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San Diego Public Library offers banned books to people across the country

Book-ban battles are playing out across the country. But the San Diego Public Library wants to circumvent that censorship. KPBS’s Amita Sharma says the library offers people access to banned books in their communities.

The San Diego Public Library is fighting censorship elsewhere in the country.

The library has joined its counterparts in Los Angeles, Seattle and Boston to participate in Books Unbanned. Brooklyn Public Library started the program in 2022 to provide access to scores of books that have been removed from public and school library shelves in nearly two dozen states. Many of those states had organized book banning campaigns.

In the first eight months of this year, the American Library Association (ALA) reported challenges to 1,915 books, a 20% increase over the same period in 2022. The objections were mostly over books dealing with race or LGBTQ themes.


“These attacks on our freedom to read should trouble every person who values liberty and our constitutional rights,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. “To allow a group of people or any individual, no matter how powerful or loud, to become the decision-maker about what books we can read or whether libraries exist, is to place all of our rights and liberties in jeopardy.”
The San Diego Public Library is circumventing that censorship by providing library cards to people who don’t live in San Diego and can’t access certain books in their own communities. The collection of about 400 books includes titles like “Stamped from the Beginning“ about racism and “All Boys Aren’t Blue“ about being LGBTQ.

“A lot of people are still having to hide who they are and they’re still not able to read about the people who have the same experiences as them because they live in super conservative communities or they’re not even accepted by their own families, and so this is really what I consider a lifeline for them,” said Misty Jones, director of the San Diego Public Library.

She said that about 470 people from states in the Midwest and South have accessed the program. She believes Books Unbanned goes beyond making a wide range of material available to people who want to read them.

“If we are going to protect democracy, that means that we have to step outside of our bubble,” Jones said. “We have to step outside of what our immediate surroundings are and be part of the solution for other people as well and other communities. And so it's more than just about San Diego.”

In the last year, Jones herself has had to contend with local efforts to ban certain books. In June, two people checked out all the books on display to commemorate Pride month at the Rancho Penasquitos library branch. Jones said the pair threatened to never return the books unless the library promised to remove them from the shelves permanently. When word of the threat spread, local residents bought all the books that had been checked out and donated them to the library.


Patrick Stewart, chief executive officer of Library Foundation SD, said the library and its partners remain committed to intellectual freedom locally and beyond.

“I believe young readers have a right to see themselves reflected on the shelves of all libraries, and when that is challenged, I want them to know that there are people who see them and are ready to protect their right to read what they want,” Stewart said.