To mark National Banned Books Week, September 18-24, Hamilton is proud to share the work of one of our own.
During her 11 years at the helm, she oversaw the library’s transformation from an analog system to one with state-of-the-art technology and digital collections available free to all Brooklyn residents.
The library’s latest initiative, Books not prohibited, launched in April in response to what she calls a troubling and growing effort by lawmakers to remove books from library shelves — especially books dealing with race and LGBTQ+ issues. Through this program, young adults across the United States can email the Brooklyn Public Library to request free access to its collection of more than half a million eBooks and audiobooks. In its first four months, more than 5,000 subscribers representing all 50 states viewed more than 16,000 articles. As part of the initiative, a Council of Brooklyn Teens worked throughout the summer to compile book lists and host virtual book talks with their peers in other parts of the country.
Prior to becoming president of the Brooklyn Public Library, Johnson served as president and CEO of the National Constitution Center, CEO of the Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation, and president of JCI Data, a provider of information and database management services. She serves Hamilton as Vice Chair of the Board. We asked her to tell us more about Books UnBanned and the role of libraries today.
Why is it important to take a stand against the book ban?
The Brooklyn Public Library strongly upholds the principles of intellectual freedom. We cannot sit idly by while books rejected by a few are taken off the shelves for all. As a public library, we defend the books we agree with with the same fervor that we defend those we disagree with. The library is the square of the modern city providing a platform to debate and discuss the dilemmas of our times.
How Did Books UnBanned Get Started?
The book ban has been more extreme this year than in the past 20 years. We first thought about how we could help, especially in parts of the country like Texas, where many of our textbooks are published, and Virginia, where censorship has been extreme. When progress was slow, we decided to tackle the problem directly with the audience we aim to help: young adults who can’t find the books they want to read on their school or public library shelves. . We issued a national press release explaining that anyone between the ages of 13 and 21 who emailed us requesting a digital library card would have access to our digital collection for one year. Four or five days later, it went viral, and we went from a few hundred requests a day to thousands.
For a limited time, people ages 13-21 can apply for a free Brooklyn Public Library e-card, providing access to the library’s full e-book collection and learning databases.
What kind of feedback do you get?
The emails we have received are poignant but at the same time discouraging. Young people struggling with issues related to sexuality or race feel isolated, especially when the material they wish to read on topics such as critical race theory, LGBTQ+ issues, even the Holocaust , is not available. One wrote: “I’m 15 and live in North Dakota. I wish I could read books I want to read and not what others in power deem appropriate. I think being able to form my own opinion is very important.
What has changed for libraries over the past decade?
When I started [at the Brooklyn Public Library], there was a perception among those outside the library world that libraries were on a steep march toward obsolescence. The argument was based on the idea that search engines like Google would bankrupt libraries. I don’t hear that argument these days. And certainly with the onset of the pandemic, people who are online all day have begun to realize how difficult life can be without good internet access, let alone inadequate broadband at home. The public library played a role in leveling the playing field between those on both sides of the digital divide. In the cities of this country, the number of people who do not have Internet access at home reaches 30%. Whether you were trying to keep your kids in class via Zoom or working remotely and doing whatever else the pandemic required, internet access was essential. The pandemic has amplified the difficulties of being on the wrong side of the digital divide. Libraries are there to bridge that gap.
What attracted you to this job?
In a past life, I ran an information services company that provided services to magazine publishers and direct marketers. In the 90s, when the Internet bubble developed, the whole business model of publishers began to change with the advent of electronic transmission of information. I started thinking about how changes in the publishing world affected libraries. I knew people at the Free Library in Philadelphia, so I started there. As the use of the internet and digital materials grew, libraries were still stuck in the old model – people were still coming to borrow paper books written in English. While the changes I expected to see had not begun, I began to learn about the role of libraries in almost every community in this country. And the more I learned, the more interested and committed I became to the institution.
Libraries are the most democratic institution in our society. To be welcome in our branches, all you have to do is want to walk through our doors, and knowledge of the world is at your fingertips. Race, socio-economic status and immigration status are irrelevant. If you are curious enough to venture through our doors – even our electronic portals – the material in our collections is there for you with librarians helping library patrons navigate all of this information.