Book Challenges in Libraries Surge to New Record

Documented attempts to restrict library materials rose 20% in the first eight months of 2023

September 20, 2023

Stack of five library books with a post-it note that reads "Request for Reconsideration"
Photo: OntheRun Photo/Adobe Stock

On September 19, the American Library Association (ALA) announced findings that challenges to books and other library materials and services are on pace to set a record for the third straight year in 2023. The release reads, in part:

ALA has released new preliminary data documenting a continued uptick in attempts to censor books and materials in public, school, and academic libraries during the first eight months in 2023.

Between January 1 and August 31, ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) reported 695 attempts to censor library materials and services. Those challenges included 1,915 unique titles—a 20% increase compared with the same reporting period in 2022, the year of the highest number of book challenges documented since ALA began compiling this data more than 20 years ago. The vast majority of challenges were to books written by or about a person of color or a member of the LGBTQIA+ community.

Challenges to books in public libraries accounted for 49% of those that OIF documented, compared with a share of 16% during the same reporting period in 2022.

A growing number of cases involve demands by a person or group to restrict or remove large numbers of titles. As in 2022, nine in 10 books challenged were part of an attempt to censor multiple titles. But cases that included a challenge to 100 or more books were reported in 11 states, compared with six states during the same reporting period in 2022 and zero in 2021.

“These attacks on our freedom to read should trouble every person who values liberty and our constitutional rights,” said OIF Director Deborah Caldwell-Stone. “To allow a group of people or any individual, however powerful or loud, to become the decision maker about what books we can read or whether libraries exist is to place all of our rights and liberties in jeopardy.

“Expanding beyond their well-organized attempts to sanitize school libraries, groups with a political agenda have turned their crusade to public libraries, the very embodiment of the First Amendment in our society,” Caldwell-Stone continued. “This places politics and religion over the well-being and education of young people and everyone’s right to access and use the public library.”

“What this data set does not reveal are the people who want books that speak to their lived experience and librarians who want to make books accessible to people who find them relevant. Both are under attack,” said ALA President Emily Drabinski.

Examples of publicly documented cases of censorship include:

Samuels Public Library (SPL) in Front Royal, Virginia: A local group called Clean Up Samuels held two book-banning barbecue events to fill out request for reconsideration forms of materials held at the library. In June, the county board of supervisors voted to withhold 75% of SPL’s budget until it takes action “to protect our children from sexually explicit material and ensure parents have control over their children’s reading choices.”

Urbandale (Iowa) Community School District (UCSD): In July, the Des Moines Register obtained a list of 374 books that UCSD had flagged for removal without knowing if the district even owned the books. The justification for the list was to comply with a state law that went into effect that month, which required removal of books deemed age-inappropriate in Iowa schools with a focus on topics addressing sex, sex education, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

“The antidote to the contagion of censorship is public, vocal support for libraries,” said Caldwell-Stone. “Libraries continue to welcome every reader in their communities and provide something in the collection for everyone. ALA invites everyone who cares about protecting the freedom to read to show up to defend their libraries at a local school or library board meeting, celebrate Banned Books Week with us, and join the Unite Against Book Bans campaign to fight censorship.”

Banned Books Week 2023 (October 1–7) will draw attention to attempts to remove books and other materials from libraries, schools, and bookstores. This year’s theme, “Let Freedom Read,” is a call to action to meet the urgent need to defend the right to read and to support the community of readers, library staff, educators, authors, publishers, and booksellers.

Read the full statement.

Updated September 20, 2023, to correct the location of Samuels Public Library.