Rethinking libraries for the information age school:
Vital roles in inquiry learnin

Keynote Address
International Association of School Librarianship Conference &
International Research Forum on Research in School Librarianship
July 9, 2001
Auckland, New Zealand

Abstract: Schools are changing in the information age to meet the challenge of preparing students for the workplace, citizenship and daily living. The process of learning from a variety of sources is an essential ability in the information age. Students need to learn to construct meaning from vast, disparate sources of information through an inquiry process approach to learning. The library is the inquiry center in the information age school. The library is the key to learning how to learn in information-rich technological environments. As they have in the past, librarians once again are taking the lead to foster new ways of thinking about school libraries by the entire school community. Librarians play a vital role in restructuring schools for the information age.

I am very pleased to be joining you at this IASL conference in beautiful New Zealand. I have been a member of IASL for many years, followed the activities in the newsletter, and published several articles in School LibrariesWorldwide, which I consider the premier research journal in the field, but this is the first conference I have attended. I was delighted when Penny Moore asked me to give a keynote presentation and am even more delighted to be here with you today.

My talk is about how schools are changing in the information age and the vital role that teacher-librarians have in that change. It is time for rethinking school libraries for restructuring the information age school.

Society is changing dramatically in the information age. Technology has brought about major changes in our everyday life experience. Around the world schools are striving to prepare students to meet these changes. However, in even the most technologically advanced countries, the efforts to prepare students for the information age have been only partially successful.

Let’s think about some ways that technology changes schools. One of the profound ways that technology changes the learning environment is from a scarcity of resources to an abundance of resources. (McClintock, Columbia University). Resources that were developed to address a scarcity of resources have limited value today. The textbook with its selected, predigested information in a logical sequence was an ideal tool in time of limited resources. However the textbook is inadequate and out of date for preparing students for the information age. To prepare for the world outside of the school, students need to develop ability to learn from information as they will encounter it in real-life situations, information that is not predigested, carefully selected, or logically organized.

In a similar way the school library in pretechnology days of limited resources was a contained collection of carefully selected, organized materials. However, we have moved rapidly from dependence on a contained collection to direct access to a vast network of resources. The library as a collection is giving way to the teacher-librarian as an essential agent in the learning process, who provides access to a range of resources and collaborates with teachers in guiding students in using these resources for understanding and meaning.

The information age calls for rethinking the basic charges of education. Three charges of education in a free society are to prepare students for the workplace, citizenship and daily living. We need to rethink each of these for the information age school. To prepare for the workplace consideration must be given to the ways technology changes the nature of work and raises new questions about how we contribute and innovate productively in the global economy. To prepare for citizenship consideration must be given to the ways technology changes our sense of community and raises pressing questions about how we participate as an informed electorate in a democratic society. To prepare for daily living consideration must be given to the ways technology increases the complexity of everyday life and raises troubling questions about how we gain a sense of self in relation to others and experience creativity and joy in our personal lives.

Fundamental to meeting these three charges is developing students competence in finding meaning in vast array of sources of information. All three charges call for proficiency in information seeking and information use and competence in the research process, the process of inquiry. Inquiry underlies information literacy. Information literacy is the ability to use information meaningfully in all aspects of our lives. The challenge for the information age school is to educate children for living and learning in an information-rich technological world.

Basic literacy skills of reading, writing and calculating must be applied and adapted to information-rich environments and to new technologies. Memorizing simple right answers and reproducing texts are not enough to prepare students for the information literacy they will need to lead fulfilled, productive lives in the information society. Locating and interpreting information to construct a personal understanding is a basic literacy skill for the information age. These significant changes in the information age call for teachers and teacher-librarians who can guide students in the inquiry process – the process of learning from a variety of sources of information- and in learning how to construct meaning in technology-charged, information-rich environments.

Unfortunately, most school reform efforts have fallen far short of the goal of transforming schools for the information age. In fact school reform research has shown how difficult it is to change schools. For the most part reform initiatives have not taken full advantage of school libraries and have not seen the powerful potential of teacher-librarians in preparing students for the information age.

What abilities do students need to be successful in the information age? Students need to develop the ability to:

  • Learn in dynamic situations where information is constantly changing.
  • Manage information overload where determining what is enough information is as important as locating and selecting relevant information.
  • Find meaning in numerous and diverse messages that do not fit together neatly in a predigested, prepared text.
  • Construct a personal understanding from incompatible and inconsistent information.

