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The Man Who Wrote the Library Bill of Rights
In this world of Internet searches, question and answer websites and Google books, it is easy to forget the amazing impact of libraries on the young people of this nation. Much of this can be traced back to the Library Bill of Rights, a specialized form of the bill of rights acknowledging the right of American citizens to access to free information and books about the nation and written by its greatest writers and thinkers.
Much of that bill is owed to Forrest Brisbin Spaulding. His name is one that should be recognized across America because he helped to safeguard the right of any US citizen to information. Seen as a patriot, he has been honored by American Libraries as one of the 100 most important American leaders of the 20th century.
Born in Nashua, New Hampshire, Spaulding has been described as a scrawny kid who was taught a love of books by his parents. An only child, he grew up to be the kind of character he read about in his books, a chain smoking wordsmith who loved puns and traveling by train.
He first began working in the library industry by helping the YMCA organize traveling libraries for soldiers patrolling the Mexican border. Even though there were not many readers there and few books given and collected, he did his utmost best to ensure soldiers were given a wide range of books to read.
Between 1917 and 1919, Spaulding worked for the Des Moines Public Library as its director. After a short amount of time there, and while still young, he moved to Peru to oversee its museums and libraries where he also worked as a correspondent for the Associated Press. This sojourn gave him an object lesson in government censorship. On his return to America, he once again took up his role in Des Moines and went on to hold it until 1952.
His greatest contribution to America was the Library Bill of Rights. Like so many of America’s greatest achievements, this began as a local event. One that blossomed and spread across the country until taken up by the Library Association.
During the 1930s Spaulding was becoming increasingly concerned about censorship in America. He had seen its effects on the people of Peru and argued with strength and vigor that those same effects should not be felt by the people of America. He stressed that knowing too much about a person such as Adolf Hitler or about communism was not the problem for the people. He believed that the problem would come from knowing too little. The more mysterious a person or movement, the less people knew, the more attractive it would look to some.
Spaulding wrote the Library Bill of Rights in 1938, as the world stood on the brink of a second world war. Later that year, he presented it to the Des Moines Public Library’s board and it was used as a general proclamation for a person’s right to information. The library vowed to stand firm against any attempt to curtail its collection and to ban certain books from being available to read.
The bill states that:
I. Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.
II. Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.
III. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.
IV. Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.
V. A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.
VI. Libraries which make exhibit spaces and meeting rooms available to the public they serve should make such facilities available on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use.
A year after being written by Spaulding, the American Library Association adopted it as their own. One of the major revisions included the removal of Spaulding’s original introduction. In it he decried the totalitarian states that had grown up around the world, the suppression of free speech and censorship in general. After being used to fight fascism and the circulation of books such as “Mein Kampf,” the Bill was used to fight the suppression of communist literature.
While best remembered for the Library Bill of Rights, Spaulding should also be remembered for his work with the YMCA in the 1910s, the foundation of the Waterfront University for unemployed men in the basement of Des Moines Public University and for using WHO radio as a library outreach program. His life has since been turned into a play entitled “The Not So Quiet Librarian” by Cynthia Mercati starring Tom Milligan.
Emma Watts is a freelance writer based in England who grew up in New York and loved the enthusiasm for history, the Constitution and freedom that the American people show. Currently she writes for the Lane furniture company discussing the latest fashion trends in interior design.
Matthew C. Krahn:
Matt Krahn is an Arizona native and graduate of Arizona State University’s Baccalaureate program in Secondary Education with an emphasis in American History. Matt has continued his passion for historical studies at the graduate level. He is currently attending American Military University, where he is pursuing a Masters of Arts in Military History. In addition to Matt’s academic pursuits, he is also a member of the Arizona Rough Riders Association, the Theodore Roosevelt Association, the American Historical Association, and the Society for Military History. Matt currently serves as the Arizona Capitol Museum Guild Historian.