Competency J

Describe the fundamental concepts of information-seeking behaviors.

Competency Definition

Describing information-seeking behaviors begins with understanding what constitutes as an “information need.” Though this concept has no universally accepted definition, it can be said that information needs involve the recognition that some “gap” in knowledge exists between what one knows and what one wants to know, resulting in a desire and various behaviors to bridge that gap (Bawden & Robinson, 2012). Information needs are diverse and highly contextual, affected by individual, relational, cultural, and temporal factors that affect how people interact, access, and use information (O’Brien & Greyson, 2015). They are also not easily observable, and are typically made known only after some action or request has been made that shows the information seeker that she or he needs information to address a particular issue (Case, 2012). Information needs themselves can be seen as socially constructed and existing in a particular context (Naumer & Fisher, 2009)

Even the concept of information itself does not have a unified, established definition or conceptualization in Library and Information Science (LIS). In one of the forewords to Introduction to Information Science, Andrew Dillon argues that the field does not need an agreed-upon definition of information to continue developing, but rather the desire to keep discovering what information scientists share in common and what they can do to facilitate more interdisciplinary work (Bawden & Robinson, 2012). Thus, information-seeking behaviors can be seen as active and intentional behaviors that serve to address information needs (Case, 2012). These behaviors are determined by the interactions between information needs, environmental context, and individual characteristics (psychological, role-related, demographic, etc.), which results in a specific, contextual kind of action in seeking information (Niu & Hemminger, 2011).

Through my time here at the iSchool, I have read about various theories of information-seeking behaviors and about the social and contextual nature of information. Bates’s (2009) entry for the concept “Information” in the Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences provides a general overview of the history of information theories and how they relate to one another in their treatments of information as a concept across various contexts. She categorizes various theories as communicatory/semiotic, information-as-event, propositional, structural, social, multitype, and deconstructionalist. She also places these theories under the more general umbrella terms of nomothetic (logical and scientific, aiming to discover causes, effects, patterns, tendencies in observable events) and idiographic (humanities-driven, studying the social context behind information). Her conclusion to this encyclopedia entry best represents my own understanding of information: “By incorporating both [the idiographic and nomothetic] approaches in our thinking, we may end up with the richest possible understanding” of information possible (Bates, 2009, p. 2354). Behaviors involved in seeking information then may happen at an individual level and are arguably best described in a nomothetic manner, but they must always take into account how they are highly influenced by idiographic factors.

In regards to the highly contextual nature of information-seeking behaviors, I find that the social influence of information-seeking behaviors can be best described by Fisher and Durrance’s (2003) conceptualization of the “information community.” Information communities arise and form from people with distinctly contextual information needs and their information-seeking behaviors. Fisher and Durrance (2003) describe information communities as dynamic groups of people that:

  1. Use various forms of communication and technologies to share information and establish relationships,

  2. Collaborate and share information among diverse groups,

  3. Reflect specific information needs of that particular group,

  4. Operate beyond barriers (geographical, economic, cultural, etc.) that often prevent information access,

  5. Foster a sense of connectedness among like-minded people.

In order for LIS to sustain itself and thrive in the ever-changing information landscape, information professionals must be able to describe how information-seeking behaviors play a role in how their users interact with their information organizations. By actively observing how theory maps onto real-life experience, information professionals will be able to address issues that may arise in information access, retrieval, and use, and see how context-dependent information-seeking behaviors and needs shape the communities that they serve. For me as an aspiring information professional, this all began with the core course INFO 200, which formed the foundations for how I developed knowledge and experience towards the rest of the core competencies set forth by the iSchool and its MLIS curriculum.

Discussion of Competency Supporting Evidence

Te_INFO 200-13_Psych Faculty Research Paper.docx

INFO 200 - Information Communities is the first course that an MLIS student takes while at the iSchool, as an introduction to the wide field of library and information science and the core theories of information seeking in relation to an information community. For this course, I had to identify an information community, locate and synthesize relevant scholarly and professional literature relating to that community’s information-seeking behavior and needs, integrate insights from community-based resources, and discuss whether that information community’s needs were being met. I achieved this through increasingly complex assignments: completing an information sources review, a book review, a literature review, and weekly blogposts on WordPress, which all culminated in the course’s final research paper.

Based on my love of research, undergraduate background in psychology, and wanting to help others in their own psychological research aims, my information community of focus for INFO 200 was psychology faculty at colleges and universities. They exist wherever there is a psychology department and maintain their own unique connections within their colleges and universities, as well as with other researchers at other institutions. Psychology faculty members assume roles of professor, researcher, and sometimes practitioner (in terms of private practice and community outreach efforts to specific populations). Through my WordPress blog reflections and database research, I explored this information community through the lens of LIS, identifying and exploring their information needs and information community characteristics, focusing particularly on the roles of professor and researcher.

