NYC is a ‘citadel of books’ in an age of censorship and bans: experts

NEW YORK (PIX11) – New York City may be leading the fight against book bans, but the reality of censorship is never too far away, library authorities warned at a City Council oversight hearing Monday.

As book bans hit public libraries all over the country, New York City library leaders have made efforts to increase digital access to targeted books. But amid budget cuts and other forms of censorship — like protests to Drag Story Hour events — New York City could soon face its own book crisis, library officials warned.

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“Do not think that this is too far from our doorstep. It’s not just a town an hour north of Albany seeing their library closed when they tried to bring in Drag Story Hour,” said City Council Member Carlina Rivera. “It’s here in Jackson Heights, it’s bomb threats to libraries in Brooklyn, it’s all very, very serious.”

Budget cuts have already cost libraries Sunday service and reduced catalog capacity, and any further cuts will mean additional loss of hours, according to Linda Johnson, President and CEO of Brooklyn Public Library.

Though not for the same reason, the budget cuts could have a similar effect to book-banning efforts in other regions, Johnson suggested.

“I believe that by cutting the budget, we are doing to New Yorkers exactly what some of these right-wing groups are doing to communities across the country,” Johnson said.

Many book-banning efforts across the country start with local parents and activists taking aim at a certain set of books, Johnson said. Organized efforts in New York have not reached the same heights as other states, like Florida, Johnson added.

Still, similar tensions exist within New York City’s schools, said Emily Drabinski, President of the American Library Association.

“I talk to dozens of libraries every week, dozens, and school libraries in New York City will absolutely tell you that efforts to ban and censor materials in school libraries is a problem in New York City,” Drabinski said.

But New York City is also leading the national charge to secure free access to books, like with its privately-funded program Books Unbanned, which helps readers digitally access banned books.

Locally, efforts to protect the “freedom to read” include a teen “banned book club,” essay competition, discussions, lectures and educational materials – all of which would be threatened with budget cuts, officials said.

“Teens and their literature are being targeted,” said Tony Marx, President of The New York Public Library. “That means we have to target and resist and make those options more available.”

Over the last two school years, nearly 6,000 book bans hit 247 school districts across 41 states, according to Jonathan Friedman, a director at the nonprofit PEN America.

The American Library Association found that in 2023, nearly half of censorship attempts across the country affected books in public libraries.

“In the national fight against bans, New York City’s libraries have risen to the occasion,” Friedman said. “They have set the bar high, serving as a model for how public libraries can stand unflinchingly to facilitate and equitable and inclusive democracy for all.”

Emily Rahhal is a digital reporter from Los Angeles who has covered local news for years. She has been with PIX11 since 2024. See more of her work here and follow her on Twitter.

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