Information Seeking Models

K. Alix Hayden

EDCI 701 - The University of Calgary




The term information seeking behavior has been used in the research literature about scientists and researchers since the 1950's. The current emphasis on user needs has prompted librarians to investigate the concept of information seeking behavior, drawing upon models from the disciplines of psychology, sociology, and communication theory.

It is important to examine information seeking models as what students actually do when searching for information may be very different from what librarians think the students do. Theoretical models of information seeking, including both those based on empirical research and reflection on experience, can assist librarians in creating a library and information skills curriculum which responds directly to the students' needs. Attempting to fit a curriculum to the students' processes is a better approach than to change the students' processes and strategies to fit the curriculum. This strategy, for example, has been used in the field of literacy. Researchers and teachers examined, both empirically and qualitatively, the processes and strategies that young children use when learning to read. These strategies and processes were used to create an early literacy curriculum (such as whole language combined with a phonics component) which responds directly to the needs of the learners.

Understanding the process of information seeking can help to answer questions such as: what should the library and information skills curriculum encompass; what specific skills and processes should be taught; what are the appropriate teaching methods; and what is the relationship of the library and information skills curriculum to the academic curriculum. Examining the strategies, processes, successes and failures that students use and experience when searching for information, can evolve into a library and information skills curriculum which guides the students towards information literacy.




Information Seeking Model

A popular model during the 1980's is presented. This model illustrates the relationships between the concepts of user, need, uses and user behavior. It is adapted from Wilson's (1981) figure of Interrelationships among areas in the field of user studies and Krikelas' (1983) model of Information seeking behavior.

The model suggests that the user perceives a need in the context of the user's environment. That is, in a given environment or event (e.g. university course) the user will perceive an information need (research a paper). The perceived need will lead the user to search for information, making demands upon a variety of information sources. These information sources include information systems (university libraries and public libraries); human resources (experts, professors, colleagues); and other resources (personal library, media). Information seeking behavior may lead to either a success or a failure. If successful, information is located which will be used. This may result in the satisfaction or non-satisfaction of the original perceived need. Satisfaction occurs when the located information has been analyzed and satisfies the original need. Non-satisfaction occurs when the information does not satisfy the original need. With non-satisfaction, the information seeking process may be repeated until satisfaction occurs. A failure to find information may result in the process of information seeking being continued. Krikelas (1983) stated that:

information seeking begins when someone perceives that the current state of knowledge is less than that needed to deal with some issue (or problem). The process ends when that perception no longer exists (p. 7).

That is, the information seeking process ends when the perceived need has been satisfied.

Each of the steps that one uses while going through the information seeking behavior process, as outline in the model, may be referred to as strategies. Kuhlthau (1992) defines a strategy as "a tactic used to seek information or to work through a stage of the search process" (p. 40). That is, the entire search process is composed of strategies. A strategy may be asking a friend or professor for information (human resources), visiting the university library (information systems), or using one's personal library (other resources). Some information seeking behavior may require only one strategy such as using the university library. When all the needed information is found, which results in satisfaction of the user's information need, the search process is ended. Some information seeking behavior may require many strategies with the user calling upon a variety of information sources because the information need is not thoroughly satisfied.

This model does not define the complexity of the research process. Information seeking is recursive, but the model suggests that it is linear; an information seeker moves from one stage to the next. Although the model does imply that the information found is processed, the aspects of analysis, synthesis and evaluation are not of prime important. It simply suggests that once the information need is satisfied by finding information, the search is over. It is also apparent that the model does not allow for the original need to be re-defined in light of information found. Rather, information must fit the original need otherwise it is discarded (resulting in dissatisfaction). The model does not allow for growth and learning on the user's part as she engages in the information seeking process. The model described is very similar to traditional library instruction as it focuses solely on skills related to sources: location, accessing and using sources. This model isolates library-dependent skills from other skills, such as critical thinking and analysis, that are required in order to use information effectively.