Two conceptual models formed the core of my paper: David Ellis’s (1989, 1993) model of information seeking and William Garvey’s (1979) model of scholarly communication. I found David Ellis’s (1993) model of information seeking behaviors as a useful and easily accessible model as a framework for analysis of the characteristics and components of the academic search process. This is highly applicable to psychology faculty, as Ellis (1989, 1993) based his original formulation of his model from interviews with psychology faculty at the University of Sheffield. Ellis (1989, 1993) identified the following behaviors:

  • Starting: initiating the information search

  • Chaining: following footnotes and citations of reference lists

  • Browsing: semi-structured searching through potential leads

  • Differentiating: filtering through the information obtained

  • Monitoring: following up with particular sources on a regular basis

  • Extracting: identifying relevant information in sources

  • Verifying: accuracy checking

  • Ending: conducting a final search before completion.

Psychology faculty members, with their areas of specialization, are always looking for new and relevant material in their respective areas of interest, for potential lines of research or for building course curriculum. They seek information on formal channels (i.e., journal articles) and informal channels (e.g., personal communication), engaging in considerable movement between the two to monitor developments in the field and find empirical support for their research (Liberman & Wolf, 2013). As I was searching the literature to support this claim further, I delved into the literature on the scholarly communication process, uncovering William Garvey’s scholarly communication model, which describes how scientific findings become notable contributions to their respective fields over an average of thirteen or more years of citation and replication. The list below is a summary as described in work by Lyn Thaxton (1985, 2002):

Garvey’s communication model (recounted by Thaxton, 1985, 2002):

  1. Idea development and conducting studies (12-18 months);

  2. Presentation of findings at informal conferences;

  3. Presentation of findings at state/regional conferences, potentially national conferences;

  4. Two-way interactions with conference attendees: researchers give talks, distribute preprint copies or technical reports; attendees offer feedback at the conference or after the conference;

  5. Sending manuscripts to various journals for peer review for potential publication after integrating feedback received from colleagues (~10 months or more);

  6. If published, article gets included in Psychological Abstracts (7-8 months post publication);

  7. Notable publications are included in Annual Review of Psychology or Psychological Bulletin (2-5 years post publication);

  8. If ideas and findings from publication endure, being cited because of consistency in replication, the work may be referenced, summarized in a treatise, specialized text, or encyclopedia (10+ years post publication).

For psychology faculty as researchers, information needs vary based on the sub-area/sub-discipline of psychology of interest. Because of the emphasis on the peer reviewed journal as the golden standard of citations in conducting research and writing papers and publications, researchers focus primarily on collecting journal articles as primary sources in order to replicate and expand on previous findings. Psychological research strives to be precise, relying on empirical evidence to generate testable hypotheses, which in turn are subject to rigorous peer review to make sure that published work lives up to high scientific standards (Wade & Tavris, 2011). This context of scientific empiricism interacting with interests in specific areas of psychology influences how psychology faculty as researchers engage in information-seeking behaviors, which I argue are best described by Ellis’s (1989, 1993) model.

From my synthesis of the literature on information seeking behaviors and the unique researcher characteristics of psychology faculty, I mapped the following five observations onto Fisher and Durrance’s (2003) information community definition:

  1. Psychology faculty use journal articles as their main unit of formal communication, as well as other technologies to establish contacts in informal communication.

  2. Psychology faculty collaborate and share information on formal and informal channels with other researchers and share this knowledge and experience with their students.

  3. Psychology faculty address their specific information needs by differentiating and monitoring sources in terms of quality, relevance, and recommendations from colleagues.

  4. Psychology faculty operate beyond institutional boundaries to access information anywhere via the internet.

  5. Psychology faculty connect with researchers beyond their immediate institution to exchange information, and with students inside and outside the classroom.

As I describe in further detail in the paper, mapping the characteristics of psychology faculty in this way allows one to see how psychology faculty “blur the boundaries between information seekers, users, and providers” (Fisher & Bishop, 2015). There is a distinct, unique information flow in multiple directions, from the individual to the greater scientific community, in how information is accessed, formally or informally. Psychology faculty create connections with other researchers and students, based on information and its use for research and classroom instruction, facilitated by various communication technologies.

