Why do people censor? For ambition? Profit? Fear? This exhibit in the University of Chicago’s Special Collections Research Center traces censorship from antiquity to our digital age, showing how information control has worked, thrived, or failed, and how real censorship movements tend to be very different from the centralized, methodical censorship depicted in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.  From indexes of forbidden books to the subtle censorship of teaching biased histories, the materials in this exhibit will challenge you to answer: how do you define what is and isn’t censorship?

A full color catalog of the exhibit, over 200 pages, is available for free from University of Chicago’s Special Collections Research Center. To request a copy by mail, please contact the assistant curator Julia Tomasson. Many thanks to the University of Chicago Institute on the Formation of Knowledge, and to our Kickstarter Backers, whose support made the catalog possible.


Sections of the Exhibit Include:

Censorship: Expectations and Realities

How does real historical censorship differ from what Orwell's vision teaches us to expect?

The Plural Inquisitions

The Inquisition was an enormous and complicated set of overlapping systems with evolving goals and conflicting authorities.

How do YOU Define Censorship?

Edge cases help us find the blurry edges of our own ideas of what is and is not censorship.

Censorship in Translation

From banning languages to tucking resistance in between the lines, translation has long been a tool of censorship, and a defense against it.

History of Fake News

Fake news is not new - from Shakespeare to the World Wars, sorting truth from falsehood in journalism has been one of the frontiers of information control.

Comic Book Censorship

Graphic stories are frequent targets of censorship, because of their visual format, political power, and association with children.

Censorship of the Classics

From bans to bowdlerizations, the treasures of ancient literature have faced every phase of Western censorship.

Internet Censorship

New information control challenges and possibilities of the digital age.

Toxic Ideas

Hobbes, Luther, Spinoza, Marx, Darwin: how people and states respond to explosive new ideas that challenge existing worldviews.

Art Censorship in Chicago

How art's power to provoke brings free speech challenges to every community.

Banned Bookcase: Tour of the Continents

An open stacks section where you can touch and examine books and materials banned or challenged in every inhabited continent.

Censorship in the Soviet Union

What does it mean for censorship to "succeed" or "fail" in a case like the USSR's unprecedented enormous efforts to control culture and expression?

Censorship in New Zealand

What censorship looks like in a culture very similar to the USA but without the First Amendment.

The Great Firewall of China

How the first semi-automated censorship system is moving the power to silence out of human hands.

The Rocky Birth of Copyright Law

The laws which govern intellectual property today accumulated over time, shaped by many different groups and interests.

The Great Fig-Leafing

From altering paintings to covering statues, various responses to the nude in art track cultures' comfort and discomfort with the body and its many meanings.

Censor's Desk

What did it feel like to be a professional censor? Sit down at our Censor's Desk to try your hand at expurgating by Inquisition guidelines, or redacting government documents.

Censorship and Information Control: A Global History from the Inquisition to the Internet
September 17, 2018 – December 14, 2018, Special Collections Research Center (Regenstein Library)

Hours: Monday through Friday 9 AM to 4:45 pm. When classes are in Session, Tues & Weds 9 am to 5:45 PM.

The exhibit is open to the public, and a printed exhibit catalog is available for free to all visitors. If you cannot make it to Chicago for the exhibit but are interested in the catalog, contact us to request one, or you can receive one as a thanks for backing our Kickstarter, to help fund the speaker series and catalog production.

Want to bring a group to the exhibit? Contact Ada Palmer to request a curator tour.

See examples of the objects displayed in the exhibit on our gallery page.

The Exhibit Team

  • Curator: Ada Palmer
  • Assistant Curator: Julia Tomasson
  • Art Curator: Samantha Truman
  • Exhibit Designer: Patti Gibbons

Many components of the exhibit were team curated by graduate and undergraduate students in a 2017 course “History of Censorship and Information Control” co-taught by Ada Palmer and Stuart McManus with the help of John-Paul Heil. Student curators: Adam Biesman, Julian Borda, Peter Chen, Anna Christensen, Timothy Cunningham, Hannah Dorsey, Nathaniel Eakman, Jamie Ehrlich, Max Freedman, Sam Gersho, Henry Hahn, Carolyn Hirsch, Michael Hosler-Lancaster, Caitlin Hubbard, Sam Koffman, Clio Sophia Koller, Sarah Larson, Jillian Lepek, Gautama Mehta, Jasmine Mithani, Morley Musick, Olivia Palid, Lauren Scott, Kyle Shishkin, Katherine Surma, Julia Tomasson, Hannah Trower, Samantha Truman, Augustin Vannier, Julia Walker, Peyton Walker, Caleb Wang, and Victoria Xing.

With special thanks to librarians Catherine Uecker and Sem Sutter, and to Leo Cadogan, Cheryl Cape, Kyong-Hee Choi, Cory Doctorow, Adrian Johns, Mack Muldofsky, Lauren Schiller, and Jo Walton.

Made possible by projects supported by the University of Chicago Institute on the Foundation of Knowledge, and the Neubauer Collegium. Thanks also to the American Library Association Office of Intellectual Freedom, the Electronic Freedom Foundation, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.  Catalog printing by Swift Impressions.

Explore the Exhibit

See more books and documents in our Digital Gallery.