Information Search Process Model

Recently, new approaches to information seeking behaviours have emerged. These new models centre on a process approach to library skills and information seeking. Such an approach is not dependent upon particular sources or libraries. Rather, the emphasis is on developing transferable cognitive skills that increase students' effectiveness in using information. Kuhlthau's (1992) model of the information seeking process is such an approach. Her model provides a theoretical framework for information seeking. This model is important as it is one of the few that is based on actual formal research. Other investigators have proposed models but these have been developed based on the authors' years of practice and experience. It must be readily noted that the fact that other proposed information seeking and library skill models are not empirically based does not make them less important or useful (especially in light of the possibility of the reflective and phenomenological means of investigation) but, as Eisenberg (1992) points out "it does point out a glaring need for verification of process frameworks in real settings as well as the desirability of basing process frameworks on empirically derived models of cognition".

Kuhlthau (1992) developed a model of the information search process from common patterns which emerged from her longitudinal investigation of high school students' information seeking behaviors. Her model encompasses the development of thoughts about a research topic, the feelings associated with the search process, and the actions of seeking and using sources. The model goes beyond the mere mechanics of information seeking; it incorporates three realms: the affective (feeling), the cognitive (thoughts), and the physical (actions and strategies). These realms are common to each stage of the search process, as described below.

Stage 1: Initiation
This is the stage when a person first recognizes that information is needed to complete an assignment or solve a problem. It is similar to the information seeking behavior model previously discussed, where the user identifies a perceived information need in a given environment.

Stage 2: Selection
The task in this stage is to identify and select a general topic to be investigated or the approach to be pursued.

Stage 3 Exploration
The task in this stage is to investigate information on the general topic in order to expand one's personal understanding as well as to provide a focus for the topic. This stage involves gathering information which is general to the topic, rather than information which is specific or especially pertinent.

Stage 4 Formulation
From the information gathered during the pre-focus exploration stage, the user now forms a focused perspective on the topic on the basis of the information found. A clear focus enables the user to move to the next stage. As the students' understanding of the topic grows, the information search can be more focused and direct.

Stage 5: Collection
The user interacts with information systems (e.g., librarians, experts, friends, etc.) effectively and efficiently. Information specifically related to the defined focused topic is gathered. This stage encompasses the majority of the model, as proposed by Wilson and Krieklas.

Stage 6 Search Closure or Presentation
The task is to complete the search and to prepare the written document. The search closure may be completed because all the necessary information was located, or because the deadline for the paper is near. In this case, not all the information required may have been retrieved.

Kuhlthau's model is based on an intensive longitudinal study of a group of high school students. She verified the process model by conducting additional studies: two studies which used larger and more diverse library users in different information environments, as well as two longitudinal studies of small groups of students. She determined that the model is valid across diverse user groups as well as appropriate for describing the search process longitudinally.

Kuhlthau's model is important as it suggests that the user is an active participant in the information search process. The student's knowledge grows as she interacts with the information. More importantly, cognitive processes are involved in information seeking. Throughout the process, the student engages in cognitive strategies such as brain storming, contemplating, predicting, consulting, reading, choosing, identifying, defining, and confirming. However, Kuhlthau's model does not seem to incorporate manipulation of the information; that is, analyzing, digesting, organizing, synthesizing, and evaluating the found information. Turning information and data into knowledge is not assumed in the model. The model, however, does highlight that affective feelings such as apprehension, uncertainty, confusion, anxiety, anticipation, doubt, optimism, and confidence interplay as the search for information proceeds.

Kuhlthau stresses that students move through each stage sequentially. The stages of initiation, selection and exploration assist the student in exploring and identifying a topic of interest. The three stages lead the student from a general topic to a specific one. These stages of preliminary initiation, selection, and exploration are not evident in the first model discussed. Similar to the first model, though, Kuhlthau's model focuses on the search process, the acts associated with finding information, rather than how to use, synthesize, and evaluate the found information.




