Competency J – Information Seeking Behavior

…describe the fundamental concepts of information-seeking behaviors


Librarians must consider how users seek information in order to recognize how they can best meet patron needs, and recognize their shifting roles in facilitating information provision. People search for information in myriad ways, and often experience uncertainty about expressing their information needs. In our present society, information seeking is considered an admission of knowledge lack, which may precipitate the inability to communicate effectively. As such, librarians need a supportive infrastructure that helps them navigate reference transactions as well as understand various information seeking methodologies users will adopt. To understand these methods and principles is vital to providing efficient and effective library services.

We are compelled to search for information when we experience a divide between what we know and what we desire to understand. Belkin et. al (1982) proposed that we begin this search with a vague idea of our information need, “sometimes referred to as an anomalous state of knowledge.” (Belkin et. al, 1982, p.62) This knowledge gap provides us with an impetus to “satisfy an immediate need by searching for relevant information” (Krikelas, 1993, p.8), and generally occurs within a given context or “problem environment” that motivates said information seeking. (Durrance, 1989, p. 162)

Bates’ (1989) “berry-picking” model is a popular search strategy that many users emulate as it also follows the path of least resistance by allowing users to widen their search and then hone in when their information needs become clarified. Essentially, users are able to iteratively select potentially relevant sources, which in turn presents new reasons for inquiry as new information is introduced and changes the process dynamic.

According to Kuhlthau (1993), users tend to follow a six-staged constructive information search process (ISP) model when seeking information: initiation, selection, exploration, formulation, collection, and presentation. (Michelle Simmons, LIBR 210 lecture, July 4, 2012). The initiation stage consists of users beginning to seek “relevant information” and experiencing “uncertainty, confusion, and frustration…associated with vague, unclear thoughts about a topic or question.” (Michelle Simmons, LIBR 210 lecture, July 4, 2012) Kuhlthau (1993) identifies this as the “uncertainty principle.”(Kuhlthau, 1993, p. 345) As users progress through the stages, their cognitive awareness of their topic gradually becomes more focused. Selection is the second stage, which brings a fair amount of exuberance about the newly chosen topic despite the thought process remaining somewhat murky. In the exploration stage, users experience the messiness of internalizing information about the topic well enough to form a perspective meritorious of a research paper. This stage catalyzes “doubt, frustration, and confusion.“ (Michelle Simmons, LIBR 210 lecture, July 4, 2012). Thankfully, the formulation stage brings with it some light to help clarify the information seekers’ perspective, and allow for “focus” and “increased interest.” As shoulders relax in the collection stage, users begin to gain a sense of confidence and direction in their research and begin to collect and “document more pertinent information.” Finally, users present their research topics in the sixth stage: presentation and experience either “satisfaction or disappointment.” It is useful for librarians to consider Kuhlthau’s ISP model to decide appropriate actionable ways they can best guide and facilitate users through the process.

Another important paradigm that Kuhlthau espouses is her five “Zones of Intervention” that “classifies patrons’ needs on a continuum” from zone 1 to zone 5, and allows librarians to adopt various roles in patrons’ information seeking dependent on their information needs. In Zone 1, librarians fulfill the role of “organizer” which involves appropriately cataloging information resources and maintaining an order of classification as well as presenting a clean and friendly web presence that facilitates navigation and warrants return use. When information seekers are in Zone 2, they tend to have “ready reference” questions that may be answered if the correct resource is presented. Librarians in this stage act as “locators” to help patrons find those useful sources. Like the “exploratory” stage in Kuhlthau’s ISP model, Zone 3 opens the patron to explore “several relevant sources” that may suit his needs. As an identifier, librarians advocate for this discovery and often present instruction on how to search catalogs for a specific subject heading or specialization to help users recall more congruent information. ((Michelle Simmons, LIBR 210 lecture, February 20, 2012). Zone 4 is a return to linear thinking where users seek direct pathways to process resources sequentially as the information gains specificity. This constructive process allows users to build knowledge, as each step primes for the next.  In fact, information in one source is needed to find successive information in the next source. ((Michelle Simmons, LIBR 210 lecture, July 4, 2012) In this stage, librarians assume the role of advisor by offering information literacy sessions describing key resources, and explaining how various databases, catalogs, and reference texts can be used together for greater impact. As counselors in zone 5, librarians offer “instruction over time” and tend to maintain general IL assistance as necessary. It can also be an important time to follow up with patrons about their search process to determine whether their needs were met, and if not, what improvements could be made for future reference.


