Libraries are built to provide access to information. According to the American Library Association (ALA), “Intellectual freedom is the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction.” For a democracy to function properly citizens must be able to make informed decisions, which requires the ability to access information and literature free from censorship. Libraries help people access accurate information in a format that is accessible for them, so they can stay informed or experience different perspectives and ways of living.
A recent ALA press release revealed that the number of reported challenges to books and materials in 2022 was almost twice as high as 2021. ALA documented 1,269 challenges in 2022, which is a 74% increase in challenges from 2021 when 729 challenges were reported. The number of challenges reported in 2022 is not only significantly higher than 2021, but the largest number of challenges that has ever been reported in one year since ALA began collecting this data 20 years ago. If a challenge is successful, then the challenged item is removed or access to it is restricted for other community members. Not all of these challenges end in a book being removed from library shelves, but regardless, this means that people, or often organized groups, are demanding that libraries restrict access to information and stories, which hold a range of viewpoints and lived experiences, at a rate higher than ever previously recorded. The books targeted by these challenges are most often by and about the LGBTQ+ community and people of color.
Of course, here at LRS, we wanted to dive even deeper into these numbers. To help tell the story of what’s happening throughout our country using the latest data from ALA, let’s first remember that the numbers ALA shared are based only on what has been reported. Reporting is voluntary, and an extra step for libraries to make time for. It is safe to say that there are many challenges across the country that are not reported. In fact, ALA estimates that 82-97% of all challenges are not reported. If we err on the side of caution and use the lowest value here to assume that 82% of challenges go unreported and 18% are reported, that means it is possible there were closer to 7,050 challenges (1,269 is 18% of 7,050) across the U.S. in 2022.
On the other hand, it is also very possible that challenges were reported at a higher rate in 2022 than previous years because of the publicity that book bans now receive. Before challenges were a major political talking point, library workers may have felt less inclined to take the extra step of reporting a challenge at their library, not recognizing the importance of reporting the challenge or not knowing how to report a challenge. Now that book challenges are in the news frequently, libraries are more likely to recognize and report challenges, as they have become a threatening component of library work across the country. Of course, the increase in challenges cannot be attributed fully to this phenomenon, but it is one of the reasons I used the higher rate of challenges reported (18%) to estimate the number of challenges that may have occurred in 2022. You can visit this ALA webpage to report challenges and find support.
Challenge Counts in Colorado
Challenges are occurring across the country, but not all states face an equal number of challenges. Colorado has been fairly lucky because it generally sees fewer challenges than other states, and the challenges that do occur are often unsuccessful. One town in Colorado even banned book bans! Each year Colorado public libraries are asked to report challenges for the Public Library Annual Report (PLAR). LRS does not yet have complete data from 2022, but in 2021, 20 challenges to books or materials were reported by public libraries. This is twice the amount of challenges that were reported in 2020 (10 reported challenges) but less than the number of challenges reported in both 2018 (43 reported challenges) and 2019 (21 reported challenges). You can find more information on these challenges and how they were resolved in this Fast Facts report. Similarly, the number of challenges reported by ALA also dropped in 2020 to 156 reported challenges, which was likely due to Covid, and then increased rapidly in 2021. Between 2020 and 2021 there was a 367% increase in challenges reported to ALA! Comparatively, the doubling of challenges reported in Colorado from 2020 to 2021 is less startling.
However, comparing these numbers from ALA to Colorado’s data is problematic for a few reasons. First, the method in which this data is collected differs. ALA gathers information from media reports and collects individually submitted reports on their website. In contrast, Colorado asks public libraries directly through an annual survey. While libraries may be more likely to report challenges if asked directly in a survey they are already filling out, this survey only goes out to public libraries, so data from school and academic libraries are not included. Many book challenges occur in school libraries because the books being challenged are framed as inappropriate for children of a certain age. In fact, of the ALA data, less than half (41%) of the books and materials challenged were from public libraries, and 58% were from school libraries, classroom libraries, or school curricula. Library Research Service is working alongside the Colorado Association of Libraries Intellectual Freedom Committee (CAL IFC) to improve the way we collect data on challenges, so in the future we can all be better informed on the number of book challenges in Colorado.
Facing the Facts
Even though the exact number of challenges in Colorado and across the country is elusive, it’s undeniable that the amount of challenges is rising rapidly. We also know that 90% of challenges reported by ALA were attempts to ban or restrict multiple titles at once, and 40% of the cases reported involved 100 or more books. This systematic, formalized effort to remove and restrict access to books is definitely daunting, but it is not reflective of how the general public views censorship. According to EveryLibrary Institute, in response to the statement, “If you don’t like a book at a library, don’t check it out. Other people shouldn’t be able to control what me or my family can read.” 91% of voters strongly agree or somewhat agree. The same study, which was conducted by a nonpartisan research firm, also found that half of voters think there is “absolutely no time when a book should be banned.” This is one of many studies on Americans’ opinions regarding book bans, and polls continually show that the majority of Americans oppose book bans.
Nonetheless, challenges continue to arise from coordinated groups that target specific topics such as race, gender, and sexuality. These challenges are negatively impacting library staff which affects the people they serve. The stress and threats that library staff face surrounding book challenges are severe and sometimes lead them to leave the profession. The number of school librarians is decreasing, leaving children in schools without library resources. As stated at the beginning of this post, libraries play a critical role in providing access to information. They are also community hubs and idea sharing spaces that allow people to step into different worlds, experience unique perspectives, and grow as citizens from the knowledge they gain free of charge.
If you would like to learn more about the role libraries have in serving their entire population, including their most vulnerable communities, please read Colorado Virtual Library’s recent post “War and Peace in the Library – What lessons can the field yield from the interplay of tolerance and intolerance on macro and micro levels?” by Michael Peever.
ALA’s press release can be found here.
EveryLibrary Institute’s research can be found here.
This post is part of our series, “The LRS Number.” In this series, we highlight statistics that help tell the story of the 21st-century library.