DES MOINES, Iowa — Books bring a world never before possible into reach.
“There used to be very little bits of information and it was only available for a privileged few,” said Susan Woody who serves as the director of the Des Moines Public Library which is Iowa’s largest public library. “Librarians take this responsibility very seriously. “They don’t look at their own personal views. We very consciously make sure that whatever the issue is both sides are represented,” said Woody.
The ability for everybody to have access to books from all viewpoints could be traced to one of her predecessors in Des Moines nearly a century ago.
Woody said, “Libraries have always been about making information available to everyone and everyone’s information needs are completely different and that’s why we need to offer so many different types of information and every viewpoint on information.”
In the 1930s American tension with other countries was running high. “The rise of totalitarianism and the rise of racism. There was a lot going on with the World War II and depression aftermath,” said Woody.
Book censorship of minority experiences along with Russian and German politics became prevalent. Des Moines Public Library director Forrest Spaulding stood firm in his beliefs of a library’s power to be a voice no matter one’s race, religion, or ethnicity.
Woody said, “What Forrest Spaulding did was to let people know that libraries are for everyone and that all points of view must be represented. We want to make sure all voices are heard and that people have access to that information,” said Woody.
In 1938, in an effort to stop books from being questioned in the future, Spaulding created the Library Bill of Rights. “The core remains the same. Access to books, representation of all ideas, and anti-censorship,” Woody said.
The Bill of Rights caught on like wildfire across the country.
“We started out with just the Library Bill of Rights with four points. He presented it to his then board of directors but he had friends with the American Library Association and they got a hold of this and thought it was a fantastic idea. They adopted it and it’s been revised a few times over the years,” said Woody.
A year before America would even enter World War II, Spaulding was pushed hard to remove Mein Kempf, Adolf Hitler’s autobiography because of its German nationalistic views. Woody said, “At the time there was a lot of anti-German sentiment and he wanted to make sure all points of view were represented and all people are represented especially African-Americans at the time.”
Spaulding felt that the more that people knew about Hitler the more people might urge America to enter into the war quicker to stop him. “The idea that we can learn from these stories and knowledge is power. Knowledge is not something that should be controlled nor banned,” said Woody.
Woody says Spaulding’s legacy is now under attack. “We have political conservative groups who are on the offensive and what Forrest Spaulding was all about was we have to come together and we have to rally against all forms of censorship.”
Recent legislation awaiting Governor Kim Reynolds’ signature would make it easier for parents to call books with graphic depictions of sexual acts into question at their local school libraries. “There’s LGBTQ+ and all different voices out there that we need to hear those stories. Stories we can identify with and stories we can learn from. That’s what Forrest was trying to tell us. All people’s stories are important and we must represent all points of view,” Woody said.
It may seem like municipal libraries are off limits but the action under the golden dome is around the corner with leaders like Woody watching from the doorsteps. Woody said, “It’s happening. It’s increasing and I am very fearful. We are a powerful large library but there are smaller libraries which are the community pride. They are the seats of civic responsibility and they are being challenged in their small communities.”
New leaders turning the page to a new chapter yet to be written. Woody said, “We are grateful to Forrest Spaulding for giving us this framework to have a position of strength to fight back.”
According to the American Library Association, there were 1,269 attempted book bans in 2022. Nearly double the 729 attempts in 2021.