Competency J

Describe the fundamental concepts of information seeking behaviors

Statement of Competency

Librarians with this competency are knowledgeable of widely accepted theories of information seeking behavior and how to leverage this understanding to improve customer service.

UNESCO ICTLIP (2002) defines information seeking as “the process engaged in by humans to change their state of knowledge. It is a high level cognitive process that is part of learning or problem solving. To seek information implies that the need to change the state of one’s knowledge” (Slide 8).

From the moment we are born, we are trying to make sense of the world. Rowley and Hartley (2008) writes, “Information seeking is an activity crucial to human survival; it has always been thus” (p. 99). Despite the exponential developments in communication and information technology, people still rely heavily on person-to-person networks and the reach of these “grapevines” grew through social media but essentially we search for information the same way we have done for ages (Morville, 2005, p. 57).

Rubin (2010) says “how someone seeks information can vary by age, level of education, intelligence, and discipline” (p. 275). RUSA (2014) compiled a chart on the information seeking behavior by generation and it is interesting to note that information seeking behavior varies by generation. Those born before WWII are accustomed to a top down flow of information and stable learning. They like materials that are organized and summarized. The baby boomers (born 1943-1960) prefer easy to scan formats and information that is interactive and non-authoritarian. Generation Xers (born 1961-1980) are highly independent and are used to instant access. They are more hands-on and learn by doing. When seeking information, they use fewer words and prefer visual information. Millennials (born 1981-1999) are multitaskers and cyber-literate. They like lively and varied materials and primarily search using Google (p. 1).

Theories of Information Seeking Behaviors

Ellis’ Model of Information Seeking

David Ellis is a Professor at the Department of Information Studies at the University of Sheffield. For his model of information seeking, he identified six cognitive stages in the search process namely: starting, chaining, browsing, differentiating, monitoring, and extracting (Rowley & Hartley, 2008, p. 103). Starting is the initial action of looking for information such as consulting the catalog. Chaining is when the information seeker makes use of references found in the previous stage, for example, using the citations of an article to find related information. Browsing in this model is not the same as random browsing. Rather it is a focused browsing of information on a particular problem or familiarizing oneself with a new topic, like perusing all periodicals on robotics. Differentiating is a process of filtering information sources by certain characteristics. For example, when searching for innovative disease approaches, one might consider only those that are systematic reviews and randomized controlled trials, which are the two highest levels of evidence-based medicine. Monitoring is done by some information seekers to keep abreast of developments. There are e-journals with the option to be notified of new articles to the topic searched. This activity is usually important for researchers and information professionals. Extracting is a process of locating the pertinent information relevant to the information need from gathered information objects.

Kuhlthau’s Information Seeking Process

Carol Kuhlthau is a Professor Emerita from Rutgers School of Library and Information Science. Her thinking is influenced by constructivism which is a learning theory about how people construct meaning and knowledge form their experiences. Her Information Search Process (ISP) has six stages: initiation, selection, exploration, formulation, collection, and search closure or presentation. Kuhlthau (1989) viewed an information search as a process of construction in which people build their view of the world by assimilating and accommodating new information (p. 2). Initiation is when a person becomes aware of an information need and realizes that there is a knowledge gap. Belkin (1980), Professor of Library and Information Science, The University of Western Ontario, called this an anomalous state of knowledge (ASK). At this point, information seekers try to understand what information is needed and what knowledge they already have. Selection happens when the information seeker settles on a topic to search for. This is followed by exploration when searching for relevant information happens until the information seeker believes that there is sufficient information about the topic. Formulation is the point when the information seeker has gained sufficient knowledge to formulate a query. Collection is the stage when the information seeker conducts a more focused search and gather information that are pertinent to the query formulated in the previous stage. And finally, in the presentation stage the search is completed, the information seeker has gained knowledge and will be able explain that learning to others. Kuhlthau (1993) believes that librarians can offer intervention at any stage and that the ISP can help identify the appropriate “zone of intervention” when a “user can do with guidance and assistance” (p. 176). This means a librarian can lend a hand at the point of need. To effectively help a user, a librarian has to understand where the users are in the process and offer advice if they need more aid during the information seeking process (Cassell & Hiremath, 2013, p. 350).

Dervin’s Concept of Sense-Making

Brenda Dervin is a Professor of Communication at Ohio State University. She is known for her concept of sense-making. Dervin (1983) writes that “the Sense-Making approach assumes that sense-making behavior is situationally and contextually bound and rooted in the present, past, and future time-space” (Paragraph 14). She describes sense- making as a way of referring to how the person makes sense of what is learned or experienced within that person’s frame of reference. Sense making has four components namely: situation, gap, outcome,and bridge. Situation is a moment in time when information is sought to help resolve a problem. Gap is the distance between where the information seeker is at and the desired outcome. Outcome is the result of the sense making process and bridge is the means by which the information seeker closes the gap (Rowley & Hartley, 2008, p. 107).

