SLIS Students Study in Rome, Italy

“Yes, I have finally arrived to this Capital of the World! I now see all the dreams of my youth coming to life... Only in Rome is it possible to understand Rome.” - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Italian Journey (1816).

Goethe’s words capture the timeless romance Western civilization has with its motherland—the Eternal City. Rome is a global city, drawing tourists from around the world to explore its rich offering of monuments, artifacts, history and culture. Italy’s capital also surrounds the Vatican, home of the Papacy and leadership of the Catholic Church, attracting its own subset of tourists daily.

This summer SLIS students will again have the opportunity to travel to Rome from May 22nd through June 8th for course LIS 493 Intellectual Freedom/Information Ethics taught by Assistant Professor Laura Saunders. What more appropriate location for a course on intellectual freedom and ethics than in the city that etymologically birthed the concept of censorship? Its roots are found in the ancient Roman word censor: a political position tasked with supervision of public morality.

“The course delves into questions of censorship and intellectual freedom—what gets censored, and why? What is the role of the information professional with regard to supporting intellectual freedom and resisting censorship?’ Saunders posited. “We look at ‘obvious’ examples of censorship such as book banning, but also more subtle examples such as self-censorship; bias in collection development, selection, displays; misinformation and propaganda; freedom of information; and finally how intellectual freedom can intersect with questions of security and hate speech. We will talk about the role of education and information literacy in combating censorship.”

The program, initiated by Associate Professor Gerald Benoit, integrates coursework with time for exploration. Students begin coursework online in May, with a final project due 2-3 weeks upon return home. While in Rome, students attend five three-hour classes over the two weeks, in addition to site visits to complement in-class and online content. Students stay at St. John’s University’s Rome campus located in Rome’s Prati district, close to the Vatican and many other historic sites, affording them an opportunity to explore some of the world’s most cherished historical landmarks.

The program’s relaxed nature and intimacy allows students and faculty to develop strong connections via both classroom and excursion-based experiences. Saunders said it was hard to pinpoint one singular standout memory from her last trip, “The Vatican tour was very good, and so was our visit to the Food and Agriculture Organization library,” Saunders recalled. “I really enjoyed our dinners—we had both the welcome and farewell dinner, and then Gerry [Associate Professor Benoit] and I cooked dinner at our hotel one night.  It was fun having the time and space to really build a bond with the group.”

Yet the trip is not without serious content, addressing vital concepts and dilemmas that intersect with the information science sector and beyond, especially relevant considering the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. “The class is not limited to classic library examples,” Saunders explained. “Intellectual freedom and censorship is a perennial problem. It is easy to think of it as a problem of the past—something that happened when the Nazis were burning books or during the McCarthy-era fear of Communism. But the reality is that it continues to be a problem. Of course, Charlie Hebdo is a perfect current example. Information professionals face censorship often in more subtle ways that are more difficult to recognize and thus to counter. We need to know what intellectual freedom and censorship are, and what our professional role is in relation to these issues.”

How do we approach these ethical concerns as students, employees, and leaders of the transnational, digital era? Conversations surrounding censorship must take in account variance in international policy, historical perspectives and concerns regarding privacy and security. Awareness of global perspectives is paramount to discussions regarding intellectual freedom and central to the fundamental ethos of an LIS professional.

“I know it sounds like a cliché at this point, but the world really is getting smaller,” Saunders said. “Most institutions are emphasizing global experience, including international work and collaboration. All information professionals also need to develop cultural sensitivity and understanding. This study abroad experience is one way to do that.” Study abroad trips to Yonsei and Paris are currently being planned for next year. 

By Dean's Communications Fellow Lily Troia