These abilities are developed through engaging in inquiry as a way of learning. Inquiry-based learning is an approach that centers on the research process. This approach begins by engaging questions about the subject being studied. Students are guided through inquiry by asking:

  • What do I already know?
  • What questions do I have?
  • How do I find out?
  • What did I learn?

Inquiry takes students out of the predigested format of the textbook and into the process of learning from a variety of sources to construct their own understandings. They learn to think through subject content apart from prescribed responses or preset solutions. They are guided through a process of intellectual construction that enables them to build on what they already know and come to a deeper understanding of the concepts and problems underlying the subject.

A constructivist approach to learning rather than transmission approach or skills approach is needed. Constructivist theory focuses on the process of thinking that builds understanding by engaging students in stimulating encounters with information and ideas. Students learn by constructing their own understandings of these experiences and by building on what they already know to form a personal perspective of the world. The process of construction is an active ongoing process of learning that continues throughout life.

Constructivist theory has been a particularly useful theoretical foundation for reforming schools. Over the past ten years constructivist theory has been developing as a fundamental theoretical foundation for restructuring the school library program to meet the challenges of the information age school. The framework for this theory incorporates some primary concepts drawn from educational research that are based on what we know about how children learn.

  • Children learn by being actively engaged and reflecting on that experience.(Dewey)
  • Children learn by building on what they already know.(Dewey)
  • Children develop higher-order thinking through guidance at critical points in the learning process. (Vygotsky)
  • Children’s development occurs in a sequence of stages.(Piaget)
  • Children have different ways of learning.(Gardner)
  • Children learn through social interaction with others.

Unfortunately, many school library programs are more in line with a transmission approach to learning that emphasizes finding the right answer and reproducing information; or on skills approach that proposes a packet of skills that are rarely transferable to other situations of information seeking. Still others have not moved out of a narrow collection-providing role that does not address learning at all.

An Inquiry approach calls for guiding students in thinking and reflecting in the process of information seeking and use that leads to understanding, learning and to transferable information literacy.

Basic concepts from library and information science research offer insight into the process of information seeking that have important implications for students in the inquiry process.
People experience different stages in the process of information seeking. People have difficulty expressing what they need in the early stages of information seeking. People confronting complex tasks experience considerable uncertainty in the early stages of information seeking. Complex tasks lead to more innovative and value-added contribution to the work of the individual or organization (Taylor, Belkin, Bates, Vakkari, Kuhlthau and many others). My own research has centered on these concepts as described in my book Seeking Meaning (Kuhlthau, 93).

It has been almost 20 years since I first studied students in the process of research and developed the Information Search Process Model (ISP) that has formed the framework for my work ever since. As we move into the information age this process becomes even more essential for information literacy. The stages of the ISP describe the inquiry process as experienced by students that indicates a need for intervention beyond merely leading students to sources and calls for guidance in learning from the information they have located. Following is a description of the tasks to accomplish and the accompanying feelings experienced as students engage in the stages of the information search process (ISP):

  • Stage 1 – Initiation (contemplating the assigned task, problem or project and identifying possible issues or questions to pursue; uncertainty)
  • Stage 2 – Selection (selecting a topic, issue or engaging question to explore; optimism)
  • Stage 3 – Exploration (encountering inconsistency and incompatibility in information and ideas; confusion)
  • Stage 4 – Formulation (forming a focused perspective from the information encountered; clarity)
  • Stage 5 – Collection (gathering and documenting information on the focus; confidence)
  • Stage 6 – Presentation (connecting and extending the focused perspective for presenting to the community of learners; satisfaction or disappointment)
  • Stage 7 – Assessment (reflecting on process and content learning; sense of a personal ISP)

Teacher-librarians who have knowledge of the stages of the inquiry process and the use of sources and strategies for learning in each of the stages are prepared to make an essential contribution to providing inquiry based learning for the students in their schools. In a recent study the Library Power Initiative in schools in the United States, teacher- librarians’ perceptions of learning were found to change in important ways over three years of involvement in the project. Library Power, funded by the Dewitt Wallace Readers’ Digest Fund, provided 45 million dollars to improve libraries in 700 schools in 19 communities in the US. Each school was required to provide a full time teacher-librarian and professional development for the staff and administration. I was asked to conduct an impact study that looked at teacher-librarians’ perceptions of student learning over three-year period of participation in Library Power. I developed a coding scheme to determine what the teacher-librarians emphasized when asked to describe incidents of learning that they had observed in their school libraries.

