I write this as I approach the end of my second spell on the National Committee of SLG. My first started shortly after I became a school librarian, by chance rather than design (or at least through no design of my own). This means that serving on the National Committee of SLG has framed pretty much the first 20 years of my work in and for school libraries, and that a measure of reflection is, therefore, appropriate.
An even earlier and profoundly formative experience was stumbling across Jesse Shera’s The Foundations of Education for Librarianship (1972) in a charity shop in Caversham. In this remarkable book, Shera articulated what I instinctively knew about librarianship in general, and school librarianship in particular. This may seem a little odd, given that he was writing partly about academic librarianship in the US in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Not so odd when you consider Blanche Woolls’ observation that the only difference between a school librarian and an academic librarian is, or ought to be, the length of time between a student leaving school and starting university, and that the fundamental issues confronting Shera then and there confront us still here and now. One passage in particular illustrates this, and set the course of my professional development (p. 177, emphasis added):
Increasingly, research as a method of instruction and an environment for formalized learning is being introduced into undergraduate as well as graduate programs.* This undergraduate research, or more properly, inquiry, has its own characteristic information needs, though academic librarians generally have given these requirements slight attention, while the faculty has tended to ignore them almost entirely. This neglect may doubtless be attributed to the fact that the instructors themselves were not properly encouraged in the use of the library in their own undergraduate years. The textbook and the reserve collection, which in the final analysis is only a kind of multiple text, have too long dominated undergraduate, and even graduate, instruction. The teacher’s own mimeographed reading lists and bibliographies have been imposed between the student and the total library collection, largely because the typical faculty member does not trust either the bibliographic mechanisms of the library or the competence of the librarians, while the librarians, for their part, have never developed a theory of the role of the library in the student’s intellectual experience. This neglect has been intensified by the absence of any real communication between teacher and librarian, both have paid lip service to the library as a “learning center,” and having said that satisfied their sense of obligation with a short course or a few lectures on “How to Use the Library.”
I have been wrestling with a theory of the role of the library in the student’s intellectual experience ever since. Shera led me to Patricia Knapp (1966), who led me to Helen Sheehan (1969), who led me to Norman Beswick (1967), who posited that “it is not the library that ‘supports’ the classroom . . . but the classroom that leads (or should lead) inevitably and essentially to the library” (p. 201). It seemed to me then, as it does to me now, that a theory of the role of the library in the student’s intellectual experience needs to compellingly account for why the classroom leads (or should lead) inevitably and essentially to the library, as well as how. Shera provided 2 clues – “inquiry” and the “library as a learning center” – in this passage. Daniel Callison (2006) linked them explicitly, stating that “the school library only exists as a learning centre because of inquiry” (p. 601). Inquiry, then, frames learning, and it is unsurprising, therefore, that the IFLA School Library Guidelines (2015) define the school library in terms of inquiry (p. 16) – “a school’s physical and digital learning space where reading, inquiry, research, thinking, imagination, and creativity are central to students’ information-to-knowledge journey and to their personal, social, and cultural growth” – and include inquiry as one of the core instructional activities that make up the school library’s pedagogical program (pp. 41 – 44). This brings me to the present.
I was recently interviewed by Barbara Stripling for School Library Connection (a publication of Libraries Unlimited/ ABC-CLIO) about The Process and Stance of Inquiry in a Digital World. The title of the interview, and the starting point of our discussion, comes from the Galileo Educational Network’s definition of inquiry as a dynamic process and stance that is essential to the way in which knowledge is created. Inquiry is, therefore, an epistemological concern – a concern with what we know and how we come to know it – the “information-to-knowledge” part of the IFLA definition of a school library. As such, inquiry is a fundamental human activity, and the library is, or ought to be, essential to this activity. This, however, demands something of us as librarians, and of our libraries. Moreover, this process and stance is both facilitated by the digital world, and hindered by it, and Barbara was interested in my thoughts on this from the perspective of FOSIL, which is based on the Empire State Information Fluency Continuum (2019) that she led the development of.
Somewhat paradoxically, the very characteristics of the digital environment that facilitate inquiry also hinder inquiry. The question of equity of access as aside for now, although it remains a pressing concern, these characteristics broadly relate to the quantity of information, discernment of its quality and motivation. At a certain point the relentless increase in the quantity of information brings about a qualitative change – scarcity of information becomes an abundance of information, which becomes a superabundance of information. The problem then shifts from finding enough information to dealing with too much information, which is both a different and a new problem. David Foster Wallace’s Total Noise captures this qualitative change perfectly – the growing “tsunami of available fact, context and perspective” (2007!). Then, to this tsunami must be added the growing maelstrom of mis-information, dis-information and mal-information created, manipulated and distributed to devastating effect. And to make matters worse, the difficulties of building knowledge and understanding from information in these conditions is made more challenging still by the fact that the digital environment is both overwhelming and endlessly distracting, and this brings us full circle – inquiry is both an epistemological process and stance, and being able to carry out the process is no guarantee that we will care enough, one way or another, to make the effort to do so.
Huw Davies (2019) issues the following stark warning:
No digital literacy programme is ever likely to work unless it produces reflexive critical thinkers, motivated to challenge their own thinking and positionality: people know and care when they are being sold a biased or racist view of history, pseudo-science or when they are being manipulated.
This highlights the importance of inquiry as stance, which, I think, must now become our focus and most urgent task. In this we draw on 60 years’ worth of work in and through the school library on inquiry as process, which, in the words of the IFLA School Library Guidelines unites us with our classroom colleagues in the aim of “influencing, orienting, and motivating the pursuit of learning using a process of discovery that encourages curiosity and a love of learning” (p. 43).
*This extends to schools. As Daniel Callison (2015) points out, “the progression to student-centered, inquiry-based learning through school library programs was clearly underway more than forty years ago” (p. 3), at least in the US, and can be traced back to 1960 (p. 213). More broadly, though, Callison lists the International Baccalaureate (IB) Program as an early adopter of inquiry (p. 214). The IB was founded in 1968, although the philosophy, structure, content and pedagogy of the IB Diploma Programme, which was the first IB Programme, were developed in 1962 (IBO, 2017). The Diploma Programme was followed by the Middle Years Programme, the Primary Years Programme and the Career-related Programme, with “inquiry, as a curriculum stance, pervading all Programmes” (Tilke, 2011, p. 5).
Beswick, N. W. (1967). The ‘Library-College’ – the ‘True University’? The Library Association Record, 198-202.
Callison, D. (2015). The Evolution of Inquiry: Controlled, Guided, Modeled, and Free. Santa Barbara: Libraries Unlimited.