State of America’s Libraries 2020

New report shows libraries on the front lines

April 20, 2020

State of America's Libraries 2020

On April 20 the American Library Association (ALA) released the State of America’s Libraries 2020 report, an annual summary of library trends released during National Library Week, this year April 19–25, that outlines statistics and issues affecting all types of libraries during the previous calendar year.

Although the report focuses on 2019, libraries are shown to be on the front lines addressing societal and community challenges—a role they are certainly playing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many libraries serve as first responders that take on roles outside of traditional library service that support patrons’ needs and community development. Functioning at various times as career counselors, social workers, teachers, and technology instructors, library staff members give special care to adopt programs and services that support the most vulnerable and curious.

The report found that the popularity of libraries in 2019 continued to soar. According to a recent Gallup poll, visiting the library is the “most common cultural activity Americans engage in by far.” In 2019, US adults reported taking an average of 10.5 trips per year to the library, a frequency that exceeded their participation in other common leisure activities like going to the movies, a museum, or the zoo.

The best proof that public libraries are about more than just books is their evolution into libraries of things, offering nontraditional collections that are community-specific and imaginative. The wide array of items available to check out includes air mattresses, dolls, bicycles, binoculars, and accordions.

Our nation’s academic libraries have a major impact on student success. Statistics gathered by the Association of College and Research Libraries, a division of ALA, demonstrate how academic libraries support many types of high-impact educational practices that have beneficial effects on student retention, graduation rates, length of time it takes to graduate, and grade point average. Academic library staffers provided instructional sessions (both face-to-face and electronic) to more than 7 million students. More than 57% of the almost 800,000 instructional sessions were digital or electronic.

School librarians have focused on instructing students in information literacy to ensure they are ready to use data in decision making. The perception is that youth with access to ubiquitous technology can easily and effectively use data; however, a recent report on data literacy found that “60% of US workers 16–24 years old—people who had been raised surrounded by technology—are overwhelmed by the data they must read and analyze as part of their jobs.”

Banned and challenged books

The report shows a 17% increase in the number of books targeted for removal or restriction, fueling library staff efforts to protect the freedom to read. Hundreds of attempts from the public to remove or restrict materials, cancel programs, and dismantle displays and exhibits took place in public, school, and academic libraries. The majority of library materials and services targeted for removal included or addressed LGBTQIA+ content.

ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) tracked 377 challenges to library, school, and university materials and services in 2019. Overall, 566 books were targeted. The Top 10 Most Challenged Books in 2019, along with the reasons cited for censoring the books, include:

  1. George, by Alex Gino. Reasons: to avoid controversy, for LGBTQIA+ content and a transgender character, because schools and libraries should not “put books in a child’s hand that require discussion,” for sexual references, and for conflicting with a religious viewpoint and “traditional family structure.”
  2. Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, by Susan Kuklin. Reasons: LGBTQIA+ content, for “its effect on any young people who would read it,” and for concerns that it was sexually explicit and biased.
  3. A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, by Jill Twiss, illustrated by EG Keller. Reasons: LGBTQIA+ content and political viewpoints, for concerns that it is “designed to pollute the morals of its readers,” and for not including a content warning.
  4. Sex Is a Funny Word, by Cory Silverberg, illustrated by Fiona Smyth. Reasons: LGBTQIA+ content, for discussing gender identity and sex education, and for concerns that the title and illustrations were “inappropriate.”
  5. Prince & Knight, by Daniel Haack, illustrated by Stevie Lewis. Reasons: featuring a gay marriage and LGBTQIA+ content; for being “a deliberate attempt to indoctrinate young children” with the potential to cause confusion, curiosity, and gender dysphoria; and for conflicting with a religious viewpoint.
  6. I Am Jazz, by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas. Reasons: LGBTQIA+ content, for a transgender character, and for confronting a topic that is “sensitive, controversial, and politically charged.”
  7. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. Reasons: profanity and for “vulgarity and sexual overtones.”
  8. Drama, written and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier. Reasons: LGBTQIA+ content and for concerns that it goes against “family values/morals.”
  9. Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. Reasons: referring to magic and witchcraft, for containing actual curses and spells, and for characters that use “nefarious means” to attain goals.
  10. And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, illustrated by Henry Cole. Reason: LGBTQIA+ content.

Additional information regarding why the books were challenged, access to a top 10 list video announcement, and infographics of the 2019 Top 10 List of Most Challenged Books are available at OIF’s Banned and Challenged Books page.

To learn about other library trends, read the full version of the State of America’s Libraries 2020, available as a digital version and a PDF.

First sponsored in 1958, National Library Week is observed each April by the ALA and libraries across the country. National Library Week celebrations this year include National Library Workers Day, April 21; National Bookmobile Day, April 22; and Take Action for Libraries Day, April 23.

For more information on National Library Week, visit I Love Libraries or follow #NationalLibraryWeek.


The State of America's Libraries 2019

The State of America’s Libraries 2019

New report affirms Libraries = Strong Communities

National Library Week promotional materials through the ages. Photos: ALA Archives

“Wake Up and Read” to “Libraries Lead”

The 60-year history of National Library Week