September 18-24 is Banned Books Week across America, and the Des Moines Public Library is spending the week celebrating the freedom to read and educating the public on the harms censorship can inflict in our communities.
Des Moines Public Library Director Susan A. Woody says it's important libraries take a stand against censorship of all kinds, as it is part of a library's mission to connect each individual with information and materials that they find important
"We consider equitable access to information a basic right for all. As a library, it is our responsibility and duty to uphold this right and challenge those who intend to infringe upon it," says Woody. "Intolerance has been spreading in recent years and the community looks to the library as a bastion of democracy and civility. We take that role very seriously and will defend our community’s right to read."
Q&A with Susan A. Woody
Q: Why is the subject of censorship and banned books important to public libraries?
A: Our library’s mission is all about connecting people with the ideas and tools they need to enrich their lives. That means we connect people to information and materials that are important to them as individuals. What is important to one person may be completely different than what is important to another. Our job is to provide materials and information to all people. We consider equitable access to information a basic right for all. As a library, it is our responsibility and duty to uphold this right and challenge those who intend to infringe upon it. Intolerance has been spreading in recent years and the community looks to the library as a bastion of democracy and civility. We take that role very seriously and will defend our community’s right to read.
Q: What history does DMPL have in fighting censorship?
A: We are very proud that DMPL Director Forrest Spaulding penned the original Library Bill of Rights in 1938. This document was ultimately adopted by the American Library Association. It speaks to freedom to read, equitable access to library resources, and resistance to censorship. Unfortunately censorship has been around for a long time, but we will continue to speak out against intolerance and censorship whenever and wherever it flares up.
Q: The American Library Association recently reported there were 729 attempts to remove materials from school, university, and public libraries in 2021 – the most in the 20+ years they’ve tracked that statistic. Does the current climate trouble you?
A: Of course. We should ALL be troubled whenever anyone, or any organization, strives to censor or challenge access to books and materials. The most recent wave of censorship has targeted youth literature. I firmly agree that parents should monitor their own children’s exposure to the world through the access points of books, media, entertainment choices, and the internet. For literature, the best way to do this is for parents to actually read some of the titles that are being challenged. If they did, they would read stories of resilience, alternative realities, and bravery. What better subjects to discuss with their kids? But this parental control must not extend beyond their own families. Every family has the right to choose what books and materials are appropriate for their own kids.
Q: What is the role of a public library in regard to information access?
A: Finding the books and materials that fill the needs of individuals and families is what the public library is all about. This is why we place such importance on the true professionals in the field – librarians. They are happy to work with all members of the community to find great books and resources that suit their individual needs and wants. Reading is crucial to a learned society. We read to understand each other. To learn about other cultures and ways of life that may be different from our own. We read to seek knowledge and think critically in order to make informed decisions. Reading teaches us empathy and tolerance instead of judgement and division. This is what a library provides.
Q: How many books have been challenged at the DMPL in the last year?
We have had no formal challenges.
Q: What banned books have you enjoyed?
A: One of my favorite banned books is Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. The fact that he wrote this on a rented typewriter in the basement of a library gives me goosebumps. Imagine being surrounded by books and writing a book about burning them. Last, I have spent a lot of time in the past year reading LGTBQ+ literature to gain a better understanding of the objections being raised by the conservative leaning groups that are challenging them. What I discovered were stories of individuals bravely facing prejudice, bigotry, and racism. I am thankful to these authors for daring to tell their stories so that others may find solidarity with their with life struggles.
Throughout the week, check out this page and our social media channels, including Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and Twitter, to learn more about the history of banned books in America, what books are currently facing the most challenges in public and school libraries, and why free and easy access to information, in all forms, is an important part of a functioning society.
This year, Banned Books Week comes as communities across the country face a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools and libraries. The American Library Association said that in 2021, nearly 1,600 titles were challenged. This was the most in the 20 years that the ALA has been keeping track of nationwide challenges, and was nearly six times higher than it was in 2020.
Here’s what we’ll be doing to education the public during Banned Books Week on our website and social media channels:
- Learn about the ten most challenged books of the past year and why they were challenged. [CLICK HERE]
- A podcast about banned books with Veronica Fowler, Communications Director at the ACLU. [CLICK HERE]
- Which Banned Books should you read? Our staff will let you know our recommendations. [CLICK HERE]
- Test your Banned Books knowledge with our special banned books quiz.
Show Your Support
As part of Banned Books Week, the Des Moines Public Library has created special "I Read Banned Books!" t-shirts. You can get yours at our brand-new library store.
Additionally, new cardholders will be able to receive a limited edition “I Read Banned Books” library card when they sign up for their card.
- What year did Banned Books Week begin?
- According to the American Library Association, what year holds the record for having the most books challenged at libraries and schools?
- How many books were challenged in 2021, according to the ALA?
- Writing the Meritorious Price of Our Redemption, a pamphlet by William Pynchon, has been cited by some as America’s first banned book. Which colony’s government ordered the burning of that pamphlet in 1650?
- Rhode Island
- The three most challenged books of 2021 all share a similar reason for being challenged. What is it?
- European history
- LGBTQIA topics
- What series of books intended for grade school students has been challenged and banned several times in recent years due to complaints about “partial nudity” and that it encourages children to challenge authority?
- Pippi Longstocking
- Peter Rabbit
- Where the Wild Things Are
- Captain Underpants
- Which popular book was briefly banned by a Kansas school district in 2006 after complaints were lodged that “talking animals are blasphemous and unnatural?”
- Stuart Little
- The Mouse and the Motorcycle
- Charlotte’s Web
- How many books were challenged at the Des Moines Public Library in 2011?
- What frequently banned book was part of the Des Moines Public Library’s NEA Big Read program in 2021?
- Fahrenheit 451
- The Things They Carried
- A Farewell to Arms
- Which document, created in 1939 by Des Moines Public Library Director Forrest Spaulding, has been adapted by the American Library Association and affirms that libraries are forums for information and ideas, and “materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.”
- Library Statement of Purpose
- Library Oath of Ethics
- Library Bill of Rights
- Library Petition of Principles
Banned Books in America - Timeline
Copies of a pamphlet written by colonist William Pynchon, titled Writing the Meritorious Price of Our Redemption, is burned by the Puritan government in Massachusetts. The pamphlet contradicted traditional theology and was called heretical. Only four copies survived the burning. Pynchon’s pamphlet has sometimes been called America’s first banned book.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is first published. The book is widely credited for expanding the abolitionist movement. Featuring graphic depictions of the violence associated with slavery, the book was frequently banned, officially and unofficially, across White America, especially in the south.
Books like Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Catcher in the Rye are challenged in part for dealing with sexual assault, class systems, and racial injustice while using strong language. In another incident, popular social studies textbooks written by Harold Rugg are condemned by trade organizations for having “pro-socialist ideas,” including a criticism of the ethics of European dealings with American Indians.
The Supreme Court issues an opinion in Island Trees School District v. Pico, holding the at the First Amendment limits the power of junior high and high school officials to remove books from school libraries because of their content.
Books like Harry Potter, The Bluest Eye, the His Dark Materials series and others are frequently challenged and banned as being inappropriate for children due to a variety of reasons, including offensive language, satanism, sexually explicit material, and criticism of religion.
ALA published its annual report on book censorship, finding that there were 729 attempts to remove school, university and library materials in 2021, resulting in 1,597 book challenges or removals. This is the highest number of removals and challenges of books that the ALA has recorded in a single year since the organization began tracking book censorship more than 20 years ago. Most of the issues cited have to do with race, sex, sexual orientation, and gender.