A report says there were more attempts to get books banned from the nation’s libraries last year than ever before, and the director of Iowa’s largest public library system is speaking out against what she calls censorship.

Sue Woody, who heads the Des Moines Public Library, says she considers equitable access to information a basic right for all. “I really feel like the library has a very important role to defend against censorship of all kinds,” Woody says. “That goes right along with our right to free speech, our right to tell our stories, and our right to read those stories, or as the case may be, not read those stories.”

The library system in Iowa’s most populous city has a long history on the topic. She says Forrest Spaulding, the library’s director in 1938, wrote a document speaking out against censorship and intolerance which won long-lasting, national acclaim.

“He penned what is known as the Library Bill of Rights, and that was later adopted by the American Library Association, and it’s something that we still go by today,” Woody says. “It’s all about the freedom to read, equitable access to library resources, and resistance to censorship. They were talking about this way back then, and we’re still talking about it today.”

A report from the American Library Association found there were 729 attempts to remove materials from school, university, and public libraries in 2021, what Woody calls very troubling. “It’s ironic in that when we read other people’s stories, when we read about people who are different from us, it brings us together,” Woody says. “Yet they’re purporting that we did just the opposite and not let anyone read these stories. So this is really an uptick in the last 20 years. I don’t think we’ve ever seen this amount of censorship.”

This is Banned Books Week across America, and she says Des Moines’ six libraries are spending the week celebrating the freedom to read and educating the public on the harms censorship can inflict in our communities. No challenges to books have been issued in Des Moines in the past year, Woody says, and it’s exceptionally rare for a book to be removed.

“We have had a few challenges but we typically do not take a book off of our shelves,” Woody says. “We do have policies that guide our actions as to what books we have and circulate, and what books we choose not to circulate, but we will always listen.” Woody says one of her favorite banned books is “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury. She says the fact Bradbury wrote the book on a rented typewriter in the basement of a library gives her goosebumps.