Describe the fundamental concepts of information-seeking behaviors


Various theories have been proposed since 1990 which seek to define in a systematic way the means and modes of information retrieval by the user. Rather than pedantically summarize these theories I will speak to the ones I find most compelling in demonstrating the case, as well as the importance of understanding information seeking behaviors in contemporary library science.

Information seeking behavior is the core of contemporary library science; the immediacy at which we study and fixate on it is like none other. This is not surprising considering that over the past decade there has been a complete upheaval in information retrieval. It is of no coincidence that the various theories of information seeking behaviors only emerged at the turn of this past century. The emergence of such theories in the literature reveal a deep anxiety and lack of confidence in traditional information retrieval services, which as we can plainly see, are being devalued and smashed by the chaotic yet attractive disorder of Web 2.0, and now Web 3.0 radical decentralization. The so-called “Google Generation” threatens the old order.

Through this frame of reference it is only natural then that the contemporary information scientist focuses on the behavior of the end user. Until recently information silos warded off the user, threatening institutional funding and the existential relevance of libraries and archives. There is a real possibility that if libraries do not change to cater to the evolving information seeking behaviors of the end-user that they will cease to exist, or will exist in the future in a way so fundamentally different as to bear no resemblance to institutions past.

Yet in a sense the emergence of systematic theories such as Carol Kuhlthau’s ISP Information Search Process (ISP) are misguided and ostentatious attempts at understanding the end user. Kuhlthau for instance is not a psychiatrist or psychologist, and her findings come from primarily researching a pool of high school students. She posits a psychological, emotional theory of mind which simultaneously conflict with the other theories which have emerged or continue to be adapted to redress the same uncertainty. While Kuhlthau stresses the importance and primacy of emotion in information seeking behavior, Nicholas Belkin’s Anomalous State of Knowledge model calls for information seeking behavior centered around gaps in understanding, while most recently Robinson has argued that the intervention and allure of intermediaries is a critical factor in information seeking, amongst dozens of others! How in such a climate of reactionary, grasping, imprecise diversity of thought can a scientific or otherwise provisional finding emerge?

My sense is that understanding the causation of information seeking behavior is counterproductive and ultimately irrelevant. Such mysteries will only be discovered once the most basic thoughts have been quantified and analyzed by neurochemistry. Instead librarians should focus on the case. To this I mean to say: we should examine the behaviors, desires and preferences of the end-user. We know for instance that the end-user prefers to seek for information in a decentralized, rich, web 2.0/3.0 savvy world (the majority of my coursework to follow speaks to this). Overwhelmingly the information seeker prefers Google over a face to face with a librarian, chooses digital over print and interfaces most enthusiastically with heuristic rather than static “olde pastiche”. The “why” of this is irrelevant; it is the case. What we might more productively focus on is asking whether or not their information seeking behaviors are serving them well, and if not, introduce the librarian as architect to assuage misunderstanding, failures to be successful in information seeking, frustration, insufficiency and inadequacy of information.

The librarians of tomorrow must understand what the end-user wants and design systems which accomplish providing information in a way which caters to the information seeking behavior of the end-user. Contrary to what our pseudo-psychologist betters such as Carol Kuhlthau might suggest: this does not entail an elemental, cognitive deconstruction of the human mind, it simply entails good observation and empathy. The former fails when applied to various spectra of end-user: an aborigine from Australia will seek information quite differently than a well to do high school student from an affluent neighborhood in the United States, to mention one of limitless contrasts.

The fundamental concepts of information seeking behavior can be gleamed from interaction with the end-user, and an accompanying survey of the population. One way to accomplish this is by statistical review – we can deduce certain information seeking behaviors from a record of how often certain services are activated versus others. Another way is by the interview, actually listening to the end-user. Who would have thought of such a thing from our urbane towers? One who’s ideas I am most attracted to is David Ellis. Ellis proposes, using grounded theory interview data, a common sense and activity-based approach to information seeking behavior. Rather than attempt to deconstruct the emotional world of the end-user, Ellis simply reports on the various stages and actions of information seeking: starting, chaining, browsing, differentiating, monitoring, extracting, verifying, ending. As librarians we can carefully observe end-user behavior and assist at each step in a systematic way. One might, for instance, have trouble “chaining” (that is to say – analyzing and prosecuting a search stemming from references located during an initial search during “starting”) due to a lack of training in qualifying good information versus rubbish. These are key points in which a librarian can intervene, either as an aspect of end-user service, or by facilitating and engineering systems which reduce or neutralize such issues. Ellis proposes a robust, yet unpretentious, provisional model for considering information seeking behaviors in this way. Provisional is key: we must be willing to change our perceptions of end-user information seeking behaviors and adapt with the continued evolution of information presentation – the human way to information is changing with lightning tempo.

Applied Work

A large portion of my coursework has focused on understanding the end-user’s information seeking patterns. Most of this work has taken place in course discussion boards; it seems that the majority of new MLIS candidates are very concerned about the existential future of our endeavor! I have also written extensively in formal papers on this topic: mostly centered around the significance of a Web 2.0/3.0 world, what it means for libraries, the nature of information and preservation. Married to the historical emergence of Web 2.0/3.0 are sweeping, fundamental changes in the end user’s behavior, preferences and expectations of information retrieval systems.

The first piece of selected work is an interoffice memorandum thought experiment produced for Wayne’s Disher class on collection management. It examines the question of whether or not it would be a wise decision to adopt digital journals in lieu of print journals for a semi-fictional institution. The end-user’s preferences and modes of information seeking behavior is examined statistically, the paper covers succinctly the popularity and access rates of both print and digital media.

The second piece of selected work is a paper accompaniment to a lengthy oral history I conducted of Sharon O’Malley for Nancy MacKay’s oral history class. The oral history focused on the interviewee’s experience with library institutions and her own information seeking behaviors. What we find is a portrait of an end-user typical of our day, and her information seeking preferences are examined and commented upon.

The third piece of selected work is a short article I wrote on Twitter and how information seeking behaviors in a Twitter age are fundamentally different, perhaps to a fault, than the more deliberate and sober behaviors of the past.

The last piece of work is from a discussion board. It is an opinion piece on how the end-user prefers interactive and richness of information in information retrieval and speaks to how we can help improve our information retrieval systems by making the end-user a contributor to their operation, whether they realize it or not.

Interoffice Memorandum (PDF)

Sharon O’Malley Oral History: An Examination (PDF)

Twitter and Information Retrieval

On The Importance of Interactivity and Richness in Information Retrieval


Belkin, N. J. (1980). Anomalous states of knowledge as a basis for information retrieval. Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science, 5, 133-143.

Ellis, D., Cox, D., Hall, K. (1993). A Comparison of the Information Seeking Patterns of Researchers in the Physical and Social Sciences. Journal of Documentation 49 (4), 356–369.

Kuhlthau, C. C. (2004). Seeking meaning: A process approach to library and information services. Santa Barbara: Libraries Unlimited.

Robinson, M. A. (2010). An empirical analysis of engineers’ information behaviors. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 61(4), 640–658.

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