More than the Sum of its Parts: Answering Children’s Reference Enquiries

Philippa Rose, King’s School, Canterbury

It might seem obvious to say that there is more to reference than a reference, but having moved in to school libraries fairly recently, it is an issue that I have found myself returning to afresh in response to the distinct nature of my library. It wasn’t until I really asked myself what it was that made school libraries different to other library environments, what that meant for delivering a better service, and why it was so important to get it right, that I realised there is so much more that I can do when answering reference enquiries.

Now, I don’t profess to having all of the answers, but I’d like to share with you some ideas about how I try to add value at the enquiry desk.

Sitting on the teacher-librarian fence

The school library empowers learning and it is my job to facilitate that process for each and every user, and non-user, in the school. I am often asking myself what side of the teacher-librarian fence I end up working from with a child’s reference enquiry. I don’t have the golden ratio, if there even is one, but I do think that a good grounding in how children learn is key to understanding the approach required for each child’s reference enquiry (Vosniadou).

There are three glaring and interconnected issues that I encounter with pupils’ work: their lack of synthesis in the information gathering process, the misunderstanding of what an original piece of work should look like, and the overall shallowness of much of today’s ‘learning’. With the current educational system there is little time to address these issues in the classroom, so I’d like to consider the possibility of both demonstrating and teaching these missing skills at the enquiry desk.

Building knowledge by joining up the dots

The whole point of the process that we call ‘learning’ is the assimilation and application of knowledge. Learners must take the information they have acquired and incorporate it into their own work so that new ideas can be formed and the process can begin again. But we don’t often learn in discrete blocks. We build knowledge on a scaffolding of previous learning. Assimilation means incorporating new information with pre-existing information to build a more complex understanding of the world.

How can we, as librarians, better support this aspect of the learning process when responding to reference enquiries?

I’d like to suggest one way of approaching this problem. Intertextuality (Kristeva, Barthes) is a concept that has come to describe many different ways of constructing meaning, and which I take to represent, here, as the notion that the meaning of a text does not reside in the text alone, but is produced by the reader in relation to both the text and the complex network of other texts invoked in the reading process.

What could this mean in practice…? Well, examine the subtext of Du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ and you find (intentional) reflections of ‘Jane Eyre’, but also unintended parallels with later works by Agatha Christie and even in Sylvia Plath’s late poems. This network of connected texts, particularly in the direct relationship between ‘Rebecca’ and ‘Jane Eyre’ forces us to re-examine our assumptions about both novels. Our reading of ‘Jane Eyre’ is affected as much by our reading of ‘Rebecca’ as it is of Rhys’s ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ or even of Charlotte Bronte’s life, and the themes of identity and doubling can be found throughout both later literature and the reader’s personal experience. My point here is not just about contextualisation, but is a broader (Barthesian) view of intertextuality. As learners, we are typically taught to read influence on a book from the perspective of authorial intent, but opening this up to pupils as something that can also be understood as the unique experiences that they bring to their relationship with the text can proliferate the possibilities for assimilation and a deeper, personal, intensified connection with the text.

Acknowledging the importance of both a historical contextualisation, and a personal frame of reference in interpretations of literature can stimulate meaning-making and originality rather than a regurgitative approach to learning. This is something that can be demonstrated and encouraged at the enquiry desk when building a picture of what material is available on a particular topic.

Intellectual technologies: finding the right fit

Moving beyond the straightforward question of what information can be delivered by the library service, is the ever-increasingly important consideration of what form it could, and should, be delivered in.

The web offers an extraordinary opportunity for information accessibility. The amount of, often previously hard to find, information almost instantaneously at our fingertips; the exposure to the lives and views of an expanding number of people and communities; and the stimulating connections with previously uncharted domains is unprecedented. IQ levels are now higher than they have ever been, but our ability to find solutions to today’s pressing issues is not improving. We have a wealth of information and statistics on global issues such as peace, security and radicalisation; the spread of infectious diseases; the world’s climate and energy crises; and equality of human rights and resources; but we lack the quality of judgement to address them in meaningful and long-lasting ways. One explanation for this, not without its critics I hasten to add, relates to neuroplasticity and the way in which today’s intellectual technologies influence our behaviours and ultimately the way we think (Carr, Greenfield, Wolf, Johnson).