Five Levels of Perceptions of Learning:

  1. Input – emphasis on what the teacher-librarian does, not on students
  2. Output – emphasis on quantitative measures of student use
  3. Attitude – emphasis on change in student attitude
  4. Skills – emphasis on location of resources and use of technology
  5. Utilization – emphasis on use of resources and technology for content learning and inquiry

In each of the three years, 80% of the responses fell in the attitude, skills, and utilization levels. However there were important differences in what the librarians emphasized in each of the three years. The highest percentage of responses in Y1 were in attitude, in Y2 the highest percentage were in skills and in Y3 the highest percentage were in utilization for content learning. Through experience and professional development, many of the teacher-librarians had changed their emphasis to using resources for inquiry-based content learning.

Case studies of three schools offered a closer look at the situations underlying these changes. Although all three schools had similar input there were important differences in the professional development provided and in the prior reform efforts that lay foundation for Library Power.

  • School 1 – involved in a major reform effort that implemented inquiry-based learning through intensive onsite professional development.
  • School 2 – prior compatible reform efforts but not as concentrated on inquiry or as extensive professional development.
  • School 3 – prior reform efforts were scattered over a range of approaches and “good ideas”.


  • School 1 – teachers and teacher-librarian were most advanced in understanding of inquiry-based learning and were providing numerous opportunities for students to learn through inquiry.
  • School 2 – teachers and teacher-librarian reached point of needing to know more about inquiry learning and requested professional development on research process.
  • School 3 – got off to a good start but had difficulty sustaining with major changes in personnel at school. The concept of learning through inquiry had not taken hold and they had difficulty identifying what went wrong and how to remedy.

The difference in the three case study schools related to an underlying philosophy of learning held by the personnel of the school. The concept of inquiry as a way to learn provided a rationale for using the library in the content areas of the curriculum.

Implementing Inquiry-based learning:

Collaboration with teachers is essential – inquiry goes beyond providing resources and locating information. Collaboration in inquiry involves planning, teaching, and evaluating student learning across the curriculum. Providing an instructional team with the teacher as expert in the content and context and the teacher-librarian as expert in the resources and process.

Strategies for guiding inquiry are centered on enabling students to use information for learning. Even the youngest children can learn to use these strategies throughout the early years of schooling. Strategies for Inquiry-based learning:

  • Recall – Thinking and remembering certain features; selective remembering
  • Summarize – Organizing ideas in abbreviated form and placing in meaningful sequence
  • Paraphrase – Retelling in one’s own words
  • Extend – Taking ideas and fitting them in with what one already knows

These strategies prepare children from the youngest age to thoughtfully seek their own personal understandings.

Strategies for the Information Search Process:

The six C’s for constructing a personal understanding in the process of information seeking are adapted from the writing process work of Emig and others.
Collaborating, Conversing, Continuing, Choosing, Charting, and Composing

A few years ago in a study of what constitutes effective implementation, I compared successful programs with those that were floundering and identified certain inhibitors and enablers. When the teacher-librarians were asked “What problems are you having?” there was a noticable difference in the responses of those with successful programs and those who were having difficulties. Teacher-librarians with successful inquiry programs responded with learning problems such as difficulty with getting their students to form a focus. Whereas, their less successful counterparts responded with logistical problems such as not enough time and support.

Inhibitors –

  • lack of time
  • confusion of roles
  • poorly designed assignments.

Enablers –

  • team teaching approach
  • mutually held constructivist view of learning
  • shared commitment to inquiry-based learning
  • competence in designing and implementing inquiry activities

Successful programs required a mutually held constructivist view of learning as well as a team teaching approach that fosters collaboration between the teacher and teacher-librarian. In successful programs, the school library is recognized as the essential component in inquiry-based learning.

In closing, the challenge before us is none less than that of creating the Information Age School. Restructuring schools for the information age has not reached full potential in any country. It is time to put the expertise of teacher-librarians to work on the critical task of redesigning schools. Teacher- librarians play a vital role in creating inquiry learning that prepares student for work, citizenship and daily living in the information age. The challenge for every teacher-librarian is to take the lead to foster new ways of thinking about learning for the information age and the role of school libraries in the information age school. Today is none too soon to initiate an inquiry program for students in your school.