The Trailblazers

Winter 2015

By Cathy Evans, David Wee, Dorcas Hand, and Robyn Martin

The last 25 years have turned the world of information upside down. In the older information-scarce world, the primary role played by libraries and librarians in many independent schools was to locate and provide access to information sources and as much relevant content as possible. The invention of the World Wide Web in 1989, the launch of Google in 1997, the introduction of smartphones (the iPhone, 2007), and tablets (the iPad, 2010) are significant milestones that, along with a cast of other tech breakthroughs, have altered the world from one of information scarcity to one of information abundance in little more time than our current graduating seniors have been alive.

In turn, these breakthroughs have altered the nature and focus of school libraries and the work of librarians - all in service to student efforts to develop and demonstrate knowledge.

Today, if a history assignment focuses on World War II, and a student - let’s call him John - chooses a sub-focus on the Holocaust, he’s likely to begin his search with Google. And here he’ll find “about 14,800,000 results [in] 0.33 seconds,” more than enough, it would seem, to help him write his paper. However, quantity is not quality, and information is not synonymous with knowledge. Unless John carefully selects the best resources to help him form and then support his thesis, his writing and research will likely not reveal any deeper understanding of the Holocaust than the work of students of previous, non–World Wide Web generations. In fact, his paper could be worse. The ubiquitous, disparate, and decontextualized bits of information on every topic conceivable threaten to overwhelm John and his peers with sheer volume, rendering them unable to synthesize the information they access into deeper understanding and meaningful knowledge.

They need help and guidance in developing the curatorial skills required to sift through all the available information in order to focus on the most pertinent and valuable information - and then synthesize it all into a clear presentation.


In his prescient 1945 essay, “As We May Think,” Vannevar Bush describes the problem of information overload and the need for “trailblazers who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.” He is, of course, describing the art of curation. Not so many years ago, students did not need to be taught research or curatorial skills beyond the basics because the search process was more or less straightforward. The information was almost always contained within a single library or was available through an interlibrary loan system. The process was manageable.

Today, trailblazing - the ability to curate - has become an essential skill for all serious scholarship and much of professional life beyond college.

While definitions of “curation” are wide-ranging, for this article we view curation as “a process of finding, validating, selecting, organizing, and sharing information on a targeted topic for a targeted audience.” A major key to success in the curation process, however, is that the audience should always understand the context in which the curated sources are being presented and that readers/listeners/viewers are expected to develop their own narrative sense of the topic. It is this narrative sense that serves to transform “information” into “knowledge.” Teachers may collect resources for student consideration, or students may look farther afield than the course materials to find data to support their insights or challenge their assumptions. What matters in the end, however, is that students demonstrate understanding by curating specific passages, images, and theories from these resources into their own product - whether in a traditional paper, an annotated bibliography, a digital presentation, or some other creative form of expression.

Trailblazing involves forging a trail for others to follow. Considering who will read or view the final product is an essential component of the curation process in the same way that curators of museum exhibitions work to display art and artifacts in a manner that intrigues viewers and encourages curiosity, awareness, and an understanding of parallels and connections hinted by juxtapositions.

Curation vs. Collection

In the broadest sense, librarians have always carefully selected sources for inclusion in school libraries from the universe of available materials. Today, this core understanding of collection development extends beyond traditional print to choices of specific subscription-based digital resources, and even to mediographies - bibliographies that include items in various formats including videos, interviews, and websites - and local documents available only in PDF.

At its best, however, the process of developing and maintaining a high-quality collection to serve a school library is almost the exact opposite of the concept of curation as a tool for understanding. An independent school library collection presents strong, well-reviewed content representing a broad range of ideas, thoughts, and viewpoints. The librarian strives to make the material available with as little commentary or narrative as possible. Based on the universe of material in print at any given point, the print collection residing in a school library is the result of a selection process undertaken by campus librarians, with the specific mission, curriculum, and age ranges of the school in mind. This careful selection process also facilitates the serendipitous discovery of materials on the shelf that may expand understanding of a topic but which would not have shown up under the same subject search.

Today, trailblazing - the ability to curate - has become an essential skill for all serious scholarship and much of professional life beyond college.

While curation shares many of the characteristics of the processes and tools familiar in the establishment of traditional library collections, it is more than the sum of the library’s parts. What separates curation from collection is the idea of a consistent narrative, an intended point of view or opinion. A collection of resources about a specific topic is an early stage of curation, but true curation requires deep reading and understanding of the content. Bloom’s Taxonomy would classify true curation as being at the level of creation in which students “put elements together to form a coherent or functional whole; reorganize elements into a new pattern or structure.”

