Imagine facing possible felony charges for lending students library books. That unimaginable scenario is currently playing out in Florida, “where teachers are being told” to remove any “unvetted” books from classroom libraries or risk prosecution.
Florida is far from the only state where state officials seem eager to challenge and ban books. In North Dakota, lawmakers are considering a bill to ban books with “sexually explicit” content — which includes sexual or gender identity — from public libraries, as well as imprison librarians who don’t comply. Meanwhile, lawmakers in Indiana have reintroduced a similar bill that would criminalize librarians for giving minors what some may view as obscene material.
But as book bans and challenges unfold across the country, some cities and libraries have landed on a novel solution: declaring themselves “book sanctuaries.” A book sanctuary program acts as a safe space for books. It protects challenged books, or ones that are in danger of being banned, while ensuring communities and library members can access books with a variety of viewpoints and ideas, explains Lessa Kanani‘opua Pelayo-Lozada, president of the American Library Association.
Take the Chicago Public Library, which launched its book sanctuary initiative last September, during Banned Books Week. Each of its 81 library branches in 77 neighborhoods will increase access to banned or challenged books by committing to keeping these books accessible and in the public eye. Additionally, the library is hosting talks and events around diverse characters and stories, banned books, and the history of book banning and burning.
“It’s really a public declaration that ensures Chicagoans are aware of the access that they have, just [by] being a resident of the city, to all these different kinds of stories, especially from marginalized or underrepresented populations,” Julie Koslowsky, director of teen services at the Chicago Public Library tells Teen Vogue.
In January, the city of Stamford, Connecticut, also launched a book sanctuary initiative. Like Chicago, the city’s program increases access to banned or challenged books through “book talks, events, and conversations about diverse characters and stories, and educating others on the history of book banning and burning,” according to the press release. Toronto similarly created a book sanctuary collection in February, which includes 50 banned, challenged, or censored books that can be found in branches and online.
These programs are a direct response to censorship around the country. Pelayo-Lozada told Teen Vogue that, although the ALA hasn’t finalized its data, 2022 is expected to have a record-breaking number of book ban attempts. According to a recent report from The New Republic, Moms for Liberty, the national conservative group behind many prominent book banning and censorship efforts in schools, is now targeting libraries.
Kennedy Turner, a 14-year-old intern with the Chicago Public Library’s Best of the Best Books program, explains that book bans are particularly detrimental to young people who are in their formative years. “That’s when you really start learning your identity and learning about new things, and that’s the best time to branch out,” she explains. “Seeing bans on things like LGBTQIA books and books about race can really limit somebody to the scope of the real world and can give them a real shock when they grow up and have to start doing things independently.”