Bates’ Berrypicking Model

Marcia Bates is Professor VI Emerita at Department of Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. Morville (2005) states that Bates deserves credit for our understanding of information seeking behavior. She said that the classic information retrieval model characterized by a single query has become inadequate (p. 59). This is especially true when conducting online searches. The Web differs from traditional sources because it is vast, is always in a state of flux, and is unorganized. Only 70% of web searches are successful and most people only look at the first few pages of results. In the berrypicking model, “searchers adapt the strategy to their particular need at the moment” (Bates, 1989, p. 8). It differs from the classic search process in: the nature of the query; the nature of the overall search process; range of search techniques used, and; information “domain” or territory where the search is conducted. In real-life searches information seekers may begin with one relevant source and each new information gives them ideas and directions to follow. Bates explains that they are not just modifying the search terms to get a better match for a single query but the query itself is constantly evolving (p. 3-4). The search query is not satisfied by a single set of retrieved information, for example, the first 10 results on Google. Instead it is answered by a series of selections or bits of information. This is where the term “berrypicking” comes from; it’s an analogy to picking blueberries which are scattered on bushes, not like grapes which come in bunches. They must be picked one at a time.

Bates describes six notable user search strategies among the variety users employ. Footnote chasing or backward chaining which involves using footnotes in books and articles to search for relevant information. Citation searching or forward chaining where the user begins with a citation and using a citation index to look up who cited it. Journal run involves identifying a central journal in the subject area because it most likely has very high rates of relevant information. Area scanning is the equivalent of browsing materials that are physically collocated. With today’s e-journal databases, this is quite easy to perform with the sophisticated filters and browsing features provided by publishers. Subject searches in bibliographies and abstracting and indexing (A & I) services are the most similar to the classic model of information retrieval. These are ideal for subject searches. Author searching is a process used by information seekers to see if the author has done any other work on the same topic (Bates, 1989, p. 7-8). Bates had foreseen the iterative and innovative nature of information seeking that is appropriate for searching on the Web when she conceptualized the berrypicking model and continues to conduct research investigations in the field.

Importance of Understanding Information Seeking Behavior

As information professionals, we should always assess the information needs and be aware of how people search for information and how they learn. A study by Chen and Hernon (1982) found that in general, people seek information for personal reasons, to answer everyday questions such as employment, product information, performing repairs, loans, adult education, parenting and so forth. Rubin (2010) writes that “these findings are of great value to LIS professionals, especially those in public libraries, in building their collections and services” (p. 276). By understanding our patrons, we can provide what they need. There has been many studies on information seeking behavior and they have produced some interesting findings that should be of interest to LIS professionals.

  • People don’t see librarians as a primary source of reliable information. As mentioned previously, people tend to go their personal network first, even if that is not the most trustworthy information source. Being visible and approachable is something that librarians should strive to be per RUSA guidelines. A new “branding” of our profession is necessary for people to realize that not only can we make their search for information more efficient but also increase its quality.
  • Not everyone has the same information seeking abilities. At present, the older generation is still in the process of catching up with information technology but age is not the only factor. It goes without saying that intelligence, economic status, and adaptability can also affect information seeking abilities. This is especially true for public libraries who need to have flexible systems to accommodate these variances.
  • People tend to use the most convenient source to find information (e.g. Google). The quality of the information from these sources is not on par with that of libraries but is preferred because it doesn’t require much of an effort. This is called the “principle of least effort.” It is a shame because libraries puts so much care in building collections that would be useful to their patrons. Libraries must find ways to make quality information convenient to access (Rubin, 2010, p. 276-279).

During the years I have worked in a library, I have seen electronic resources developers put more emphasis on user experience to put quality information at the users’ fingertips. I also think that because of the digital shift in conveying information, teaching online searching should begin as early as possible.

Justification of Evidence

  1. Seek and You Will Find (LIBR 244 Online Searching)

One of the first things I realized when I began my online searching class was that the ability to search effectively is a necessary skill in today’s world. I think that it should one of the core classes because learning the skills I learned in that class has improved my information seeking skills. I’m sure that the average library user and the academic researcher will make their lives easier by changing their searching behavior. This artifact is from my online searching class and it discusses how to have successful searches using subject headings, controlled vocabularies, Boolean operators and field searching (Title / Author / Subject). As LIS professionals we also learn how to conduct more in-depth searches using not just tools but also techniques like proximity searching, truncation, filtering, building blocks, pearl growing and lawn mowing. Mann (2005) also describes an approach using the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), one can follow cross-references and browse broader and narrower terms which can help the information seeker discover terms in that are related to the original topic. I find using controlled vocabularies more useful and most databases have a lookup or thesaurus feature to help the searcher use the correct search term. This is very important to me as a librarian because a lot of times, students will use a keyword search but if the article is not using full-text indexing, then the search will yield not results. Controlled vocabularies are becoming even more important as they are being used to populate metadata records that will enable access to linked records.

