Banned! A History of Censorship

An exhibition at the Walsh Family Library. “Banned! A History of Censorship” was curated by Gabriella DiMeglio, Amy Levine-Kennedy, Hannorah Ragusa, and Magda Teter. On view until March 15, 2024.

Opening remarks by Magda Teter

Today, books, libraries, librarians, and writers are subject to attacks again. Recent bans of books across the United States targeting Black history, the Holocaust, and LGBTQ-themed books have dominated the news. We began working on this exhibit two years ago—before the most recent wave of bans. Since in its Judaica collection, Fordham holds a number of Hebrew books that were censored, banned, and expurgated from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, we wanted to weave the story of censorship of Jewish books into the larger story of book censorship and book bans. In fact, some of the earliest examples of wholesale book burnings and censorship come from Christian Europe: the burning of Jewish books, with the burning of the Talmud, along with carts of Hebrew books, in Paris in 1242 perhaps most prominent.

This exhibit then explores the long history and practices of censorship, the methods to control and ban books and ideas, the resilience of censored works, and attempts to push back. Ultimately, censorship is about power. The power of ideas and the power to ban them. Ideas and books are banned when they are deemed threatening. While acts of censorship are about control and exercising power, they also demonstrate a sense of vulnerability of those who ban books. Authorities could ban books, but they could not destroy them or the ideas contained in them entirely. As the Talmud states, “the parchment burning, but its letters are flying to the heavens” (Talmud, AZ 18a).

As this exhibit demonstrates, cultural, religious, and moral values are never static. They change over time. If some of the books and ideas become acceptable, others might become abhorrent. Indeed, today some voices are heard complaining about universities not teaching major texts of “Western civilization,” we show that many of the books considered the core of the Big Books courses were originally banned across Europe–by both Protestant and Catholic authorities: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume, Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, and more. Major works of literature—cherished today—were also banned, among them Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables or Alexander Dumas’s Three Musketeers.

But as we explore the history of book banning and censorship, we also ask the viewers tough questions: Should all books and ideas be freely accessible? Are there or should there be limits of censorship or limits to access to knowledge? In 1942, to commemorate the anniversary of Nazi book burning, the New York Public Library hosted an exhibition about banned books and proudly noted that they had both the works of Karl Marx—burned by the Nazis—and Hitler’s Mein Kampf. This exhibit explores some of those themes and questions.

Because Fordham as a Catholic and Jesuit university was obliged to abide by the Index of Prohibited Books until its abolition in 1966, the exhibit also explores how Fordham dealt with books that were included in the Index. And what happened after the Index was abolished. It also touches upon the different roles Jesuits played in the history of book censorship as both those censoring and those who were censored.

I want to express my gratitude to the co-curators of the exhibit: Gabriella DiMeglio, Amy Levine-Kennedy, and Hannorah Ragusa FCRH’26. We are especially grateful to Linda Loschiavo, the Director of Fordham Libraries and Vivian Shen at the O’Hare Special Collection, who set up the exhibit with great care and attention to detail. Additional research has been provided by Samantha Sclafani FCLC’22 and Kevin Bogucki FCLC’23. The lecture series associated with the exhibit and student research have been made possible through the generosity of donors to the Center for Jewish Studies at Fordham.

Join us for two related events:

Sunday, November 12, 3 PM

A Tour of the Exhibit “Banned! A History of Censorship” with Andreea Badea, Goethe-University, Frankfurt


Sunday, December 3, 3PM

A Tour of the Exhibit “Banned! A History of Censorship” with Federica Francesconi, University of Albany