Instructor Spotlight: Jennifer Ferguson

Meet Jennifer Ferguson, Head of User Experience & Student Success at Tisch Library and instructor of EXP-0022: Banned Books, Censored Speech & American Libraries
Jennifer Ferguson

Tell us about your background and what inspired you to teach this course

I have undergraduate and graduate degrees in English as well as a graduate degree in Library and Information Science, so the chance to teach about issues that are relevant to both literature and librarianship was hard to resist. In addition, librarianship in the 21st Century faces a growing number of challenges—both to service models and to the types of resources we provide and how we make them available, and the recent increase in book bans adds an additional layer of difficulty to a profession that already faces a complicated future. Developing this course has also helped to deepen my own understanding of the intersecting issues that we face and the impossibility of neutrality in a polarized political climate.

There seems to be a recent uptick in book bans across the country. What is the driving force behind these policies?

There are actually multiple intersecting forces currently at work, all of which are complicated by the algorithms that control the information we seek and find. On the one hand, many of the book bans are driven by moral panics that have been deliberately stoked for political gain. For example, the last two major surges in book challenges, which were based on the fear of Critical Race Theory and LGBTQIA+ content in schools, have been the direct result of these moral panics. On the other hand, the media environment has drastically changed over the past 15 years, and many people encounter mistaken information about “obscene” or “vulgar” or “socialist” content in the books that their children are exposed to via social media by political groups like Moms for Liberty, who provide lists of books that they encourage their followers to challenge. Because social media algorithms enable users to “curate content at the expense of professional gatekeepers,” they “allow users to construct information ecologies that are personalized and restricted” (Social media and moral panics: Assessing the effects of technological change on societal reaction). Thus someone who may not have challenged a book in the past—especially a book they haven’t even read, can be driven by a sense of outrage, generated through an enclosed social media environment, to show up at a local School or Library Board meeting with a list of books they want removed from libraries. In cases like this, I think we should feel sympathy for those individuals who have been deliberately manipulated by well-funded political organizations, using slogans like “parents’ rights” to make people afraid of books about people who may not look like them. But I think we need to do more to expose the deliberate nature of many of these recent panics as well as their political origins.

What is one book that readers may be surprised is banned? Where is it banned?

I think most readers would find it surprising how many of the top 100 most banned books are either award winners or written by acclaimed authors. For example, The Bluest Eye, by Nobel-Prize and Medal of Freedom winner Toni Morrison, has been one of the most consistently banned books in the United States since its publication in 1970. This book is currently one of 11 books banned in Broward County, Florida, due to claims that they included sexually explicit or LGBTQIA+ content. These books included classic literature taught in A.P. English as well as children’s picture books and sex education materials and were removed from school libraries based on a complaint from Moms for Liberty.

What can students do to stay up to date on book bans in the states and what can they do to help advocate for freedom of speech?

The rise of social media and decline in local media makes it both easier and more difficult to remain current about book bans across the United States and in specific states, cities, and towns. If a student is interested in this topic, they can curate their social media feed and search for hashtags like #bannedbooks. But given the tendency on social media to rage farm in order to generate engagement and monetize influencer platforms, it would be better to engage with more traditional local and regional news sites that report on what’s happening in their communities. For example, The Boston Globe has done a lot of reporting on the rise of book bans and challenges across Massachusetts, and local community news organizations (those that still exist) also report on these activities at the local level. And, not coincidentally, one of the reasons for the uptick in book bans and challenges is the decline in reliable local news sources, which makes much of this activity opaque to many citizens. Lastly, for the bigger picture, the American Library Association gathers and reports national information every year and also provides resources and guidance for how to get involved in defending intellectual freedom and the right to read.

What can we expect for the future of book banning?

First, we need to understand that book bans and censorship aren’t new—they’ve been with us since the beginning of the written word. In the United States, there has always been tension between the concepts of free speech and intellectual freedom on the one hand and concepts like parents’ rights and religious freedom on the other. Balancing our freedom to do something alongside another’s freedom from that same thing is tricky, and the pendulum frequently swings from one side to the other. That back-and-forth movement has been rapidly accelerating in the digital age. But we shouldn’t underestimate the acceleration of AI and its future impact on algorithm-driven political activism. As long as books and libraries are viewed as lucrative targets for political organizations and rage farmers, we will continue to face these issues and books will continue to be banned.

What do you hope that students will take away from your course?

I hope my students begin to understand the complexity of this topic, how it’s rooted in our political, legal, and social history, and how there is no easy black/white dichotomy to frame it. I also hope they learn how to better interpret information and separate good-faith from bad-faith arguments to develop a more sophisticated understanding of censorship and book banning as well as its connection to our larger information environment.

Jennifer S. Ferguson is the Head of User Experience & Student Success at Tisch Library and holds a BA from UCLA, an MA from Rutgers University, and an MSLIS from Simmons University. In addition to publishing a book on authentic assessment, she has written widely on topics in libraries and won the 2017 ACRL-New England Best Paper Award. Along with her library-focused writing, Jennifer has also published fiction and has been consistently engaged with questions around the power of literature and its capacity to both engage and enrage.