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  • We Analyzed 1,626 Banned Books...Here's What We Found

We Analyzed 1,626 Banned Books...Here's What We Found

What do banned books have in common?

We highly recommend checking out our interactive web experience for this post! Built in collaboration with yarn.tech. Link below:

The non-profits PEN America and the American Library Association keep a catalog of banned books in the United States up to the 2021-22 academic year. In this 1 academic year alone, 1600+ books were irregularly banned from school districts across America.

Irregular bans tend to be ideologically driven. They are supplemental to and fall outside of the standard book exclusion process (e.g. standard exclusions prevent books that promote violent, hateful, or “mature/17+” topics from being placed on school bookshelves). Below, we’ve provided a sample of irregularly banned books in 2021-22:

From our initial cursory observations, we’ve identified some patterns in these irregular bans. However, we’ve collected additional information from government-provided data sources (e.g. Census data on school districts) and APIs (e.g. Google Books/Goodreads API) to speak to these bans more substantively. To our knowledge, this is the most comprehensive dataset on banned books in America. Our goal in providing this data publicly is 3 fold:

  • Ongoing monitoring of banned books

  • Promoting transparency into which books are being banned (and why)

  • Holding public officials complicit or active in the bans accountable

Insights

First, we aim to measure the reach of the bans. By PEN America’s estimates, 2 million students attend school in a district that has banned books. When we supplement their data with information from the Census bureau, we believe this is an underestimate and, in reality, 3.8 million students are impacted (that’s roughly 7% of the school age population).

We then aim to map the states in which bans have occurred. Texas (578) and Pennsylvania (424) lead the nation, while Florida (409) and Tennessee (341) lag not-too-far behind. With Invisible Library, it is possible to map banned topics onto states as well, more on that below.

No. of Titles Banned by State. Data: PEN America. Visual: Statecraft

2 of the most valuable attributes we’ve added to the data include:

  • A long natural-language description of each book pulled from Google’s APIs (this is what you might read on the back of a physical book).

  • Tags or topics for each book. A book can have several tags such as “LGBTQ+”, “activism”, and “African American and Black Studies”. We wrote a script to parse this ourselves from categories provided by publishers via the Google Books API.

We wanted a better sense of the topics being banned. Before creating the chart below, we removed generic tags (e.g. “young adult fiction”) and consolidated similar topics (e.g. “Asian American” and “Asian American/Pacific Islander” were consolidated under “Asian American & Pacific Islander”).

Topic Concentration in Banned Titles. Data and Visual: Statecraft

The Topic Concentration chart above lends the clearest picture into the implied rationale behind the bans. Namely, the bans are not and have not been about the physical removal of a book from a shelf. The bans instead are meant to:

  1. Virtue signal by people in positions of institutional power to voting-age parents interested in school choice, parental rights, and wedge social issues to the detriment of non-voting age students

  2. Reject and exclude topics that challenge a perceived status quo from the public discourse (e.g. non-heteronormativity, non-cis identity, non-traditional gender roles, and non-Judeo-Christian books are targeted)

We did entertain the viewpoint from ban advocates that the books being banned are largely driven by age-inappropriate content. This viewpoint does not align with publisher provided maturity ratings as below:

Further, the particular age-inappropriate topics being referred to by ban advocates like violent or sexual content are specific to social violence and non-heteronormative sexual topics. Books that heavily feature heterosexual relationships and/or military violence are not being referred to by ban advocates nor are they disproportionally being targeted. The same applies to the argument that books regarding activism or examinations of race in America are too political for school age people; there is a specific activism and racial critique being referred to.

Final Thoughts

Fortunately, book bans are widely unpopular amongst parents across the ideological spectrum. The bans today look strikingly similar to bans in the 1980s. At that time, ban advocates argued books like Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five were “anti-American”, “anti-Christian”, and “filthy”. Appeals against the bans made it to the Supreme Court in 1982, where the court split on a decision (Island Trees School District v. Pico); this left the First Amendment question looming.

Today, PEN America and Penguin Random House are suing Escambia School District of Florida for its bans. Perhaps this time, 40+ years later, we can get closure on the bans for good.

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