Throughout the summer, the institutions have held lectures and events at library branches, bookstores, and even community parks. Events have included discussions with authors of banned and contested books, lectures by experts in areas such as children’s mental health, and even colourful, silly drag queen story hours.
It’s not uncommon for libraries to host activities for banned or contested books, particularly during the American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week in late September. Austin Public Library directors, however, believe their month-long initiative is a first.
“We try to create programs that are responsive to what’s going on in our community, and we were aware of the community concerns regarding book bans and library censorship that were happening across the country and particularly here in Texas,” said Baylor Johnson, the library communications manager, told CNN.
Johnson said many Banned Camp events specifically highlight LGBTQ writers and writers of color, whose works are often affected by these challenges. The program was introduced by a conversation with author and LGBTQ activist George M. Johnson, whose collection of coming-of-age essays entitled All Boys Aren’t Blue is one of the top 10 most challenged books of the year 2021 the ALA was elected. Classic books that are often questioned, like 1984 and The Color Purple, also took the spotlight at Banned Camp.
An April analysis by PEN America found that Texas has issued 713 book bans in 16 school districts — the highest number of any state. The American Library Association published similar findings, noting that books about LGBTQ and black people are among the most challenged in 2021.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has spearheaded the effort removing some LGBTQ books from school libraries, and statewide measures to restrict content are gaining traction in places like Florida, where critical complaints about racial theories and the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law have wreaked havoc on schools and public institutions about what exactly they can and cannot teach. Continued Republican anger at critical race theory has led to more crackdowns on curricula and reduced opportunities to interact with books by black authors.
While many attempts to ban or challenge content have focused on schools, library professionals increasingly fear that such initiatives will increase, spreading from municipal to state levels and from classrooms to public libraries and beyond.
It’s already happening in Virginia, where two heads of state sought an injunction against Barnes & Noble in May. State Delegate Tim Anderson and former congressional candidate Tommy Altman claimed the books Gender Queer, a graphic novel by Maia Kobabe that was named the most challenged book of 2021 by the ALA; and the popular fantasy book A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas “are obscene for underage viewing.”
The people behind Austin’s Banned Camp see these ominous developments as an opportunity to remind readers young and old that books are an enduring symbol of free speech.
“Books take us on adventures, offer us new perspectives and ideas, and sometimes take us out of our comfort zone,” said Meghan Goel, children’s book buyer and program director at BookPeople, in a statement. “They are multifaceted and cannot simply be reduced to quotes or headlines. That makes it so exciting and enriching to be a reader!”
Johnson, the APL’s communications manager, said the community response to Banned Camp has been overwhelmingly positive.
“We are very glad that the community understands that libraries are places where intellectual freedom and the right to find stories and information must be protected,” he said.