As Book Bans Increase, Chicago Protects the Freedom to Read
An interview with Chicago Public Library Commissioner Chris Brown about Book Sanctuaries
As efforts to ban books continue to increase around the country, the City of Chicago is taking a stand. In September, the city, along with the Chicago Public Library (CPL), declared itself a safe haven for stories that are under threat by establishing “Book Sanctuaries” in its 77 distinct neighborhoods and 81 library branches.
From prominently featuring some of the most challenged books in the country in the entryway of the CPL’s Lincoln Belmont branch to the City Little Theater Company presenting a theatrical display of iconic banned books, Book Sanctuaries are part of the City of Chicago and CPL’s campaign to expand local access for all community members to banned or challenged books through library programming, from story times to facilitated discussions.
“As one of the most diverse cities in the country, Chicago is proud to continue welcoming people from all walks of life and providing spaces for them to share their experiences. Book Sanctuaries will serve as these spaces and send an important message that our libraries are safe places for all to explore and discover.”
-Chicago Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot
Book Sanctuaries have never been more needed as the censure of books and attacks on librarians, and writers are at an all-time high. In 2021, the ALA reported more than 729 attempted bans of 1,597 individual books, and that trend shows no sign of slowing down; preliminary data from ALA shows that between January 1 and August 31, 2022, there has already been a documented 681 attempted bans targeting 1,651 titles.
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CPL has also identified some of the most challenged books of the last year, including The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Beyond Magenta by Susan Kuklin, and All American Boys by Jason Reynolds, and has expanded access to these titles to the broader Chicago community.
We spoke with CPL Commissioner Chris Brown to learn more about Chicago’s Book Sanctuaries and how people around the country can get involved.
EveryLibrary: How did the idea for Book Sanctuaries in Chicago begin? Did increasing book bans around the country catalyze these efforts?
CPL Commissioner Chris Brown: Definitely. Our country is currently seeing an unprecedented nationwide campaign to censor books. The reality is that BIPOC and LGBTQ+ authors and readers are being disproportionately impacted and being targeted for removal from library collections around the country.
Book Sanctuaries are part of the City of Chicago and CPL’s broader campaign to engage people across the country in “The Read-sistance” and to encourage people to embrace their right to read through access, promotion and conversation around banned or challenged books. The campaign was developed in partnership with Edelman, the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE), and ALA.
EveryLibrary: Can you tell us about some of the programming that will be occurring as part of “The Read-sistance” happening throughout the year?
Chris Brown: Coinciding with the launch of The Book Sanctuary, CPL announced the Freedom to Read as our 2022 theme for One Book One Chicago — our annual citywide literary program that connects Chicagoans and their communities around a single book.
This year’s book selection was Maus by Art Spiegelman, one of the country’s most frequently challenged books, and there were hundreds of opportunities for communities to get involved, join conversations, and connect with fellow book lovers from September through early December.
On November 3rd, CPL hosted Art Spiegelman in conversation to a completely packed house at our Harold Washington Library Center Pritzker Auditorium. Over 400 people showed up in person with another 800 attending virtually. Chicago students and adults had the chance to speak directly with Art about the rise in book banning, and it was moving to hear them express their concern and commitment to our civic freedoms.
Later this year, our partner, the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, will unveil the design of a permanent Book Sanctuary installation created by renowned artist Theaster Gates and installed early next year at the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago. The installation will underscore the societal and historical impacts of book removal and exclusion as well as the critical role that books play in preserving knowledge, creating connection, and catalyzing equitable and just transformation.
EveryLibrary: As you mentioned, this campaign goes beyond Chicago. How can people around the country get involved in the Book Sanctuary movement?
Chris Brown: A Book Sanctuary can exist anywhere: In a library, a classroom, a coffee shop, a public park, or even a bedroom bookshelf. We’re asking people to establish their own Book Sanctuary and provide their personal unwavering support and protection for the freedom to read. By establishing a Book Sanctuary, a person commits to doing at least one of the following:
- Collect and protect endangered books
- Make endangered books broadly accessible
- Host book talks and events to generate conversation, including story times focused on diverse characters and stories
- Educate others on the history of book banning and burning
People everywhere are called to join CPL and to take a pledge, commit to creating safe spaces for stories, and to launch their own Book Sanctuaries by visiting TheBookSanctuary.org. To support people in establishing their own Book Sanctuaries, CPL is making available a blueprint to help people and organizations drive awareness of the dangers of book bans, rally their community to counter challenges to their freedom to read and provide ideas for ways to take action locally.
Visit everylibrary.org to learn how you can support the essential resources that libraries offer their communities.