Boston-based philanthropists are coming together to help get banned books in the hands of Florida residents, where efforts to ban books has surged.
Tech entrepreneur Paul English, who co-founded Kayak, and Joyce Linehan, former chief of policy for the City of Boston and member of the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, have founded BannedBooksUSA.org, an online platform that allows Florida residents to order banned and restricted books for just the price of shipping.
English said he hopes the initiative helps get the books in the hands of readers, but also prompts communities to fight harder against banning books.
“If you look at the authors behind the books that are banned, they're largely BIPOC, Black, gay, Indigenous,” he said. “They're people that have been marginalized with more attempts to marginalize them. And so what the bans are doing is they're not letting these marginalized people tell their story. They're instead trying to tell a very different story about American history and our society”
English and Linehan created the platform, launched Wednesday, in reaction to the book bans taking place in Florida, where more than 40% of book bans nationwide in 2022 have occurred in the state's school districts, according to a PEN America study. Last year, school districts in the state removed approximately 300 books from library shelves after more than 1,200 objections raised by parents, according to the Florida Department of Education.
Any Florida resident who wants a book can go on the website, choose one title to order and pay $3.99 to have it shipped. Florida residents, libraries and educational institutions can order a book — or someone out of state can send a book to someone they know, with the receiver having to approve the shipment. A Florida delivery address is required for the sale to process.
The cost of the books will be covered by a $100,000 investment by English and any additional funding raised.
English and Linehan chose to start with Florida due to the severity of restrictions on people’s rights to read. This includes a law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis that took effect in July, that mandates school districts discontinue the use of any material that contains “sexual conduct.”
Linehan said she is alarmed at ongoing restrictions to access books across the country — like in Mississippi, where a new law prohibits residentsunder the age of 18 from accessing digital library ebook platforms like Hoopla, Libby and OverDrive.
“Intellectual freedom is the very cornerstone of our democracy and it has to be protected,” she said. “It's a fundamental piece of the First Amendment rights that we have as Americans.”
BannedBooksUSA.org partnered with online bookseller Bookshop.org to oversee the fulfillment of the book orders and will follow the seller’s model — 10% of the cover price of delivered books will directly support Florida independent bookstores. In addition, at least a dollar from each order placed will go to Florida Freedom to Read Project, a nonprofit that aims to defend intellectual freedom.
Electric Literature will be the nonprofit partner for the project — receiving donations and curating the list of banned books that will be available on the website. Halimah Marcus, executive director of Electric Literature, said the project at the start will allow about 5,000 people in Florida to get a book for free. She said the organization hopes to fundraise an additional $50,000 from grassroots donations.
“We need to be able to learn about ourselves by learning about other people,” Marcus said. “And that's just a magic power that books have. Taking those books off the shelves and making them more difficult to access is a detrimental force to an artistic medium that I just think is so essential to our culture.”
In the future with more funding, English and Linehan hope the project can be expanded beyond Florida. English said the likely next goal would be Texas, where more books were banned than any state in 2022 — 801 books banned across 22 districts.
Book bans are not just a far off issue, Linehan said. In Massachusetts, there were 45 attempts to censor books and other library resources in 2022, according to the American Library Association.
Linehan hopes BannedBooksUSA.org stems the “dangerous tide” of book bans. She encourages people to learn about the importance of getting involved with school and library boards, so they can fight against those interested in restricting rights and banning books.
Raegen Miller is director of development of The Florida Freedom To Read Project, which tracks all the censorship attempts in Florida so the public can know what's going on.
Miller said they’ve already seen a jump in book challenges this school year. She hopes BannedBooksUSA.org helps bring awareness to the problem.
“I think when people get their hands on these books they're like, why is this challenged?” she said. “I have talked to people from all political persuasions, and they're stunned at what's going on. My hope is that people see the books and that it really does raise this awareness that is so desperately needed.”