ALA: Book Bannings in the USA Broke All Records in 2022

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

A 38-percent jump, year-over-year: A record 2,571 unique titles were targeted for censorship in the United States in 2022, ALA reports.

As censorship efforts blew past all previous records in 2022, the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom found that some 58 percent of those reported book challenges were made to books and materials in school libraries, classroom libraries, or school curricula. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Tatyana Tomsickov

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Caldwell-Stone: A Rise in ‘Organized Censorship Groups’
Last year saw 1,269 attempts to ban or restrict library materials in the United States, the highest level since the compiling of data began some 20 years ago, according to a new report from the American Library Association‘s watchdog agency on the issue.

The numbers make compelling reading, particularly in a week when effects similar to the wave of book bannings in the United States is echoed by a Wisconsin elementary school’s removal of a song from its spring concert because the Dolly Parton and Miley Cyrus duet “Rainbowland” could be, in the words of the school administration, “perceived as controversial.” Here is Harm Venhuizen’s write-up for the Associated Press.

The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom tracks censorship demands made on libraries in the United States. The sheer magnitude of book challenges this office recorded in 2022 the growing threat of censorship in libraries.

Image: American Library Association Office of Intellectual Freedom’s Unite Against Book Bans campaign

  • A record 2,571 unique titles were targeted for censorship, according to the report, constituting a major, 38-percent jump in such activity over that seen in 2021.
  • The 2022 number of reported book challenges relayed by the library association nearly doubles the 729 challenges reported in 2021.
  • Some 58 percent of those reported book challenges were made to books and materials in school libraries, classroom libraries, or school curricula, according to the report.
‘Local and Statewide Book Challenges’

Image: American Library Association Office of Intellectual Freedom

Organized censorship groups, the report indicates, are creating lists of books they want to see banned from libraries. The use of these lists, the Office for Intellectual Freedom points out, “contributed significantly to the skyrocketing number of challenges and the frequency with which each title was challenged.”

“Many library workers face threats to their employment, their personal safety, and in some cases, threats of prosecution for providing books to youth they and their parents want to read.”Lessa Lanani'opua Pelayo-Lozada. American Libraries Association

Prior to 2021, the agency says, “the vast majority of challenges to library resources only sought to remove or restrict access to a single book.” Now, 90 percent of challenges include multiple titles, contributing to the increased numbers the agency is reporting:

  • 12 percent were in cases involving two to nine books
  • 38 percent were in cases involving 10 to 99 books
  • 40 percent were in cases involving 100 or more books

The Office for Intellectual Freedom operates a “Fight Censorship” resource center for those who find themselves facing local and statewide book challenges—the kind of state-level agitation that the Association of American Publishers’ president and CEO Maria A. Pallante just flagged in the context of copyright protect, as the Internet Archive was rebuked for its efforts with its “Open Library.” As Pallante is pointing out, this sub-federal-level organization is a firmly documented trend now.

As it turns out, that’s exactly the point being stressed by the intellectual freedom office’s lead, Deborah Caldwell-Stone, too.

Decrying ‘Self-Appointed Book Police’

In late April during the American National Library Week (April 23 to 29), ALA expects to report its new list of the 10 most-challenged books in the United States. We can also expect an update next month, Publishing Perspectives understands, of PEN America’s major book-ban tracking work and reporting.

Markus Dohle

Many of our readers will recall that it was last year in February that Markus Dohle, the former worldwide CEO of Penguin Random House, seeded the new Book Defense Fund at PEN America—clearly a prescient move ahead of this extraordinary escalation in censorship activity in the American market.

At the American Library Association (ALA), the director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom is Deborah Caldwell-Stone. “A book challenge is a demand to remove a book from a library’s collection so that no one else can read it,” she says.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone

“Overwhelmingly, we’re seeing these challenges come from organized censorship groups that target local library board meetings to demand removal of a long list of books they share on social media.

“Their aim is to suppress the voices of those traditionally excluded from our nation’s conversations, such as people in the LGBTQIA+ community or people of color.

“Each attempt to ban a book by one of these groups,”  Caldwell-Stone says, “represents a direct attack on every person’s constitutionally protected right to freely choose what books to read and what ideas to explore. The choice of what to read must be left to the reader or, in the case of children, to parents. That choice does not belong to self-appointed book police.”

Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada

American Library Association president Lessa Lanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada says, “Every day professional librarians sit down with parents to thoughtfully determine what reading material is best suited for their child’s needs. Now, many library workers face threats to their employment, their personal safety, and in some cases, threats of prosecution for providing books to youth they and their parents want to read.

“ALA began documenting the book challenges reported to us more than two decades ago because we want to shine a light on the threat of censorship facing readers and entire communities. Book challenges distract from the core mission of libraries: to provide access to information. That includes access to information and services for learners of all ages, homeschooling parents, job seekers, new computer users, budding readers, entrepreneurs, veterans, tax filers and amateur genealogists—just to name a few.

“While a vocal minority stokes the flames of controversy around books,” Pelayo-Lozada says, “the vast majority of people across the nation are using life-changing services that public and school libraries offer.

“Our nation cannot afford to lose the library workers who lift up their communities and safeguard our First Amendment freedom to read.”

The association, in its media messaging, has added that polling conducted by bipartisan research firms during 2022 “showed that voters across the political spectrum oppose efforts to remove books from libraries and have confidence in libraries to make good decisions about their collections. ”

And on the professional side, colleagues at the International Publishers Association (IPA)–with its longstanding Prix Voltaire for publishing in the face of intimidation–point out that self-censorship is frequently one of the reactions to the kind of pressure that the mounting energy of banning attempts can bring to bear on an industry, whether it impacts publishing itself or librarians’ encounters with the objections and hostility described by Palayo-Lozada.

José Borghino

José Borghino, secretary-general of the IPA in Geneva, tells Publishing Perspectives, “In our 2020 Freedom to Publish report, we noted the different types of bans that can affect books, and banning by curation was one of them.

“In that context, the freedom to publish as such is not under threat, but our main concern is the risk of self-censorship, which can affect everyone involved in bringing books to readers–authors, publishers, booksellers, and libraries.”

Such intimidation is understood as part of the intent–perhaps the main part–of the censorship dynamic seen behind so much of the animus driving American book-banning forays, particularly in the organized efforts flagged by Caldwell-Stone.

The association last year created its Unite Against Book Bans national initiative “to empower readers everywhere to stand together in the fight against censorship.” During April’s National Library Week, the plan is to observe the first anniversary of that initiative.

More on the American Library Association is here. More from Publishing Perspectives on freedom of expression is here, more on the freedom to publish is here, more on banned books is here, and more on PEN America is here

Publishing Perspectives is the International Publishers Association’s world media partner.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.