The Aspen Institute’s Conversations with Great Leaders Series, in Memory of Preston Robert Tisch, is thrilled to welcome Linda Johnson in conversation with Suzanne Nossel.
Last year, Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) – one of the country’s largest public library systems –launched “Books Unbanned,” an initiative designed to give youth who have been impacted by the alarming wave of book bans throughout the country, free access to BPL’s digital collection and learning databases.
Linda E. Johnson is President and CEO of the system and has overseen BPL’s transformation from an analog to a modern library with state-of-the-art technology available for free to all patrons, working with elected officials, private foundations, and library stakeholders, to ensure that underserved and underrepresented communities have access to knowledge on every platform.
Combating censorship is at the core of the library’s work and is one of the most important issues Linda has grappled with during her tenure. Brooklyn Public Library is taking a leadership role in fighting for the rights of teens nationwide to read what they like, discover themselves, and form their own opinions. Inspired by the American Library Association’s Freedom to Read Statement, BPL’s “Books Unbanned” initiative is a response to an increasingly coordinated and effective effort to remove books tackling a wide range of topics from library shelves. Brooklyn Public Library made its entire catalog of 500,000 digital titles available to anyone ages 13 to 21 across the country.
A few months ago, Library Journal recognized five staff members as librarians of the year for their efforts to reach readers in places that censor books. Last month, Fast Company named BPL a winner of Fast Company’s 2023 World Changing Ideas Awards in the Social Justice category.
Prior to joining BPL, Linda served as president and CEO of the National Constitution Center, CEO of the Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation, and president of JCI Data. Currently, Linda sits on the boards of Hamilton College, Sing for Hope, the Curtis Institute of Music, and the Metropolitan Opera.
Suzanne Nossel is Chief Executive Officer at PEN America and author of Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All. Prior to joining PEN America, she served as the Chief Operating Officer of Human Rights Watch and as Executive Director of Amnesty International USA. She has served in the Obama Administration as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations, leading US engagement in the UN and multilateral institutions on human rights issues, and in the Clinton Administration as Deputy to the US Ambassador for UN Management and Reform. Nossel coined the term “Smart Power,” which was the title of a 2004 article she published in Foreign Affairs Magazine and later became the theme of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s tenure in office. She is a featured columnist for Foreign Policy magazine and has published op-eds in The New York Times, Washington Post, and LA Times, as well as scholarly articles in Foreign Affairs, Dissent, and Democracy, among others. Nossel is a member of the Oversight Board, an international body that oversees content moderation on social media. She is a former senior fellow at the Century Foundation, the Center for American Progress, and the Council on Foreign Relations. Nossel is a magna cum laude graduate of both Harvard College and Harvard Law School.
The Aspen Institute is grateful to Steve Tisch, Laurie Tisch, Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch, and to the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund for their generous support of this program.