In summary, I was able to synthesize a picture of how psychology faculty operate as an information community, framed in the wider context of Garvey’s scholarly communication model and Ellis’s information seeking behaviors model. Psychology faculty are actively able to leverage information gained on both formal and informal channels to satisfy their research-related needs. They recognize the dynamics of the information seeking process, which influences the kinds of actions they need to take in order to derive meaning from the synthesis of gathered information (Case, 2012). To quote how I concluded my research paper:

“The essence of science is communication” (Garvey, 1979), affecting how psychology faculty seek and access information to produce research. Psychology faculty information seeking behaviors reflect their integrated roles as researcher and professor. They operate on formal and informal communication channels that transcend institutional and geographical boundaries to address their needs. The combination of all these unique factors in their distinct research-focused context is how psychology faculty effectively come together as an information community.

[For additional insight into my thought processes via my required semester-long WordPress blogging, please look at my archived copy of my INFO 200 blog for reference.]

Future Directions

Information-seeking behaviors cannot be considered separately from the contexts in which they arise. Information flow tends to operate on both formal and informal channels, and both satisfy the information needs of information communities such as psychology faculty who emphasize the use of empirically supported research in developing and supporting their own research. As Bawden and Robinson (2012) summarize, "Experience has shown that the more context can be brought into the understanding of information behavior, the more realistic and helpful are the results" (p. 205).

Yet, as Case (2012) argues about the current state of information behavior research, “formal sources and rationalized searches reflect only one side of human information behavior” as the information seeking process is dynamic and highly contextual, and more importantly, it is not always about solving problems or addressing problematic situations (pp. 375-377). I see that there can also be a serendipitous element to information-seeking. Erdelez (1999) describes information seeking as "information encountering.” She describes how experiences of unexpectedly discovering useful or new information happen when people are in “information acquisition mood,” primed to take in novel information, or in the midst of routine activity (Erdelez, 1999). I enjoy the serendipitous discovery of information when I follow up with psychology related articles, technology news, or just good ideas from philosophy or theology. Even though what I find may not directly pertain to my main research questions for an assignment due next week, I enjoy discovering new things that I may follow up with someday, for helping me complete a future assignment, enriching my knowledge in the present moment, or adding to that mental list of things I want to research when I get a PhD. I resonate with Erdelez’s (1999) description of the a "super encounterer" – I see myself as someone who loves learning new things and ways of thinking, and finding parallels between my interests with what my friends are interested in and currently need.

On a more personal note in regards to the evidence presented for this competency, I was able to use this course to continue reflecting on my undergraduate experiences with my psychology professors and the lessons that they have taught me, which ignited my passion to pursue research and a hoped-for career in academia. For example, I was able to relate the concept of networking behavior, which Meho & Tibbo (2003) propose in expansion to Ellis’s original model as the maintenance of relationships with people as sources, back to my own observations and interactions with psychology faculty at my alma mater. I have observed networking behavior as a facilitator to finding new research ideas and forming potential collaborations. This behavior of networking is related to the concept of “information grounds,” which arise from social interaction among individuals, with information flow as a formal or informal by-product (Fisher & Bishop, 2015). I have seen professors talk with other professors seen as “local experts” on a particular line of psychology research, for the purposes of developing course curriculum as well as the initial searching stage in gathering information for a potential study. Because the faculty offices were in short walking distance from one another, I have seen professors step into each other’s offices during their coinciding office hours when no students came to consult them on their assignments. The psychology department as an information grounds thus fosters in-group community, with the generation of research ideas as a by-product, until the point when the individual professor moves forward with a study idea.

My core takeaway from this experience is the fact that an information community is a community, resulting from the connections between like-minded people, motivated by similar mindsets, reasons for doing what they do, and ultimately, similar if not the same burning questions that drive their information-seeking behaviors. Recognizing the information seeking behaviors of patrons and clients is a necessary step in the never-ending work of the information professional. Anticipating and meeting information needs of various and specific information communities is integral in the successful functioning of information organizations (O’Brien & Greyson, 2015). I hope to embody this sense of community in whatever position I may find myself in an information organization. In an academic setting, whether it is in the capacity of a social sciences library liaison or as a lecturer ensuring that students are equipped with the necessary skills to conduct their own research, I hope to facilitate a presence of information grounds in support of research collaborations, as such webs of connection create information flows in all directions, and contextually specific information-seeking behaviors that will be beneficial to all involved.


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Bawden, D., & Robinson, L. (2012). Information behavior. Introduction to information science (pp. 187-210). Chicago: Neal-Schuman.

Case, D. (2012). Looking for information: A survey of research on information seeking, needs and behavior (Third ed.). Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing, Ltd.

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