Research is only beginning to explore the effect that new technology is having on our capacity to gather, store and exchange information. One line of thought that I’d like to explore here is that the click and flick, skimming, scanning and scrolling that the web encourages, termed ‘the eco-system of interruption technologies’ (Doctorow) is having a profound and insidious effect on our intellectual behaviours; replacing attentive, contemplative, conceptual thoughts that characterise rich and distinctive thinking, with multi-tasking, distracted, superficial and fragmentary thinking.

How can we utilise the wealth of piecemeal information available on the web without compromising deep, broad, conceptually rich thinking?

I don’t want to argue for a return to a world without the web – far from it. But I would like to highlight the, perhaps over-simplified, binaries of two very different information distributors. Just because the brain can process information found in a particular form, whether that is a book, the web, or other media, does not mean that it is the optimal way to receive that information, or that the result of processing the information will be the same using different media. Now, we know that different people learn in different ways, but what we also need to consider is that perhaps, different media promotes different kinds of learning. When faced with answering a pupil’s reference enquiry, perhaps we should not only consider what kind of information we deliver, but the manner in which that information is going to be received and internalised, and the repercussions of the practice of attending to information in a certain way.

Explaining to pupils the ‘absorption characteristics’ of a particular form of the information they are seeking will help to not only broaden their vision of the information landscape, but also to develop evaluative skills.

Unmasking the magician-librarian

Why is it so important to provide more than a reference?

Well… perhaps one of the best ways to educate pupils on the skills required to build knowledge in today’s intellectual environment is to demonstrate those skills at the enquiry desk, creating group behaviours by consistently embodying the academic practices we expect our pupils to develop skills in. Instead of creating a cloud of mystery about research and the workings of reference enquiries; by making the process transparent and easily replicable, by encouraging pupils to feel that creating original research is as much about their own personal relationship with the focus of study as the academic communities’, and by promoting an awareness of the range of intellectual thinking supported by today’s technologies, perhaps we can inspire confidence, a richness of attentive thinking and an ability to exploit the opportunities we have to build knowledge about ourselves, our histories, and our future.

Find out more…

On models of learning: Vosniadou’s booklet ‘How Children Learn’, published in 2001 by the International Academy of Education is still one of the most accessible and relevant introductions to learning and includes many references to further reading. You can find it here:

On intertextuality: Sally Beauman’s postscript to Du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ discusses the novel’s use of intertextuality and is a great starting-point for this topic. For more in-depth, critical studies of intertextuality I’d suggest you read Julia Kristeva’s ‘A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art’, or Roland Barthes’ ‘The Death of the Author’, both of which require attentiveness, deep thinking, and possibly some strong coffee. To get a feel for the intellectual scene that Kristeva was responding to you might like to explore Saussurean or Bakhtinian theories. For a much more accessible introduction to authorial intent, you may enjoy John Green’s short open letter in Crash Course Literature #1 on the Crash Course Youtube channel:

On cognition and intellectual technologies: Nicholas Carr’s book, ‘The Shallows’, explores the intellectual and cultural consequences of the web and the effect that different intellectual technologies can have on the way we think. For a brief overview of the main themes in ‘The Shallows’ this Youtube video is an accessible and relatively short exploration of the book. Carr also blogs at:, where you’ll find him developing material that will often later be expanded into articles, essays or more formal publications. Susan Greenfield takes a neuro-scientific approach to new technologies and creativity, and a simple Youtube search will return a number of similar talks by her on this topic. Maryanne Wolf’s book ‘Proust and the Squid: the story and science of the reading brain’ explores what might happen if we replace traditional reading skills with digital screen-based skills. Steven Johnson offers an alternative view in his book, ‘Everything Bad is Good for You: how popular culture is making us smarter’, in which he argues that attending to mass culture, including online media, is in fact making us smarter. His illustrated Youtube video promoting another of his books, ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’ is an excellent critique of the kinds of arguments put forward by Carr and Greenfield, and interestingly includes serendipidy in the research process, though is perhaps not providing the whole picture in relation to knowledge-building as opposed to idea formation: Cory Doctorow examines ‘Writing in the Age of Distraction’ in Locus Magazine: For a classic study on technology and culture, you might like to consider Marx’s prescient ‘The Machine in the Garden’: a piece of literary, and arguably cultural, criticism from 1964.


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