...describe the fundamental concepts of information-seeking behaviors
Meaning and Importance of Competency
Information-seeking is a set of behaviors common among humans. As we go through life, we often need information for various reasons: in our youth, we need it to complete school assignments, apply for college and scholarships, and complete degrees; later, we need it to get jobs, start businesses, travel, get married, buy homes, raise families, vote, pay taxes, and engage in our communities and in the life of the mind. Information-seeking is thus a process that occurs throughout all stages of human life.
As we seek answers to questions and knowledge of different subjects, we may go through several steps on the way to finding the information that we need. The behaviors that we exhibit at each step in the process can vary from defining the problem or question to locating and selecting sources, from examining sources in depth to synthesizing the information we discover and creating new knowledge. Information-seeking behaviors vary based on many factors, including characteristics of the user (e.g. age, education level, learning style, and motivation), the purpose for which information is sought, and intended applications for information that is found.
The fundamental concepts of information-seeking behaviors, then, are concepts related to users, and by relation, concepts related to services and service providers. Information services are core to the mission of libraries. In examining information-seeking behaviors, we can focus on users or on services and service providers, gaining insight into how we can craft our services and communications to best facilitate a successful outcome for each user. The concepts of information-seeking behaviors are relevant to many services offered in our field, including reference, circulation, collections, technical services, and virtual services; they are really at the center of what we do as librarians and information professionals. Exploring and understanding the fundamental concepts of information-seeking behaviors allow us to better understand our users and how best we can serve them at every step of the process.
The concepts of information-seeking behaviors have been discussed in the professional literature for decades. One well-respected expert on this topic is Carol Collier Kuhlthau, Professor Emerita at Rutgers University, who is known for her groundbreaking qualitative and quantitative research in this area. Based on her research, Kuhlthau proposed a model of information-seeking called the Information Search Process (ISP), which is broken into six stages: task initiation, selection, exploration, formulation, collection, and presentation (Kuhlthau, 1991). Kuhlthau associates each stage with specific feelings, thoughts, actions, and tasks. For example, in Stage 1, Initiation, information-seekers commonly feel uncertain, have general or vague thoughts, seek background information, and recognize a need for information (Kuhlthau, 1991, pp. 366-367). In Stage 6, Presentation, tasked with completing the search process, information-seekers experience feelings of relief and satisfaction if the work went well or disappointment if it did not, and their thoughts become clearer and more focused (pp. 366-367).
What Kuhlthau terms the “Principle of Uncertainty for Information Seeking” (also known as the “Uncertainty Principle”) is a central concept of her model: “Uncertainty due to a lack of understanding, a gap in meaning, or a limited construct initiates the process of information seeking” (Kuhlthau, 2012). According to Kuhlthau, “as knowledge states shift to more clearly focused thoughts, a parallel shift occurs in feelings of increased confidence” (2012). However, one interesting finding of Kuhlthau’s research is that uncertainty actually increases in the initial stages of the ISP, as the user encounters information that is inconsistent or incompatible with previously held mental constructs. This can lead to a dip in confidence for the user.
This “dip” in confidence experienced by the user in the early stages of the ISP provides an opportunity for the service provider to provide advice and assistance. Kuhlthau terms these types of opportunities “zones of intervention” (2012). Kuhlthau cites psychologist Vygotsky’s notion of a “zone of proximal development…in which intervention would be most helpful to a learner” (2012) as a model for her concept. According to Kuhlthau, “the zone of intervention is that area in which an information user can do with advice and assistance what he or she cannot do alone or can do only with difficulty” (2012). In her book Seeking Meaning: A Process Approach to Library and Information Services (2003),Kuhlthau identifies five zones of intervention and their associated roles for service providers; these roles include organizer, locator, identifier, advisor, and counselor (chapter 8).Thus Kuhlthau acknowledges the important role of the information service provider (i.e., the librarian) in the successful resolution of the information-seeking process. Tying her various concepts together, Kuhlthau concludes, “Taken together the stages of the ISP, uncertainty principle and the concept of a zone of intervention proposes a conceptual framework for understanding information seeking as a process of construction from the user’s perspective. In summary, the ISP model describes the experience and behavior of people involved in extensive research projects” (2012).
Preparation and Evidence
To demonstrate my ability to describe the fundamental concepts of information-seeking behaviors, I present coursework from two courses I took in the online School of Library and Information Science (SLIS) at San Jose State University (SJSU). My first piece of evidence is an assignment on sampling information retrieval systems as a user that I completed for LIBR 202, Information Retrieval. My second piece of evidence is a set of practice reference questions that I completed for LIBR 210, Reference and Information Services.