  1. Presentation 1 Flexibility (LIBR 244 Online Searching)

This artifact is the transcript of my presentation for my online searching class. This was a 3-minute spiel so the recording doesn’t sound too good. We were supposed to use only one slide with a minimal number of words to show what we’ve learned so far after the first half of the semester. I chose to discuss “flexibility” in the context of searching. Because I am inherently tenacious when it comes to searching, learning how to be flexible was a good lesson to learn, something that I can pass on to users and improve the service I provide them. I realized that searching does not have to stay within the parameters, that it’s okay to deviate and try other search terms. I also learned to mine the data from article keywords, citations, and abstracts. And finally, know when to desist. Although we always want to find the best answer, sometimes the best answer is the timely answer.

  1. Information Environment (LIBR 244 Online Searching)

This discussion post is again from my online searching class. In it I discuss my own journey as a learner and searcher. When I was working as a library assistant, I had to constantly attend webinars to get trained on new or improved databases. This was necessary in other to teach information literacy classes.  As I passed on what skills I picked up, students who do learn these additional techniques greatly improve their information searching success. This will certainly not dissuade most users to quit googling, especially since Google keeps making itself indispensable but for academics and researchers, modifying their search behaviors will benefit them greatly. As fine as the different information seeking models are, from my observation, most approach searching in an almost erratic way. I’ve seen numerous people struggle with even the simplest searches because they did not know what keyword or subject searchers to use, their attitude toward searching is negative or they are just not patient enough to fine tune their searches or filter their results. That’s why I think Bell’s (2007) “Mental Toolkit” offers excellent advice. She gives three tips to improve information seeking behavior without losing your mind, namely (p. 27):

  • Have a healthy skepticism: Always double-check what people tell you and don’t even trust something in a bibliography without checking if that reference actually exists. I worked as a bibliographic checker for more than six months and I can attest that although a work was cited one way, it could have changed over time and this especially true for online resources.
  • Willingness to let go: Sometimes, no matter how many search terms you use and how many times you manipulate them, you don’t get satisfactory results. At this point, you must be willing to let go. Taking a break to regroup usually helps.
  • Maintain mental clarity and patience: Searches are better approached in an organized way. Unsystematic searches makes it harder to keep track and modifying search terms could get confusing, possibly duplicating efforts and wasting a lot of time.

Taking into consideration what we know about information seeking behaviors and how we ourselves are searchers, we as information professionals can pass on the skills we have to library users to enhance their own information seeking abilities. It is our responsibility to update our proficiencies as often as possible to better serve our patrons.


Seek and You Will Find

Presentation 1 Flexibility

Information Environment


Bates, M.J. (1989). The design of browsing and berrypicking techniques for the online search interface. Online Review, 13(5), 407-424.

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

Bell, S. (2007). Tools every searcher should know and use. Online, 31(5), 22-27.

Cassell, K.A. & Hiremath, U. (2013). Reference and information services: An introduction. 3rd edition. Chicago, IL: American Library Association.

Chen, C.C. & Hernon, P. (1982). Information Seeking: Assessing and Anticipating User Needs. New York, NY: Neal-Schuman.

Dervin, B. (1983). An overview of sense-making concepts, methods, and results to date. Paper presented at the International Communication Association Annual Meeting, May 1983, Dallas, Texas. Retrieved from

Kuhlthau, C. (1989). Information search process: A summary of research and implications for school library media programs. SLMQ, 18(1), 1-12.

Kuhlthau, C. (1993). Seeking meaning: A process approach to library and information services. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Mann, T. (2005). The Oxford guide to library research. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Morville, P. (2005). Ambient findability. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, Inc.

Rowley, J. & Hartley, R. (2008). Organizing knowledge: An introduction to managing access to information. 4th edition. Surrey, UK: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

Rubin, R.E. (2010). Foundations of library and information science. 3rd edition. New York, NY: Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc.

RUSA. (2014). Information seeking behavior and the generations. Retrieved from

Spink, A. & Cole, C. (2006). Human information behavior: Integrating diverse approaches and information use. Journal of the American Society of Information Science and Technology,57, 23-35.