Forrest Spaulding

Tom Mulligan, in character as Forrest Spaulding, talks to audience members about the battle against censorship in libraries.

OTTUMWA — According to Tom Mulligan, a librarian’s job is to awaken souls.

During his presentation at Tuesday morning’s Reminisce Society, Mulligan played the part of Forrest Spaulding in the program "The Not So Quiet Librarian."

“When I was first asked to do a show as this character, I had no idea who he was,” said Mulligan. “There was only a picture of him in the library and maybe a plaque somewhere else in Des Moines.”

The relatively unknown nature of Spaulding is surprising when one looks at the impact he had on the literary world in the 1930s into today.

Spaulding served as director of the Des Moines Public Library from 1917 to 1919 and then again from 1927 to 1952. During his time as director, Spaulding was devoted to books and getting people into the library even at the height of the Depression. He believed that books offered everyone the opportunity to explore new worlds and expand their minds right in their own homes.

“If books were only for snobs who were only interested in the classics, libraries would be a very lonely place,” said Mulligan as Spaulding.

It was during his time as director that Spaulding’s impact came to life in the form of the "Library Bill of Rights."

This document directly addressed the growing problems of censorship facing the libraries and the media. Librarians used this to battle the government when they tried to ban Adolf Hitler’s "Mein Kampf" and even after 9/11 when the government wanted to look into what books people were checking out.

“Free expression. Free access. What does that mean?” said Mulligan, as Spaulding. “It means that we the people, everyone, have the right to know what our leaders are saying and what our leaders are doing.”

Mulligan explained that this passage from the document has resonated with many audience members who are surprised by how relevant his words are to this day. He explained that Spaulding pushed the boundaries of the times by hiring African-Americans and even allowing a communist woman to give a speech at the library.

Spaulding was unwilling to allow the censorship and terror in Europe spill into the literacy world in America.

In character, Mulligan asked the audience, “What else should a free American do?”

To contact reporter Neal Querio email her at and follow her on Twitter @CourierNeal.


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