SJSU Portfolio

Competency #10

Describe the fundamental concepts of information-seeking behaviors

In Libr202, Information Retrieval, Professor Edna Reid (2008) introduced us to the foundational theories of information-seeking behavior. Though users are central in the information retrieval process, it was not until the the work of researchers such as Carol Kuhlthau, Brenda Dervin, and Marcia Bates that their needs and patterns were actually investigated. These researchers recognize that users vary in their needs, which are relative depending on factors such as the environment or task. People seek the information they need in different ways, influenced by their background, personality, or training. A competent librarian must be familiar with these important concepts, and must be able to design and assess library services which are sensitive to and planned for varied needs, diverse users, and the emotional patterns they may have in common.

Carol Kuhlthau summarized her findings in a 1989 article, “ Information Search Process: A Summary of Research and Implications for School Library Media Programs”. She has been the primary researcher of the affective role in information-seeking behavior. Her constructivist view of human cognition based on schema theory assumes that all new information must be assimilated by the brain into existing cognitive structures. Until this occurs, the information seeker will feel anxiety. In Proust and the Squid, Maryanne Wolf explains how ancient functions such as quick recognition and recall are adapted by the brain for reading use. It is interesting to speculate about the ways in which primitive neural patterns evolved for survival may contribute to the common emotional unease attached to information-seeking. A lack of information sends a danger signal to our primal natures. Fortunately, a well-trained library can put us back on the well-informed path of safety!

In her early work, Kuhlthau (1989) identifies six stages in the information-seeking process of high school students researching for a paper. In the first stage, which she labels “Topic Initiation”, students clearly demonstrate uncertainty; they don’t know how to proceed and feel worried and overwhelmed. The second phase brings topic selection and an increased optimism. The third phase, “Prefocus Exploration”, is the most difficult, with many students experiencing confusion and frustration. At this stage some students fear they cannot complete the task. Stages four and five represent the turning point in the process, when searchers formulate a personal perspective on the information they are gathering and begin to feel more confident about their direction. The last phase, “Search Closure”brings resolution and relief, but also anxiety about the results of the effort—in this case a grade on the paper. In later research Kuhlthau expanded her investigation of this model to include a much broader array of library users; the model retained its validity and remains a pillar of informed library planning.

Attention to Carol Kuhlthau's research has many implications for library planning. A competent librarian will assess library functions to ensure that the layout, procedures, and interactions of the library offer reassurance to the information seeker at every stage of the process. For example, in an observation of reference services I wrote for Libr 210, Reference Services, I noted that many reference questions were about locations and the geographic layout of the library. This could indicate a deficiency in signage, but also displays the uncertainty attached to initiation of the research process. A competent librarian familiar with Kuhlthau’s work would examine the physical arrangement in the first contact area, and also the behavior norms for librarians staffing the desk, who should be seeking eye contact with those arriving in the area, rising to meet them or direct them to material, and generally communicating the impression that helping the user through the search process is their highest priority. In these short-staffed, multitasking days, a librarian at the reference desk may be answering IM queries, completing a faculty research request, and assisting users as they arrive, but this unhurried, focused, and sustained assistance is still the ideal for an informed librarian.

Kuhlthau gives us the picture of the interior emotional life of information seekers as they attempt to assimilate new information. Scholars such as Nicholas Belkin and Brenda Dervin have focused on the process followed by these seekers in incorporating new information into an existing world view. Dervin’s influential work describes the information-seeker as following a “sense-making” model, using her existing environment, resources, and past experience as the first phase in a search. This collection of personal constructs, like the reasons which initiate the search, can vary greatly. In the next phase of the search the user will frequently find a “gap” between her available contextual resources and those which will bring about the desired search outcome. It is the job of the competent librarian to help the information-seeker construct a “bridge” from the known to the unknown, in a way that is respectful of the user’s frame of reference and situation. Neutral questioning, a strategy described in Dervin’s work, allows a competent librarian to assist a patron without imposing an alien value system or making assumptions about the desired outcome of the search (Reid, 1989)

In another model of information-seeking behavior which greatly influences the planning and behavior of a competent modern librarian, Marcia Bates (1989) describes the typical information search as a kind of “berry-picking” process, rather than the linear, unwavering path assumed in the traditional search model. Research done by Bates found that users tend to gather information in small bits and pieces rather than in one large set of perfect retrieved sources. As the information is accumulated, each new piece acquired influences the searcher’s conception of the original question. Like Dervin, Bates observes that both the types of searches made, such as asking a relative or consulting a blog, and the “information domains” accessed will vary greatly from one user to another. Competent librarians are aware of the ramifications for library services presented by the berry-picking model of information-seeking, and, although shrinking resources may often make it difficult to provide ideal support for such searches, the goal informs library planning. As Kuhlthau (1989) points out, these kinds of searches take time. Users are often on a deadline, and librarians may have limited availability, making it difficult for them to assist the information seeker throughout the entire process.

As proof of my competency in considering information seeking behavior according to the major theories of the day, I attach a paper written for Libr 202, Information Retrieval. For this assignment I applied the work of major theorists to the user interfaces of the iPod information retrieval system. The paper shows my understanding of the user interface elements which are required in a system based on an understanding of typical user responses and behaviors.

My competency in neutral questioning is reflected in the Skype transcripts of reference practice I am presenting below. The use of such questioning reflects an awareness of modern ideas concerning information-seeking behavior, especially as seen in the work of Brenda Dervin. I used these transcripts previously in Competency#9 as evidence of my sensitivity to the different requirements and challenges of diverse library user groups. Here I offer them specifically for the examples of neutral questioning in support of sense-making which they contain.

Last, this posting from the Library 202 discussion board is representative of many forum conversations required for that class, in which thorough knowledge of information-seeking behavior was expected for full participation.


Bates, M. J.(1989) The design of browsing and berrypicking techniques for the online search interface. Retrieved from

Kuhlthau, C. C. (1989) Information search process: A summary of research and implications for school library media programs. School Library Media Quarterly, 18(1). Retrieved from

Reid, E. (2008). Lecture 12: User centered models of information retrieval [Lecture]. San Jose, California: San Jose State University: MLS Program.