Forrest Spaulding: Drafter of the Original Library Bill of Rights

Censorship, Intellectual Freedom Issues, Library Bill of Rights, Professional Ethics

In the main administrative meeting room of the downtown branch of the Des Moines Public Library in Des Moines, Iowa, there hangs on the wall a painting of a bespectacled, slightly disheveled man in a tie and jacket. He has a book in his hands. Next to the painting is a framed copy of the Library Bill of Rights. Though not exactly well-known as a local folk hero in central Iowa, Library Director Forrest Spaulding—the man in the painting—wrote the anti-censorship document that the Des Moines Public Library adopted as policy and that directly evolved into the 1939 version of ALA Library Bill of Rights. Spaulding wrote the pre-ALA version partially out of his concerned reaction to what he saw the totalitarian governments of Europe doing in the 1930s, but even before drafting the bill, intellectual freedom issues had been passing through Spaulding’s professional environment for 20 years.

Forrest Spaulding, Courtesy Des Moines Public Library
Forrest Spaulding, Courtesy Des Moines Public Library

Born in Nashua, New Hampshire on May 4, 1892, Spaulding graduated from the New York Public Library’s library school in 1913 and worked in New York City’s library system before moving to Des Moines in 1917 to take the job as city librarian. Spaulding came to work in Des Moines during mobilization for the First World War, a time which saw authors and speakers in trouble with government forces for criticizing the war effort and during which German-language books and newspapers were being challenged and removed from libraries or prevented from arriving in the first place; the Trading With the Enemy Act of 1917 made it illegal to use US Mail to send foreign language works without a certified translation. In Iowa, Governor William Harding even went so far as to ban the use of any language besides English in public. As Spaulding’s duties included making sure the wartime troops staged at nearby Camp Dodge were kept supplied with reading material, it isn’t surprising that Spaulding doesn’t appear to have spoken out about any of this when it was happening, but he surely took note.

A few years after this, during the postwar “Red Scare” of 1919, Spaulding weathered some controversy when the outspoken Socialist Kate Richards O’Hare came to Des Moines and sought to use the library auditorium to give a speech, and Spaulding refused to allow it. He later explained in a column for the Des Moines Daily News that organizers had made arrangements for the speech under “false pretenses” and that he was looking out for the public interest by disallowing the gathering. Though the City and library were threatened with a lawsuit by local Socialists, it never materialized. This episode is pertinent in light of the fourth point of the original Des Moines-centric version of the Library Bill of Rights, which states that “Library meeting rooms shall be available on equal terms to all organized nonprofit groups for open meetings to which no admission fee is charged and from which no one is excluded.”

Fast forward a bit past some career-related relocations and a move back to Des Moines and Spaulding’s career enters the 1930s, a time which saw Great Depression-related economic challenges affecting not only his own public library but public libraries in general. It was also a time of great global tension, generally. In this roiling decade, totalitarian governments in Germany, Russia and elsewhere were banning or burning books, driving “subversive”, “racially impure” or “counter-revolutionary” literature out of schools and libraries and exiling or imprisoning authors of works considered politically problematic. Similar if less militant challenges to books here in the US—notably John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf—also inspired Spaulding’s efforts.

In response to all of this, Spaulding, possibly working with others and his thinking undoubtedly informed by work he was doing in the early 30s to underscore the literary and artistic contributions of and lack of opportunities for African Americans (I can find no evidence that his work in this regard faced censorship or backlash, but he seems to have been aware of the rampant racism of his era), drafted what he called “The Library’s Bill of Rights.” He presented the four-point document to his library board and it was passed as library policy without much apparent controversy on November 21,1938. This original version of the Bill included a preamble that read in part: “Today indications in many parts of the world point to growing intolerance, suppression of free speech, and censorship affecting the rights of minorities and individuals,” underscoring Spaulding’s global understanding of the matter.

The next June at an American Library Association meeting in San Francisco, Spaulding’s friend and chair of the ALA Adult Education Board Ernestine Rose moved that the Association adopt a more universal version of the Des Moines document, and it passed on June 19, with appropriate expansion and editing. In the wake of all of this, Spaulding was appointed the chair of a special committee on censorship that, at the urging of Spaulding and the other members, became a permanent part of the ALA and eventually evolved into the Office for Intellectual Freedom. On ALA’s website, you can find the most current version of the Library Bill of Rights, along with it’s 28 interpretations, a poster, and printable brochures.

This month, 129 years after his birth and almost 82 years after the ALA’s adoption of the Library Bill of Rights, it seems fitting to remember the work done by Forrest Spaulding in creating a bold and straightforward document that continues to inform the library profession in the United States and around the world.

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