To mark National Banned Books Week, Sept. 18-24, Hamilton is proud to share the work of one of our own.

As president and CEO of Brooklyn Public Library, Linda E. Johnson ’80 heads one of the largest library systems in the country, an organization serving more than one million patrons in 62 branches and dozens of outposts including homeless shelters, prisons, and laundromats, to name but a few.
Linda E. Johnson
Linda E. Johnson. Photo: Gregg Richards, BPL

During her 11 years at the helm, she has overseen the transformation of the library from an analog system to a library with state-of-the-art technology and digital collections available free of charge to all Brooklyn residents.

The library’s latest initiative, Books UnBanned, launched in April to address what she calls a troubling and growing effort among legislators to remove books from library shelves — particularly books addressing race and LGBTQ+ issues. Through the program, young adults from throughout the U.S. can send an email to the Brooklyn Public Library asking for free access to its collection of more than a half million e-books and audiobooks. In its first four months, more than 5,000 subscribers representing all 50 states have checked out over 16,000 items. As part of the initiative, a Council of Brooklyn Teens has been working throughout the summer to put together book lists and host virtual book discussions with their peers in other parts of the country.

Before 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, an information services and database management provider. She serves Hamilton as vice chair of the Board of Trustees. We asked her to tell us more about Books UnBanned and the role of libraries today.

Why is taking a stand against book banning important?

Brooklyn Public Library stands firmly for the principles of intellectual freedom. We cannot sit by while books rejected by a few are removed from the shelves for all. As a public library, we defend the books we agree with with equal fervor as we defend those we do not agree with. The library is the modern-day town square providing a platform to debate and discuss the dilemmas of our day. 

How did Books UnBanned get started?

Book banning has been more extreme this year than in any of the past 20 years. We initially 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 approach the problem by going directly to the audience we are aiming to help: young adults who cannot find the books they want to read on the shelves of their school or public libraries. We issued a national press release explaining that anyone 13 to 21 years old who sent us an email asking for a digital library card would be given access to our digital collection for one year. Four or five days in, it went viral, and we went from a few hundred requests a day to thousands.

About Books UnBanned

For a limited time, individuals ages 13-21 can apply for a free Brooklyn Public Library eCard, providing access to the library’s full eBook collection and learning databases. 

What kind of feedback are you getting?

The emails we have received are poignant but at the same time dispiriting. Young people grappling with issues relating to sexuality or race feel isolated, particularly when the material they want to read on such topics as critical race theory, LGBTQ+ issues, even the Holocaust, is unavailable. One wrote, “I am 15 and live in North Dakota. I would like to be able to read books that I want to read not what others in power deem appropriate. I think that being able to form my own opinions is very important.”

What has changed for libraries in the past decade or so?

When I started [at the Brooklyn Public Library], there was a perception among those outside the library world that libraries were on a forced march to obsolescence. The argument was based on the notion that search engines like Google would put libraries out of business. I don’t hear this argument these days. And certainly with the onset of the pandemic, people who are online all day long began to realize how challenging life can be without good internet access, much less with inadequate broadband at home. The public library played a role in leveling the playing field between those on the two sides of the digital divide. In this country’s cities, the number of people who do not have internet access at home is as high as 30%. If you were trying to keep your children in class via Zoom or work remotely and do everything else the pandemic required, internet access was critical. The pandemic amplified the struggles of being on the wrong side of the digital divide. Libraries are here to bridge that divide.

What drew you to this work?

In a past life, I ran an information services company that provided services to magazine publishers and direct marketers. In the ’90s, when the dot-com bubble was expanding, the whole business model for publishers started to shift with the advent of the electronic transmission of information. I began thinking about how changes in the publishing world were affecting libraries. I knew people at the Free Library in Philadelphia so I started there. While use of the internet and digital materials was growing, libraries were still stuck in the old model — people were still coming in to borrow hardcopy books written in English. While the changes I expected to see had not begun, I began learning about the role of libraries in nearly every community in this country. And the more I learned, the more interested and committed to the institution I became.

Libraries are the most democratic institution in our society. To be welcome in our branches all you need is the inclination to walk through our doors, and the world’s knowledge is at your fingertips. Race, socioeconomic status, and immigration status are immaterial. If you are curious enough to venture through our doors — even our electronic portals — the material in our collections is there for you together with librarians who help library patrons navigate all that information.

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