Books for children and young adults containing themes of race, gender and sexual identity received an “unprecedented” number of challenges last year, the American Library Association (ALA) has said, reflecting a growing national trend of attempted censorship.
The challenges came from conservative parent groups and others. In some cases, the group says, librarians and elected officials were threatened with violence by members of the Proud Boys and armed activists at school board and library board meetings.
In a report released to coincide with next week’s Banned Books Week, the ALA also said that challenges from January to August this year were already running significantly higher than 12 months ago and are on course to surpass the 2021 figure.
In all, the ALA revealed, there were 681 attempts to ban or restrict library resources in schools, universities and public libraries, seeking to remove or restrict 1,651 different titles, in the eight full months of the year so far.
In 2021, there were 729 attempts to censor library resources, targeting 1,597 books. James LaRue, executive director of Colorado’s Garfield county public library district, said the numbers pointed to “a surprisingly consistent and coordinated campaign of censorship”.
“In addition to the increase in challenge volume, the scope of challenges also expanded,” said the ALA, which has announced the theme of the week will be “Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us.”
“More than 70% of the 681 attempts to restrict library resources targeted multiple titles. There were instances where hundreds of titles were challenged at a time, and made districtwide as opposed to at a specific school.
“In the past, most challenges to library resources only sought to remove or restrict a single title.”
The figures mirror those of other groups that have monitored escalating efforts by rightwing politicians and activists to censor literature in schools.
In April, Pen America, a non-profit organization that works to protect freedom of expression in the US, reported that 1,586 bans were implemented in 86 school districts across 26 states in the nine months to the end of March.
The ALA’s office of intellectual freedom (OIF) said the challenges have become increasingly hostile, documenting 27 instances of police reports filed against librarians over books they had on the shelves.
“Threats against library workers grew more frequent. Proud Boys and armed activists protested at school and library board meetings,” the report said.
LaRue added: “Some of those challenging books have adopted tactics of intimidation, threatening board members, superintendents, principals, teachers and librarians with recall, firing and, increasingly, criminal prosecution for distribution of materials alleged to be ‘obscene’, ‘harmful to minors’ or ‘pervasively vulgar’.
“To date, neither local prosecutors or law enforcement agencies have pursued these complaints, on the grounds that, in fact, no crimes were committed.”
The challenges reported to ALA in 2021, it said, represented the highest number of attempted book bans since the list began more than 20 years ago.
Leading with 120 challenges was Gender Queer, Maia Kobabe’s 2019 autobiography about growing up with a non-binary identity. Speakers at a school board meeting in Illinois called it “pornographic” and “a form of grooming”, though ultimately the book was not banned.
Also on the top 10 most challenged list were Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson and All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M Johnson. All have LBGTQ+ themes.