Librarians are in a unique position to help students in this regard. They have an overall understanding of the whole school curriculum as well as the needs and interests of the library users they serve. In other words, they are teachers who have additional expertise in the organization of and access to information resources. Librarians curate for faculty and administrators to help them find resources both within the campus collection and from the wider digital world to enhance their professional development. They curate to help teachers find tools and resources to support their classroom activities and learning goals. They curate for students to help them learn both content and methods for deep understanding and scholarship.

Collaboration between the teacher and the librarian on class assignments can facilitate the inclusion of curation skills. Having a hand in developing the topic lists for study, or the questions to be answered, leads directly to “sharing information on a targeted topic for a targeted audience” as we have defined curation. As the librarian develops an initial list of resources, the resources will be broadly focused to support the needs of the whole class. This provides students a place to start, but it also requires them to decide which resources work best for their specific needs. Student understanding can be displayed in many ways, including through Pinterest, Storify, or a more traditional annotated bibliography. But first, they must decide which of the sources are most appropriate for their narrower topic. They must ask themselves - curate - which bits of information are relevant to their focus. This is where understanding of source evaluation comes into play - and where librarians play a central educational role.
Curation Assessment Criteria

As educators we are constantly looking for ways to engage our students in meaningful learning experiences. Developing a project in which students curate sources on topics of interest to them is a great tool to add to our portfolios. The core elements of a curation project are as follows:
  • Displays focus on an understanding of the topic selected.
  • Content enriches the value and complements the concluding understandings.
  • Source descriptions
    • focus on relevance to the topic;
    • state the criteria by which each piece of content was selected;
    • address any issues with validity, currency, or quality for the reader’s benefit; and
    • restate content as needed to ensure readers understand the relevance.
  • Appropriate quotations and illustrations that complement and reinforce the content are included; all sources are referenced and cited in standard bibliographic format.
  • Opposing viewpoints are included where appropriate.
  • A strong introduction to contextualize the content is included: the personal voice threads the reader through the content much like a museum guide, and a conclusion summarizes the point of view and major points.

The Internet Problem

Online services have recently received significant amounts of attention as curation tools. However, while many of the collections they offer are topical and thoughtful, the vast majority of such postings do not rise to the level of curated content as defined here. Unless thoughtfully selected material is put into a narrative context, a reader cannot build understanding of the topic. We might better think of these topical collections as “content streams” rather than as “curated collections.” They have the potential to support curation, but in most cases stop far short of the potential, offering only aggregations of links, quotes, and images without any indication of context or real understanding, much less the needed consistent narrative.

Curation, in other words, is not a random collection of sources cut and pasted into an assignment or project. In fact, a key goal of curation is to help learners avoid losing their way in such random collections of sources. The narration is the trail.

Our students are digitally connected almost 24/7, and most of our campuses now support that connectivity with 1:1 availability. With or without filters, search engines pay attention to what topics students search most often and tailor their results based on algorithmic assumptions. These assumptions filter out what Google et al. think we don’t want to see or hear. They are what Upworthy cofounder Eli Pariser refers to as the “filter bubble.” The obvious danger is that we don’t know what is being edited out or what we are not getting. This auto-filter discourages divergent awareness, reading, and thinking. It is the antithesis of what is essential in an educated democratic society (and explains why, to take an obvious example, so many Americans are unaware of the overwhelming scientific evidence of manmade global warming). As Pariser says, by leaving research to computer algorithms, we are moving toward “a world in which the Internet shows us what it thinks we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see.”

Students need to learn to seek out unusual perspectives and less obvious but still relevant content to broaden their understanding of their topics. Doing so will contribute to deeper learning in the same way a debater needs to understand the arguments likely to come from an opponent. Those divergent resources can be essential components of a well-curated project.

Librarians work with students to lead them to new questions - to pop the filter bubble in search of broader answers.

The instructor will know from the curation process that the student has done the inherent thinking, rather than glibly producing a cursory product.

Curation, Learning, and Citizenship

An important pedagogical strength of the curation process is that it lends itself beautifully to critical thinking and analysis. In the sources they vet, students must decide what to keep, whom to trust, and what is credible and why. Educators can incorporate lessons on bias, manipulation, and ideological agendas, as well as how information is created, disseminated, and received. In the selecting and contextualizing aspects of curation, students must provide the context for their sources, with narrative, scope, rationale, and justification. The goal is to cover a topic as accurately as possible by pulling together print, video, and/or audio sources with varying viewpoints and angles while providing depth, accuracy, and balance.