Libr 210_Observation Analysis

My first piece of evidence to demonstrate my mastery of competency J is a series of observation analyses I conducted for LIBR 210: Reference and Information Services, in which I unobtrusively observed a series of in-person reference transactions. In this paper, I describe several physical barriers for information-seekers at AL library, and how they impede service. First, I describe how the placement of the circulation desk at the library’s entrance and seeming absence of the reference desk caused me to question whether the circ desk functioned as both. I also explain how poor signage inhibited reference services to information seekers following the “principle of least effort.” (Rubin, 2010, p. 279). Other physical aspects that hinder information seeking among the disabled include narrow aisles.

Another observation I depict is the presence of two stools placed in front of the reference desk for patron use, that I interpreted to prove AL’s reference librarians’ consideration of “library anxiety” when designing the reference area. (Mellon, 1986, p. 162). These stools suggest an invitational mood, and allow patrons to meet librarians at eye level. This physical placement alleviates tensions and facilitates positive reference interactions for information seekers. In a later characterization of an in-person reference encounter, I chronicle how Librarian II identified an appropriate “zone of intervention”, and engaged a patron in an information literacy session about how to download e-books to her Kindle. (Kuhlthau, 1993, p. 176)

This paper demonstrates my competency in analyzing how a reference area’s physical aspects can hinder and/or promote efficient and effective library services with regard to the professional literature concerning information seeking.

Libr 210 Practice Questions I

My second piece of evidence to demonstrate my mastery of competency J is a set of “Ready Reference” practice questions I completed for LIBR 210: Reference and Information Services that allowed me to both assume the role of an information-seeker as well as information provider. In considering the role of the information seeker in all of these “practice” scenarios, I sought to locate the most meaningful answers in the least amount of time as possible. In doing so, I referenced Zipf’s (1949) “principle of least effort” (PLE) which states “people seek the most convenient source to meet their needs…” (Rubin , 2010, p. 279). While I did not substitute quality for convenience, as some information seekers following the PLE may be wont to do, I nonetheless maintain that expeditious and effective information provision was the primary consideration when devising these examples due to my understanding of the present-day information seeker’s insatiable need for immediate results. This paper also proves my competency by referencing zones 2 and 3 in Kuhlthau’s (1993) Zones of Intervention model by primarily placing the librarian in the roles of both locator (zone 2) and identifier (zone 3) in most of the reference scenarios.

Libr 210 Practice Questions 2

My third piece of evidence to demonstrate my mastery of competency J is a set of practice reference questions I created for LIBR 210: Reference and Information Services wherein I assume the roles of both information seeker and librarian. This set of practice questions can be distinguished from my previous evidence by its composition of in-depth reference queries that offer multiple opportunities for pathways to potentially accurate information sources. While seeking appropriate sources to answer these questions, I experienced both Mellon’s (1986) “library anxiety” and Kuhlthau’s (1993) “uncertainty principle” due to the labyrinthine and time-consumptive searches I engaged in. (Mellon, 1986, p. 162) (Kuhlthau, 1993 p. 347). There were also two occasions – questions 1 and 12  – where I became frustrated and used “Google.”

This paper demonstrates my competency in considering several critical theories and process models regarding information seeking, and proves my knowledge of both navigating and explicating said search methods and processes. This assignment facilitated a greater understanding of affective and cognitive motivators for information seekers, and imbued me with tools to best serve user needs.


People seek information in various ways and often experience difficulty communicating their information needs. As such, we occasionally sacrifice quality information for “quick and easy” fixes that seem to only temporarily satisfy, or request assistance from lesser-qualified individuals. Librarians are professional information experts whom present information seekers with expeditious accuracy. However, as the Internet becomes the primary source of knowledge for many people, information seekers often opt for the “principle of least effort” (PLE) in lieu of more sophisticated search strategies. (Rubin, 2010, p. 279). It is critical to note that the future of our profession will involve a significant need for information curation as we become inundated with streaming data that requires more interpretation. Library and information professionals can utilize our understanding of the various information seeking process models to provide quality services to our community of information seekers.


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

Belkin, N; Brooks, H.M.; and Oddy, R.N. (1982). ASK for information retrieval. Journal of Documentation 38: 61-71.

Krikelas, James. (1983). Information-seeking behavior: Patterns and concepts. Drexel Library Quarterly 19 (Spring): 5-20.

Kuhlthau, Carol. (1993). A Principle of Uncertainty for Information Seeking. The Journal of Documentation 49:4 (December 1993), 339-354.

Kuhlthau, Carol. (1993). Seeing Meaning: A process approach to Library and Information Services. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Mellon, Constance. (1986). Library anxiety in college students: A grounded theory and its development.” College and Research Libraries 47:2 (March 1986), 160-165

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

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