Brooklyn Public Library team awarded ‘Librarians of the Year’ for Books Unbanned project

brooklyn public library main branch doors
A team of Brooklyn Public Library employees have been named “Librarians of the Year” thanks to their work on the Books Unbanned project.
File photo by Paul Frangipane

Five staff members on the “Books Unbanned” team at the Brooklyn Public Library have been recognized as Librarians of the Year by the Library Journal. These bibliothecaries have provided free e-book access to teens and young adults across the country, specially those in places where new restrictions have forced content about race and LGBTQ+ issues off library shelves.

Through the first eight months of 2022, the American Library Association logged 681 attempts to ban 1,651 unique titles at libraries and schools across the country —the highest number of challenges since ALA began tracking them. BPL provides free digital cards to New York State residents, and previously offered out-of-state cards for a fee.

But, after the increase in censorship, Chief Librarian Nick Higgins decided the library could offer its more than 350,000 e-books, 200,000 audiobooks, and 100 databases to all teens and young adults experiencing censorship across the country, free of charge.

brooklyn public library librarians of the year
The five members of BPL’s Books Unbanned team worked to expand access to the library’s vast collection of e-books and other online resources nationwide. Matt Carr/Library Journal

“A library is a place that reflects the entire community,” Higgins told the Library Journal. “That includes all sorts of voices, abilities, backgrounds, experiences and income levels. To forcibly remove some of those stories is antithetical to what libraries and even democracy are about.”

Efforts from Higgins’ team — Director of Customer Experience Amy Mikel, Coordinator of Young Adult Services, Youth & Family Services Karen Keys, Young Adult Internship Coordinator Jackson Gomes, and Coordinator of School Outreach Services Leigh Hurwitz — have, so far led 6,000 teenagers to request cards through “Books Unbanned” and 52,000 checkouts to date, since the program began last spring. The Librarians of the Year Award recognizes the work Higgins and his team did, and the impact it had on young people far and wide. 

The librarians want to raise awareness of the current threat to intellectual freedom and the harm it causes.

“The stories about book bans and censorship were being driven by people who show up at a school board meeting, who shout down educators and librarians, and try to impose a very strict set of rules on what can and cannot be spoken about within their communities”” Higgins told the Journal. “We wanted to re-situate that conversation about freedom to read and intellectual freedom where it belongs, in public libraries and in schools.”

He and the team worked quickly to get the program to full capacity as book bans skyrocketed last year — and spent hours reading each and every application submitted personally. 

Their courage came in spite of the possible repercussions of launching such a program — and knowing they may not receive support from other institutions. 

teacher standing in front of brooklyn public library
Summer Boismier, a former Oklahoma teacher, was fired after sharing the Books Unbanned program with her students, and visited BPL earlier this year as part of Banned Books Week. Photo courtesy Gregg Richards/Brooklyn Public Library

“The alarming rise in censorship over the last year was no match for the members of our Books Unbanned team who remain indefatigably committed to supporting the principles of intellectual freedom,” said BPL President and CEO Linda E. Johnson, in a statement.”They continue to provide a lifeline to teens across the country who are too often caught in the battle over censorship; each member of the team exemplifies the finest tradition of their profession. We are proud and fortunate to call them colleagues.”

Books Unbanned is ongoing, with new cards still being issued. BPL has also launched the Intellectual Freedom Teen Council, where local teens can get together to discuss book bans and what can be done to combat them nationwide. Next month, the library is teaming up with PEN America for the first annual “Freedom to Read Advocacy Institute.”  The month-long training course will “prepare and certify the next generation of free expression advocates to combat book banning and fight for the freedom” to read whatever they want in schools and libraries. 

To apply for a free BPL card, anyone between 13 to 21 anywhere in the United States, can send a note via email to [email protected] or through the library’s teen-run Instagram account, @bklynfuture, describing the censorship challenges they are experiencing and why they feel libraries should have diverse collections.