Libraries Closing Under Threat

Banned Books Week turns dark as numerous city libraries shut down after bomb scares

This year’s Banned Books Week took a dangerous turn when libraries in at least three major U.S. cities received threats deemed serious enough to close multiple branches for the day.

Authorities haven’t publicly linked the threats to the widespread and unprecedented campaigns to ban books. But it’s hard to ignore the timing. In past years, Banned Books Week has typically been a celebration of reading specific titles. This year, anti-censorship activism anchored a week punctuated by violent threats against public libraries.

First up was Fort Worth, which evacuated and closed 17 library branches Sept. 19 after receiving three emails that contained a bomb threat. Police traced the threats to emails originating outside of the United States, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Texas schools have banned the most books this past year, according to a Sept. 19 report from PEN America. Outside Fort Worth, for example, officials in Keller ISD pulled more than 40 books off shelves just before school started, after passing a new policy that all books with complaints had to be reviewed a second time before returning to classrooms. It’s not surprising, then, that Keller’s public library system put up a Banned Books Week post celebrating 2021’s most-censored titles — and then abruptly took it down at the direction of city officials who worried that the post would invite more controversy.

LibrariesOn Sept. 21 in Denver, library officials closed branches and halted bookmobile stops after receiving a “digital threat.” And then came Nashville. On Sept. 22 at about 10:30 a.m., library staff at the city’s downtown branch told police that they too had received an emailed bomb threat. Library executives decided to close all branches for the rest of the day.

Tennessee is also a hotspot of book banning: McMinn County made international news when school board members pulled Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus from shelves. Nashville libraries fought back by issuing 5,000 limited-edition library cards in bright yellow emblazoned with “I Read Banned Books With My Library Card” as part of its efforts to combat censorship.

While last week’s full-scale closures were new, libraries and their workers have increasingly become targets. In June, the American Library Association issued a statement condemning the threats “in response to the alarming increase in acts of aggression toward library workers and patrons.”

A sampling of incidents from just this month includes police in Salt Lake City sweeping public library branches Sept. 12 after reports of a bomb threat. On Sept. 13, the Downers Grove library southwest of Chicago canceled a drag queen bingo program for teens after multiple threats, telling the NBC News affiliate that the “severity” of the threats led to the decision. And a Bronx branch of the New York Public Library canceled a Sept. 17 reading and Q&A event after the high school sophomore slated to read from his book “Be Amazing: A History of Pride” received multiple threats about the event via Instagram.

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Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

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