UChicago Library expands access to banned books amid national debate over censorship

UChicago marks Banned Books Week by launching effort to collect more than 1,500 books banned in U.S., make them broadly available

In the midst of growing controversy over nationwide efforts to ban books, the University of Chicago has announced that it is expanding access to banned books for researchers and members of the public in Chicago, throughout Illinois and across the U.S.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton joined UChicago President Paul Alivisatos and University Librarian and Dean of the University Library Torsten Reimer for the announcement Oct. 3.

The American Library Association reports that censorship attempts at libraries are on pace to set a record for the third straight year. In the first eight months of 2023, the ALA recorded challenges to 1,915 unique titles, a 20% increase over challenges during a comparable period in 2022. Books written by or about people of color or members of the LGBTQIA+ community made up the vast majority of such challenges. The ALA report was released in advance of Banned Books Week, which is Oct. 1-7.

UChicago’s expansion of access to banned books is intended to help address this trend, lower barriers to sharing information, and support open inquiry and discourse.

“The University’s distinctive culture is built upon its commitment to advancing free expression and free inquiry,” said Alivisatos. “By providing more opportunities for people nationwide to access a wide range of books, we are putting that fundamental principle into action.”

“The freedom to read is one of the core tenets of a democratic society, which is why I signed legislation restricting book bans in Illinois libraries,” said Pritzker. “The University of Chicago has taken another admirable step for freedom of education with this resource, which I know will serve patrons and remind those that seek to suppress creativity that we will not be silenced.”

The University of Chicago Library has launched an effort to build a comprehensive collection of books banned across the U.S. Items in the collections at Regenstein, Mansueto and Crerar libraries can be consulted by members of the public free of charge, in-person with a visitor pass. Most can be checked out by UChicago patrons and can be borrowed by readers at other libraries through interlibrary loan.

“We believe that knowledge enriches life, and book bans stand against freedom of inquiry and expression and therefore against the core principles of the University of Chicago,” Reimer said. “I am pleased that we are announcing our efforts to extend access to banned books in the same week that the University of Chicago Forum for Free Inquiry and Expression is celebrating its opening, as our efforts go hand in hand.”

The banned book collection is intended to be a valuable tool for researchers seeking to understand book bans across the United States, providing a way for the public to engage with banned books. The UChicago Library already owns approximately 25% of a list of more than 1,500 books that have been banned from libraries across the U.S. and aims to rapidly build and maintain a complete collection.

To expand digital access to banned books for those who cannot conveniently visit Hyde Park, the UChicago Library is collaborating with the Digital Public Library of America on two initiatives. First, the UChicago Library plans to fund online access to banned ebooks for all Illinois residents for at least a year through DPLA’s recently launched Banned Book Club on the Palace e-reader app.

Second, the UChicago Library will partner with DPLA to increase online access to books in the communities where they are banned by expanding agreements with publishers. DPLA’s Banned Book Club uses GPS-based geolocation to facilitate access to books that are banned where the app user is currently located. The Banned Book Club includes access to more than 900 titles that have been the target of bans in communities nationwide. By partnering with UChicago Library they will strive to offer access to nearly all the approximately 1,500 titles that have been banned.

“We are excited to collaborate with the UChicago Library to increase the number of titles we can make available and bring this collection to readers throughout Illinois,” said John S. Bracken, Executive Director of the DPLA.

 “Through this partnership, we are also sending a signal that the University of Chicago stands in solidarity with librarians across the country and with already marginalized communities that are targeted through book bans,” Reimer said. “We hope that our work will set an example that others will follow, in the U.S. and wherever access to knowledge is at risk.”