Scrolling through the past several months of posts on the Intellectual Freedom Blog, you can see book challenges and removal of materials are rampant throughout the United States. Many materials in question pertain to the discussion of race, gender, and sexuality. The American Library Association (ALA) has publicly opposed these widespread efforts to censor books in libraries. In their statement, the ALA states that “libraries manifest the promises of the First Amendment by making available the widest possible range of viewpoints, opinions, and ideas, so that every person has the opportunity to freely read and consider information and ideas regardless of their content or the viewpoint of the author.” Unfortunately, it does not look like this trend will slow down anytime soon. So, in the case of materials being removed from your library, how can you continue to exercise your freedom to read?
This question may be easy to answer for us librarians, but many people may not be aware of other methods to access such materials and exercise their rights without purchasing materials themselves. Therefore, it is important to make sure your own library patrons and community are aware of these avenues. While this post is a reaction to recent widespread book banning recently, these are also ways to access material that your library doesn’t have for other reasons too (i.e., your local public library is small, materials are outside the scope of the collection, etc.). There are certain caveats to these avenues, however, as I recognize that not everyone has the same opportunities to utilize some of these resources. These suggestions are also given under the assumption that those you are spreading this information to have the means to check out materials on their own and/or the ability to use certain services. According to a CBS News Poll in February, when asked about the teaching about the history of race in America, most people do not support book banning, meaning that those who do are just a vocal minority.
For library patrons under eighteen (whose parents/guardians may have control over their library borrowing privileges depending on library policy), these methods assume their parents/guardians support their ambition to read banned books and would be able to utilize certain library services.
Note: These methods are not universal and may not work for every book.
Public Domain/Open Access
The public domain consists of creative works that are not subject to copyright laws. This means that books in the public domain are frequently made accessible for free through various channels. Project Gutenberg, for example, is a digital library that digitizes and makes available online culturally significant works. While a repository like Project Gutenberg most likely will not have contemporary books, there are curated lists of other commonly banned books available on the site. Users can also access frequently banned books in the public domain through ManyBooks.net.
Open access is a term frequently associated with academic scholarship, though it refers to practices where research outputs and other materials are distributed online, free of access charges or other barriers. eBooks and similar materials are sometimes published open access. The Directory of Open Access Books (DOAB) allows users to search for such materials. Supplementary educational materials are often published open access. The 1619 Project and all its accompanying materials, for example, can be accessed here.
Having read through much of the recently introduced legislation surrounding book banning, for now those bills only target public and K-12 libraries. This means that library collections at universities should remain intact. Let’s first talk about the nature of academic libraries. While there can be a lot to break down, I want to focus on how they differ from public and K-12 libraries in terms of purpose, scope, and audience. Their general purpose is to support the curriculum and the research of faculty and students. This means that the scope of the collection usually aligns with what programs are available and the research agendas of faculty. Also, available content and policies reflect the fact that the library is geared towards students, staff, and faculty, who in most cases are over eighteen. This is important because it means that materials usually aren’t removed due to “inappropriateness for minors,” because minors are not the primary users of the collection. Some of you may be thinking right now, “I am not affiliated with a university and I am mainly looking for children’s books, how does this help me?”
Those are good questions, and whether or not you are trying to access banned/challenged books, academic libraries can still be a service to you. It is common for these libraries to allow community members access to their collections and services. For example, at Murray State University (where I work), community members are eligible for complimentary user cards. There are certain borrowing limitations and eligibility criteria, but such arrangements allow the community to benefit from a local university’s collection. It is important to keep in mind that different university libraries may vary in policy. For instance, at University of Tennessee Knoxville libraries, community members can use materials for in-house use, or purchase a borrower’s card. Materials covering topics such as critical race theory or other legal, historical, and societal issues can usually be found at university libraries as those subjects may be frequently researched at such institutions. It is trickier with children’s materials, as children are not the targeted audience of a university collection. Schools with a teacher education program, however, typically have a collection of youth materials in order to accommodate future teachers, as they explore and evaluate potential classroom material.
Interlibrary Loan (ILL) is a service for library patrons where they can borrow materials owned by another library. Typically, one can place a request through a library where they are a patron, and can pick up materials there once they arrive. This great service allows library users to access materials from all over their state or the country, typically for free or an otherwise low cost. This also allows public library patrons to request materials from an academic library, or vice versa. Note that different libraries will have different ILL policies, such as what formats of materials can be requested/lent, how long another library can borrow materials, and how many ILL materials a single patron can have out at a single time. Here is an example from the Calloway County Public Library. Libraries might provide an online interface or require patrons to fill out a form in person. People can see which libraries have materials by utilizing WorldCat.
Reciprocal borrowing is the process of a public library patron physically going to another public library/library system to borrow materials. Reciprocal borrowing is typically made possible through a library’s participation in a consortium or a statewide network. For example, in Illinois patrons of RAILS member libraries can borrow certain materials from other member libraries. Likewise with central and southern Illinois residents through the Illinois Heartland Library System.
Be sure to check with your own local or even state library to see if you are eligible for reciprocal borrowing privileges.
Public Bookcases and Other Book Exchanges
What is a public bookcase? You may see these in the form of a Little Free Library or other similar concepts, where community members can freely borrow and exchange books. Locations registered with Little Free Library can be searched for via this interactive map. One thing to keep in mind is that the collection quality can vary from library to library. Also, along with the recent book challenges, Little Free Libraries have been the targets of vandalism and theft, such as last month when the Little Queer Library in Waltham, Massachusetts was ransacked for the third time.
As book challenges and removals continue, hopefully these methods provide some opportunity for people to exercise their intellectual freedom rights and continue to read what they want!
David Sye is a Research and Instruction Librarian at Murray State University in southwestern Kentucky. He is liaison for the History, Political Science & Sociology, and Psychology departments, as well as teaching instruction sessions and credit-bearing courses on information literacy. He holds a BA in History from the University of Illinois at Springfield, in addition to an MA in History and MLIS from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Prior to working at Murray State University, he has worked in public libraries and briefly taught middle school social studies.