national press release stating that anyone between the ages of 13 and 21 who emailed us requesting a digital library card would be granted access to our digital collection for one year. Four or five days later it went viral and we went from a few hundred requests a day to thousands.
For a limited time, people ages 13-21 can apply for a free Brooklyn Public Library eCard, which provides access to the library’s full eBook collection and learning databases.
What feedback do you get?
The emails we received are poignant but discouraging at the same time. Young people grappling with issues related to sexuality or race feel isolated, especially when the material they want to read on topics like critical race theory, LGBTQ+ issues or even the Holocaust is unavailable. One wrote: “I’m 15 and live in North Dakota. I would like to be able to read books I want to read, not what other rulers deem appropriate. I think it is very important to be able to form your own opinion.”
What has changed for libraries in the last ten years?
when i started [at the Brooklyn Public Library], there was a perception among those outside the library world that libraries were on an enforced march towards obsolescence. The argument was based on the notion that search engines like Google would put libraries out of business. I don’t hear that argument anymore these days. And with the onset of the pandemic, people who are online all day began to realize how challenging life can be without good internet access, let alone insufficient broadband at home. The public library played a role in leveling the playing field between those on either side of the digital divide. In the cities of this country, the proportion of people who do not have Internet access at home is as high as 30%. If you’re trying to keep your kids in class via Zoom, or working remotely and doing anything else the pandemic has required, internet access has been vital. The pandemic increased struggles to be on the wrong side of the digital divide. Libraries are here to bridge that gap.
What attracted you to this work?
In a past life, I ran an information services company providing services to magazine publishers and direct marketers. In the 1990’s, as the dot-com bubble expanded, the entire business model for publishers began to change with the advent of electronic delivery of information. I started thinking about how changes in the publishing world are affecting libraries. I knew people at the Free Library in Philadelphia, so that’s where I started. As the use of the internet and digital materials increased, libraries were still stuck in the old model – people still coming in to borrow printed books in English. Although the changes I expected had not yet begun, I began to learn about the role of libraries in almost every community in this country. And the more I learned, the more interested and committed I became to the institution.
Libraries are the most democratic institutions in our society. To be welcome in our branches, all you need is the desire to walk through our doors and the knowledge of the world is at your feet. Race, socioeconomic status, and immigration status are irrelevant. If you’re curious enough to venture through our doors—even our electronic portals—the materials in our collections are available to you, along with librarians to help library users navigate through all of this information.