Saturday, November 28, 2009

The heart of library research

At Naropa University, students wholeheartedly engage in mindfulness awareness practices in order to cultivate being present in the moment and to deepen their academic study… Through such a focused self-exploration, students…acquire the ability to be present in the classroom and in their lives; to engage in active listening with an open mind; to analyze a subject; and to integrate what has been learned with personal experience. (Naropa University, paras. 4-6)

I am the Director of Library and Archives at Naropa University, which “has offered mission-based contemplative education…for more than thirty years” (Naropa University, para. 3). I have the privilege of observing and occasionally participating in the ongoing debate about the precise nature of contemplative education. Is it education in a particular contemplative practice which is grafted onto a traditional academic discipline (e.g., “contemplative psychology”), or is it teaching and learning about a traditional academic discipline through the vehicle of a contemplative pedagogy? At this time, I lean more towards the latter position. I believe it imposes fewer constraints on the subjects of study and the methods of teaching and learning. My main professional stake in this debate is that, as yet, I have not encountered anyone working on the concept of contemplative library research.

My favored theoretical framework for library research is Carol Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process (ISP). In Seeking Meaning: A Process Approach to Library and Information Science, Kuhlthau outlines the ISP, presents the empirical evidence for its validity, and suggests practical applications. The ISP “incorporates three realms: the affective (feelings), the cognitive (thoughts), and the physical (actions)” (Kuhlthau 44); it comprises six stages: Task Initiation, Topic Selection, Prefocus Exploration, Focus Formulation, Information Collection, and Search Closure. At each stage, learners exhibit characteristic thoughts, feelings and actions. These phenomena “indicate the need for considering uncertainty as a natural, essential characteristic of information seeking…the goal of library and information services shifts from reducing uncertainty to supporting the user’s constructive process” (Kuhlthau 200-201).

This talk of a constructive process is a good fit with contemplative education, where students construct learning through presence, listening, analysis, and integration. An introduction to contemplative education that is often used at Naropa is the anthology The Heart of Learning: Spirituality in Education, which includes contributions from notables such as Parker Palmer, bell hooks, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In “The Grace of Great Things,” Palmer highlights the need for education to cultivate in learners a “sense of the precious otherness of the things of the world” (Palmer 23), a “sense of community with each other and with all of creation” (Palmer 27), and a “capacity for wonder and surprise” (Palmer 29). These capacities all critically depend on increasing learners’ tolerance for uncertainty. They must move from an emphasis on being right to an emphasis on adding value to their knowledge (Kuhlthau 174). They must move from unreflective anxiety in the face of uncertainty to a patient and genuine openness (Palmer 30).

In contemplative education, teachers mediate and model this learning process for their students. What kind of mediating role can librarians play in contemplative library research? Kuhlthau introduces the concept of a zone of intervention, “that area in which an information user can do with advice and assistance what he or she cannot do alone or can only do with great difficulty” (Kuhlthau 129). Within these zones, librarians can help learners through the prior organization of a collection, locating a single reference source or identifying of a group of sources, giving advice about the research process, or engaging in “holistic interaction over time through guidance in identifying and interpreting information” (Kuhlthau 131). An important part of this holistic interaction is encouraging learners to remain mindful of their thoughts, feelings and actions. For example, I remind Naropa students that anxiety is a natural part of life in an unpredictable world and that they are learning in other contexts how to sit with their anxiety without getting overwhelmed. I also remind them that the information sources they use in their projects are not lifeless objects but the recorded thoughts of other people who, though perhaps distant in time and space, are still available for conversation. In Palmer’s terminology, they are precious others with whom one may join in community.

I am far from being able to propose a distinctively contemplative Information Search Process. However, the resonance between Kuhlthau’s model of library research and Naropa’s model of education encourages me to continue this line of inquiry. In time, perhaps I and others will be able to speak coherently and convincingly of “the heart of library research.”


Naropa University. “Contemplative Education: The Spark of East and West Working
Within.” (accessed November 25, 2009).

Palmer, Parker J. “The Grace of Great Things: Reclaiming the Sacred in Knowing, Teaching, and Learning.” In The Heart of Learning: Spirituality in Education, edited by Steven Glazer, 15-32.
A New Consciousness Reader. New York: J.P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1999.

Kuhlthau, Carol Collier. Seeking Meaning: A Process Approach to Library and
Information Services. Westport, Conn: Libraries Unlimited, 2004.