Friday, August 23, 2013

Comp J: Info-seeking behaviors

Describe the fundamental concepts of information-seeking behaviors


Most of us run across problems every day where we lack information solve the problem. It is a very common occurrence and usually does not require much thought or consideration. But sometimes the information we need is complex or difficult to define, and we must actively look for this information we require. This is called “information seeking.” Case (2008) defines it as “a conscious effort to acquire information in response to a need or gap in your knowledge” (p. 36). A person can use either browsing or an analytical search to find the information. When browsing, a user assumes that he or she will recognize the relevant information. An analytical search uses planned search terms and examination of the results. Browsing is a more solitary form of information seeking, while analytical strategies may involve the help of a librarian. Because librarians often assist people with this type of information seeking, it is important for us to know the why and how behind a user’s actions.

There are several major theorists who have closely studied information-seeking behaviors. Their theories help us to see the process of research from the perspective of a user: the thoughts, feelings, actions, and choices a user makes to get to the information.

  • Carol Kuhlthau. She is a very influential expert who formulated the model of information search processes. I studied this theory in LIBR 202 as well as LIBR 287, and it really resonates as I can see myself in each step, every time I did research for a paper. Kuhlthau (1991) wrote about the six stages of the information search process:

1.      Initiation. At this first stage, a user recognizes the need for information in an area where he or she lacks knowledge. This leads to feelings of uncertainty and apprehension. The first actions a user performs include discussing approaches and topics.
2.      Selection. Next, a user will identify and choose a general topic by weighing the topic choices against criteria. The user feels optimism and readiness to begin seeking information. At this point, a user may consult other people and do a preliminary search of the available materials.
3.      Exploration. In this third step, a user will examine information on the general topic in order to expand his or her understanding and form a focus. A user may not be able to express exactly what information is needed, and therefore feel confused and doubtful. This step involves locating, reading, and relating general information.
4.      Formulation. The user will come up with a focus from the new information, and will probably feel increasingly confident about the search process.
5.      Collection. At this point, the user is gathering information related to the focused topic. His or her confidence increases even more as the hypothesis becomes well-defined and supported with evidence. The user goes through the search, selecting relevant information and making detailed notes.
6.      Presentation. In this final step, the user completes the search. Depending on the outcome, the user could feel either relief and satisfaction or disappointment. He or she may continue making cursory searches that have less and less relevance and more redundancy (p. 366-368).

  •  Marcia Bates. Her model of information seeking is called berrypicking. It shows that a user does not just move in a straight line, as it were, from information need to document retrieval; Bates’ visual model of berrypicking looks like a winding road. Real-life searches evolve and go in different directions as the user gets new ideas from information obtained along the way. She chose the term berrypicking to represent a person picking berries one at a time from a bush – they do not come in bunches. The same can be said of a document search.

  • Brenda Dervin. Her influential work focused on a model based on people’s need to make sense of the world. In this sense-making model, the user goes through three phases to solve the information problem. The first part establishes the context for the information need. Next, the user asks questions to fill the gap between what he or she already knows and what information is needed to make sense. Finally, the answers to these questions are used to move to the next situation.

  • Nicholas Belkin. His model of information seeking is called Anomalous States of Knowledge (ASK). Users have an information need, but the problem and the information needed are not well understood. The user must go through a clarification process to articulate a search request. This model was designed to explain a user’s approach to open-ended problems, not fact-retrieval problems. It is used as a basis for interactive information systems.

  • George Zipf.  His theory is referred to as the Principle of Least Effort (PLE). It posits that a person will take a course of action that will expend the least amount of effort. For information seeking, this means a user will probably return to the same resources again and again. People will often minimize the effort to obtain information, even if what they end up with is low quality. 


Evidence 1 is a discussion post called 287 Student Research Discussion from LIBR 287, my seminar class on information literacy. That particular week’s topic was about the information search processes of students. The article I read and commented on - by Barbara Fister – was about a study of fourteen undergraduate students who successfully completed research projects. She used Kuhlthau’s information search process as a basis to conduct in-depth interviews to find out how they searched for their information. In my discussion post, I describe how focusing on a topic is really the most difficult part of an assignment for students because they don’t know enough about a topic to see its “holes.” I relate this to teaching information literacy: how do we prepare students to do this kind of research, rather than the simple fact-based searching they may be used to? It is tough for a librarian who only has a 50-minute information literacy class. With this evidence, I prove that I understand how Kuhlthau’s information search process applies to students.

Evidence 2 is also a discussion post from LIBR 287, called 287 Elderly Discussion. This was about an article by Williamson and Asla about the information seeking behaviors of elderly people. They conducted studies among the elderly who lived in senior care facilities and were not necessarily able to get to a library. How was their information-seeking behavior different? They got most of their information through talking to people and through mass media if they lacked the ability or resources to go out and seek it. In my discussion post, I compare this to the experience of my grandparents. They fall into this category and do most of their information seeking just as described in this article. I argue that senior facilities should have information resources for the elderly so they do not have to rely on questionable resources (i.e., daytime television shows or tabloid magazines). This evidence proves I understand the information seeking behaviors of senior citizens, and how their limitations make those behaviors different from younger people.

Evidence 3, from LIBR 285, is a bibliographic essay I wrote in advance of a full research proposal, called Drewieske_BibliographicEssay. This paper shows my own information-seeking behaviors as I researched a challenging historical topic, the changing English language after the Norman invasion in 1066. At the point of writing this essay, I was between stages four and five (formulation and collection) in Kuhlthau’s information search process model. In the first page, I describe the focus I came up with after some research into the “holes” in this topic. My frequent quotes from Anglo-Norman scholar William Rothwell show how I found these gaps in the literature and how I intended to fill them. Throughout the essay, I mention the resources I had found that were helpful for the topic. I feel Bates’ berrypicking model really captures how I went about researching this topic. I used browsing and analytical searching, combing through linguistic and historical databases, journals, and books to find the information I needed. When my search terms were not producing the results I wanted, I would use browsing to see what struck me. This research paper was particularly frustrating (my own fault for choosing the difficult topic), so knowing Kuhlthau’s six stages - and that I would eventually feel confident and satisfied with my results - was beneficial. The bibliography shows that I “picked” information from here and there: general English language books, websites about the time period, peer-reviewed history journals, and dictionaries. This evidence proves I understand information search behaviors from personal experience.   


Knowing these theories and models of information seeking will help me understand the process from the user’s perspective. It will make me more effective if I know from these models of information seeking which stage a person is at in his or her search. Understanding that the thoughts and feelings a person goes through are universal will make me a more empathetic LIS professional, and ultimately more successful.


Case, D. O. (2008.) Information seeking. In K. Haycock & B. E. Sheldon (Eds.), The portable MLIS: Insights from the experts (35-41). Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Kuhlthau, C. C. (1991). Inside the search process: Information seeking from the user’s perspective. Journal of the American Society for Information Science (1986-1998), 42(5), 361-371.

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