First Piece of Evidence: Individual Research and Group Summary Paper on Sampling Information Retrieval Systems as a User, LIBR 202
For the first assignment in my LIBR 202 course on Information Retrieval in Fall 2009, students had the opportunity to look at information-seeking from the point of view of the user. We were assigned to sample, as a user, three information retrieval systems: the brick and mortar library of our choice, the SJSU King Library OPAC, and Google. As part of the assignment, we were instructed to compare and evaluate the three systems from a user perspective, to discuss the experience with assigned teammates, and to contribute to a group paper summarizing our conclusions. Our assignment thus gave us insight into both our own information-seeking behaviors and those of our teammates.
Students followed an information-seeking process similar to that of many students beginning to search for information on a particular topic. We were given a list of sample topics to research, and my group chose the topic Cherokee Nation. Students were instructed to compile a list of 5-10 terms or phrases expected to retrieve desired information and to use the list of terms to begin searching in the three different information retrieval systems; my group collaborated to come up with a list that included: Cherokee Tribe, American Indians, Native Americans, Oklahoma, Trail of Tears, Andrew Jackson, reservations, "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," sovereign nation, and Cherokee Nation. Each student was instructed to spend only 30 minutes with each system and to expand upon or revise our list of search terms based on our searching experience. We were asked to consider whether the same or different terms were most helpful in each system in retrieving needed information.
For my brick and mortar library, I chose The Seattle Public Library’s Central Library. In my individual research, a summary of which I submit here as part of my evidence, I list the total number of results retrieved using each of the pre-selected search terms in SPL’s online catalog and in each of the other two systems. In each case, certain search terms retrieved tens, hundreds, thousands, or even—in the case of Google—millions of results. This finding revealed the importance of narrowing research topics early in the information-seeking process. Narrow topics facilitate a more effective and efficient user experience than broad ones, which can lead to information overload. This point in the search process would be a “zone of intervention” for a librarian, whose advice and assistance in narrowing the topic, selecting resources, and refining the search strategy could help to reduce the feelings of uncertainty and frustration that come with being overwhelmed by information.
In my discussion of my experience using SPL’s Central Library, I include subject headings that I found through my research using the pre-selected search terms. In my “Afterthoughts” for this section (p. 2), I discuss practical benefits and obstacles of the brick and mortar library, including ease of searching and receiving reference assistance (a benefit) and downtown parking and building layout challenges (obstacles). I also conclude that 30 minutes is not enough time to do thorough research on such a broad topic but that the information retrieved seemed authoritative, relevant, and current. My findings reveal that information-seeking behaviors are influenced by external factors, such as time and travel constraints, building layout and navigation, website usability, and staff interactions.
My discussion of SJSU’s King Library OPAC supports my initial findings based on my use of the brick and mortar library. Here, I expand upon the list of subject headings relevant to the topic of Cherokee Nation that I found in my research at SPL and note that practical considerations such as Internet connectivity and speed influence the user’s information retrieval experience. Again, I emphasize the need for a narrower topic, given that thousands of titles were retrieved using the pre-selected search terms in this system. I conclude that the King Library’s sources seem current and “very authoritative, as most of the works [are] of an academic/scholarly nature or published by the government” (p. 4).
One major constraint on my information-seeking behavior in this context is the fact that I live in Washington while the King Library is located in California. While electronic resources are extremely useful to me as an out-of-state SJSU student, I am not often in the position of having enough time to wait for physical materials to be shipped to me. I rely mostly upon the public libraries in my area for access to materials that I need in physical form. Virtual services influence my information-seeking behaviors in unique ways. I have found that as I have increased my use of virtual services such as those offered to SLIS students through the King Library, my need for electronic resources has increased, and the likelihood of an interaction with a librarian has decreased. Kuhlthau’s discussion of challenges for information retrieval system designers (1999) is particularly relevant here; she asserts that “user-centered systems will need to accommodate users beyond the interface, as people seeking information to create, learn and innovate in the context of their daily lives.” As virtual services grow and become even more widespread, the need for librarians and systems designers to understand the fundamental concepts of information-seeking behaviors will become even greater.
In my discussion of my experience using Google, I note that many of the pre-selected search terms (e.g. “reservations”) retrieved irrelevant results. “Because the information retrieved is not catalogued or classified, is not selected for inclusion, and is so broad and numerous,” I point out, “you can easily get lost or overwhelmed by the amount of information retrieved” (p. 4). Here perhaps even more than in the two library systems, “searches need to be specific in order to filter out irrelevant results” (p. 4). Some practical considerations that I mention include the questionable authoritativeness of many of the commercial and sponsored results, the inability of anyone to make use of the millions of pages of results retrieved for searches on broad search terms such as “Cherokee Nation,” and the possibility of exposure to security threats, viruses, and spyware on some of the sites retrieved. As Google grows in popularity and many students begin their research with Google searches, the value of intervention by a librarian, offering assistance with refining search strategies, evaluating resources, and narrowing the topic, increases.
