Research

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My research agenda falls within the social studies of information and focuses on the intersection of knowledge, power, and people. Unlike much of the research on intellectual freedom which tends toward investigations into ethics, policy, and historical case studies, I am primarily interested in understanding how people living today interact with information that they find upsetting or objectionable. In particular, I explore how individuals use their social and symbolic power, especially their status within local communities as parents and taxpayers, to suppress such information within public institutions. My investigation into contemporary censorship in the United States predominantly focuses on the discourse that individuals (called challengers) employ to justify their requests to suppress the circulation of information within their communities.

I believe that analysis of censorship must be grounded in theories of social power and the effects of knowledge on the individual. In light of this, I primarily use Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of practice as well as models of reading practices from print culture studies to analyze challengers’ discourse. While other scholars have applied Bourdieu’s concepts to explore the relationship between information professionals and their institutions, in my work I investigate the symbolic power of challengers as antagonists in censorship cases. An informed understanding of how challengers construct the practice of reading, although integral to understanding why books are often the target of censors, is rarely employed as a theoretical lens in intellectual freedom research.

My other areas of research explore why and how members of the library and information science community support intellectual freedom in their professional lives. One common question that is found throughout library and information science literature concerns the field’s ethical and philosophical foundations regarding the intersection of people, information, and technology. I believe that my work on the motivations of challengers, support for intellectual freedom, and information access policies in public institutions, provides an empirical and theoretically grounded framework for understanding important aspects of how information circulates in contemporary society.

I recently embarked on a major research project with colleagues at the University of Kentucky, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and MuckRock, a Freedom of Information Act clearinghouse in Boston, Massachusetts. We are attempting to gain a deeper understanding of the state of information access across the United States. As part of this project we will be contacting a representative sample of public schools and libraries across the country in order to ascertain how many times materials have been challenged in their collections, whether or not these institutions comply with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), and the current state of their policies regarding information access. At the moment, we are completing our pilot study in Alabama.

More information on the project is available here: http://mappinginfoaccess.org/.

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