Curation also provides an avenue through which students can appreciate the diversity of voices. This type of assignment helps students understand the variety of diverse information and views surrounding an issue and helps them realize how they are empowered by expanding their knowledge base through this diversity.

In all, curation moves a student along a progression of understanding from a gathering of somewhat random resources with only the general topic in common, to a culled collection of resources that begin to illustrate new knowledge and understanding, to a specifically narrowed list that demonstrates a transformed understanding of the topic that offers an opinion about the relevant questions. From this final stage of understanding, a student can move to produce for an audience a summary and explanation of this new expertise. The instructor will know from the curation process that the student has done the inherent thinking, rather than glibly producing a cursory product.

Furthermore, the transforming and sharing aspects of curation provide pedagogical opportunities to teach civic values and responsibilities in a digital world. By developing their own curated content, students are actively engaged in the creation and dissemination of information as they develop skills of civic involvement. In his report for the MacArthur Foundation, Henry Jenkins - professor of communication, journalism, and cinematic arts at the University of Southern California - describes a participatory culture emerging with the explosion of new media technologies that allows “average consumers to archive, annotate, appropriate, and recirculate media content in powerful new ways.” Further, Jenkins offers, “I search, scan, and select the best resources I can find for my own personal interests, and by making my choices available to others, I create a resource for many besides myself. Curation is also a signal to others who share my interests, people I probably would not have known or known about otherwise, who, in turn, suggest resources to me.”

Our students clearly engage in this participatory effort independent of academic assignments. Using that engagement for academic purpose brings the best of both worlds together, the sharing of information with tools to improve the quality of that information. In his book The Good Citizen: How a Younger Generation Is Reshaping American Politics, Russell Dalton describes this shift as moving from a duty-based citizenship, such as our basic duty to vote and pay taxes, to a more engagement-based citizenship that encourages volunteering, advocacy, expression, and protest. Experiencing the curation process strengthens student awareness of the amount of misinformation available and the need to review source validity throughout the process, as well as to credit work by others. Awareness of the need for multiple points of view and credible resources will strengthen student capacity for useful civic engagement.

Traditional research, as understood by too many students and teachers, is the search for facts in order to present those facts in a standard report form, and to assume the audience for the written product to be only the teacher. Curation takes that basic research to a level that requires a student to ask questions about the information, to develop conclusions based on the answers to those questions, to carefully select specific resources that develop the conclusion and only then, after the curation stage, to answer the questions for a wider audience. In the curation process, the focus shifts from the finding of information to the use of information. Whether students begin from a teacher-curated set of resources or develop their own, the curation process requires them to be more engaged with their sources, to synthesize the information and make it their own. They are evaluating the messages in the content, reflecting on the sources, creating presentations, and collaborating. It allows us to teach students the skills to become more engaged participants in scholarly conversation. Blending the use of old and new resources encourages increased engagement as well as understanding of older perspectives as they affect modern issues. In the process, we are increasing students’ digital and media literacy skills - as well as their understanding of this world.

Beyond school, these are also skills students can use in following their own interests and passions. In short, they are essential life skills.


“Bloom’s Taxonomy.” N.d. Digital file. A summary of the revised taxonomy found at this URL:

Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think.” Atlantic 1 July 1945: n. pag. Digital file.

Russell Dalton, The Good Citizen: How a Younger Generation Is Reshaping American Politics (Revised). Thousand Oaks, CA: CQ Press, 2008. Print.

Henry Jenkins, White Paper: Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Chicago: MacArthur Foundation, 2006. MacArthur Foundation. Web. 24 July 2014.

White Paper: Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. MacArthur Foundation, 2014. PDF file.

Howard Rheingold and Robin Good, Robin Good on Curation. YouTube. YouTube, 11; June 2011. Web. 10 Aug. 2014.

Joyce Valenza, “Curation,” School Library Monthly 29.1 (2012): n. pag. School Library Monthly. Web. 12 Aug. 2014.
Cathy Evans

Cathy Evans is the director of libraries at St. Mary’s Episcopal School (Tennessee).

David Wee

David Wee is library director at Mid-Pacific Institute (Hawai‘i) and recently of Harvard-Westlake School (California).

Dorcas Hand

Dorcas Hand is director of libraries at Annunciation Orthodox School (Texas). 

Robyn Martin

Robyn Martin is director of libraries at The Lovett School (Georgia).