February 17, 2018

Debbie Abilock | Movers & Shakers 2002

It Starts With Questions

A teaching librarian who makes time to share her experience

Debbie Abilock knows that librarians at their best don’t just provide answers, they help users develop good questions, because they’re not just teaching research, they’re teaching thinking.

That’s why she is widely acknowledged as one of the great teaching librarians–by her colleagues, her students, the teachers she collaborates with, and all the librarians and teachers who read her articles and use her web sites.

In the Turn of the Century Child assignment she did as a fellow with the American Memory Project (nuevaschool.org/~debbie/library/cur/20c/turn.html) she asks students to question historical photographs as a tool for historical understanding. For other projects, she shows students how to ask experts pertinent and revealing questions by e-mail and how to phrase questions for search engines to retrieve exactly the information they want. With another instructor, she teaches students the art of interviewing, of asking not just the original question but also the probing follow-up and the request for supporting evidence or considered opinion.

For Abilock, education works best when kids “experience learning in authentic situations. The ‘rush’ of being an archaeologist, the passion of feeling an experience through good writing, the triumph of designing an experiment with controlled variables and good data, the glow when you’ve helped define and address the needs of homeless children in your community….”

That’s why she works with teachers to create processes and resources for exploring real-life problems, which are not only inherently interesting to students but also messy, ill-structured, and in need of guideposts. By the time students finish working through one of these exercises, they appreciate the Nueva School research process Abilock developed (outlined at nuevaschool.org/~debbie/library/research/il/infolit1.html):

  • Engaging
  • Defining
  • Initiating
  • Locating
  • Examining, selecting, comprehending, assessing
  • Recording, sorting, organizing, interpreting, synthesizing
  • Communicating
  • Evaluating


Current position: Technology/Library/
Curriculum Coordinator, Nueva School, Hillsborough, CA

Degree: MLS, Simmons School of Library and Information Science, 1970

Active in: AASL, many state and local organizations, editor Knowledge Quest

Work available at: nuevaschool.org/~debbie/library/overview.html

In one project Abilock created with a science teacher–a simulation of an international conference on global warming–students played characters with particular viewpoints, nationalities, and stakes in the issue, delivering prepared speeches, working with other characters in committees to come up with policies for specific aspects of the problem, and synthesizing their positions and findings on a web page. Another of her projects, Wounded Knee: Past and Present, was hailed by Sharron L. McElmeel in Technology Connection as a site that “makes it clear that sound educational methodology puts the curriculum objective first, and the objective determines the web site to be incorporated into the activity.”

Yet many people who use Abilock’s work routinely have no idea she is an unusually gifted teacher. All they know is that two of her pages are answers to their prayers: her Noodle Bib page, which automatically generates Modern Language Association citations from an online form, and her search engine page, which steers users from the type of question to the most appropriate search engines, portals, or reference pages.

Not surprisingly, Abilock herself is an eager asker of questions, though as editor of the American Association of School Librarians’ Knowledge Quest, she has discovered that a fast way to learn more about anything is to ask someone to write an article about it for her. She uses this Jacob Bronowski quote for her sig file: “It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known, but to question it.” In an educational system more likely to squash barefoot irreverence than keep it alive, Abilock is a standout.