My individual research summary concludes with a revised list of search terms based on my research using the three systems. My revised list includes the terms Cherokee Indians, Cherokee Nation, Indians of North America, and Cherokee law. After each student completed individual research, we used group discussion forums on ANGEL to discuss and compare our findings with our teammates. We were instructed to examine a variety of factors in information retrieval, including practical benefits and obstacles of each system, the time it took to figure out how to use the system and find information, the quantity and quality of information retrieved, and overall satisfaction with the results. We were also instructed to consider how closely our original set of search terms matched the terms that actually helped to retrieve desired information and whether there were any “random” factors that helped us to find useful information. After discussing our experiences, my team worked to combine our individual findings, which are presented as the second part of this piece of evidence.
Working with a group on this assignment helped to solidify my understanding of certain concepts of information-seeking behaviors. For example, working as a group allowed us to get a broader sample of user approaches to the topic than any of us could have produced individually. From a design perspective, getting a broad sample is an important aspect of evaluating the usability and effectiveness of the system, as different people will approach information-seeking in different ways. Identifying the patterns in our experiences, such as difficulties in narrowing Google searches and finding the most authoritative sources in library collections, helped me to understand the barriers and aids to information-seeking that are experienced by library patrons and users of information retrieval systems every day.
Second Piece of Evidence:_Practice Reference Questions, LIBR 210
The course in my SLIS program of study which most explicitly focused on the fundamental concepts of information-seeking behaviors was my LIBR 210 course on Reference and Information Services with Dr. Michelle Holschuh Simmons in Spring 2011. It was in this course that I was introduced to the work of Kuhlthau and other significant names in the study of information-seeking behaviors, including Eisenberg, Bates, and Weiler. Not only was one whole lesson and week’s worth of discussion dedicated to the topic, but students also got practical exposure to some fundamental concepts of information-seeking behaviors through two assignments in which we were given practice reference questions to answer using specific resources. I am submitting one set of practice questions as evidence of my mastery of this competency.
For this practice questions assignment, students were provided with a list of several questions typical of those asked at many library reference desks. The questions are included with my responses. A related part of the assignment was the requirement that each student select two reference sources from a provided list and write one primary and one secondary annotation; I did the primary annotation for Literary Market Place and a secondary annotation for the online American Presidency Project. Each student annotated unique resources, and the annotations were compiled on a course wiki. These were sources that could be used to answer the practice questions.
In our responses, students were permitted to skip one of the questions in the set. We were instructed to provide our responses to each question in four parts: a) the answer to the question, b) an explanation of search strategy, sources consulted, whether they were helpful or not, and source containing answer, c) a self-formulated question with the answer that could be answered in any of the works consulted for this particular question, and d) approximate amount of time spent on the question (Simmons, 2011). We were instructed to append our primary and secondary annotations (pp. 13-15) and to also include a very brief “discovery” annotation on a source we came across during our research. I wrote my discovery annotation on the one-volume Encyclopedia of the Renaissance (p. 15).
While the primary aim of the practice questions assignment was to provide students with familiarity with a range of resources to allow us to find accurate information effectively and efficiently, the questions themselves were posed as if coming from a diverse set of patrons. Questions ranged from etiquette questions posed by young women (#6) and medical questions from seniors (#8) to questions from writers doing research for their latest books (#11) and from college students studying sociology (#1) and environmental science (#2). Part of understanding and being responsive to information-seeking behaviors is knowing how to find answers to a variety of questions coming from diverse individuals using the best available resource(s) from among many. In my responses, I not only provide the answer to each question but also discuss the process I followed to discover it. My description of my own information-seeking process reveals much about information-seeking behaviors. As librarians, understanding our own information-seeking behaviors can help us to better understand those of our users. For these reasons, my responses to the practice questions demonstrate my understanding of and ability to adapt to a variety of information-seeking behaviors, to efficiently and effectively provide relevant, accurate information, and to describe the fundamental concepts of information-seeking behaviors.
My study of the fundamental concepts of information-seeking behaviors has revealed to me the necessity and value for all librarians and information professionals to have a sophisticated understanding of these concepts and the research that has been conducted in this area by experts such as Kuhlthau. Promoting and developing literacies of all kinds, from basic reading and writing to information literacy and digital literacy, and developing user-friendly, responsive retrieval systems are central to the work that we do. The knowledge I have gained through my studies of this topic has already made me more effective in providing reference services in my current library position, and I look forward to learning more and improving my ability to teach and provide information services in the future.
Kuhlthau, C. C. (1991). Inside the search process: Information seeking from the user’s perspective. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 42(5), 361-371.
Kuhlthau, C. C. (1999). Accommodating the user’s information search process: Challenges for information retrieval system designers. Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science, 25(3). Retrieved from http://www.asis.org/Bulletin/Feb-99/kuhlthau.html.
Kuhlthau, C. C. (2003). Seeking meaning: A process approach to library and information services (2nd ed.). Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.
Kuhlthau, C. C. (2012). Information search process. Retrieved from http://comminfo.rutgers.edu/~kuhlthau/information_search_process.htm.
Simmons, M. H. (2011). Practice questions #1: Ready reference and bibliographic sources. Unpublished assignment sheet, San Jose State University.