Big Six Skills Model

Kuhlthau's model closely resembles that of Eisenberg and Berkowitz (1992). They proposed the Big Six Skills which represents a general approach to information problem-solving, consisting of six logical steps or stages. The order of the stages changes with each search venture, but each stage is necessary in order to achieve a successful resolution of an information problem.

The Big Six Skills involves:

  1. Task Definition: The student needs to define the problem from an information point of view. He needs to define what needs to be done, what information needs to be gathered, etc. prior to embarking on information seeking strategies. Eisenberg and Berkowitz maintain that most people spend very little time defining their topic. They plunge right into the information seeking strategies (Step 2), rather than reflecting on the type of information that they need to find. By clearly defining and understanding the information problem, students can move more efficiently towards solutions. This stage involves Kuhlthau's initiation and selection stages.

  2. Information Seeking Strategies: Once the student has clearly defined the information problem, then he must decide which and what information sources are the most appropriate to solve the task. Information seeking strategies involve making decisions. In today's information age, the question students should ask themselves is "What are my best strategies for finding information on this topic?", rather than asking "Can I find information on this topic?". Students need to determine when it is appropriate to search the Internet for information, and when it is appropriate to ask a professor for information. Similar to the model proposed earlier (Wilson and Krieklas), information sources include human resources, information resources and other resources. When considering information seeking strategies, students need to consider various criteria when selecting the information source, including accuracy, reliability, ease of use, availability, comprehensibility, and authority.

  3. Location and Access: Location and access is the implementation of the information seeking strategy. These skills involve use of access tools (bibliographic databases and print indexes), arrangement of materials in libraries, parts of a book; strategies for searching an online catalogue. Traditionally library instruction programs at universities have focused on location and access skills. They teach specific skills needed to use specific access tools. The problem with teaching specific skills is that students lack an understanding of how these skills transfer to other new situations. For example, teaching commands related to searching OVID databases. However, when the student approaches a SilverPlatter database, the specific skills are not transferable because the searching mechanism is different.

    The Big Six Skills focuses on a problem-solving approach. Students are taught specific skills after they have been provided with instruction focusing on the overall information problem-solving process. Because the approach is general, the skills are readily transferred to new situations; for example, rather than focusing on the specific skills needed to search OVID databases (such as typing CTRL U for searching an author), students are taught about the generalities among databases (such as most databases allow you to search for an author and combine that with a recognized subject heading). By teaching a general problem-solving approach, the students are better equipped to utilize new and unique sources of information.

  4. Use of Information: Once students have found the needed information, they can employ skills to use the information. These skills involve interacting, dialoguing, reading, listening, viewing, questioning, and reflecting on the information. Students need to decide what is valuable and extract the necessary information.

    Kuhlthau's stages 3 and 5 are incorporated into Eisenberg and Berkowtiz's stages 2, 3 and 4. These stages focus on finding and locating information, and then using the information (i.e. reading and extracting salient points).

  5. Synthesis: Synthesis is the application of all information to the defined task. Synthesis involves restructuring and repackaging the information into a new and different form. Sometimes the synthesis of information is straight-forward, such as communicating the circumference of a circle. For other tasks such as writing a paper, synthesis is a major undertaking. It involves combining information, extracting salient details, reorganising and manipulating the information. Synthesis, then, is turning the information found into knowledge.

  6. Evaluation: Evaluation is the examination and assessment of the information problem solving process. It determines the effectiveness and efficiency of the process. Evaluation determines whether the information found met the defined task. Specific questions focus on was the information problem solved; was the need met; was the situation resolved. If the answer is no, then the process is re-initiated.

    Evaluation involves reflecting on the information problem-solving process itself. Students need to ask themselves if their process was efficient, if they spent enough time or too much time, which strategies were most effective and which ones were least effective. This self-evaluation will lead to an awareness of the students' own strengths and weaknesses, and can help in future information problem-solving processes.

There are basic themes imbedded in the Big Six Skills information problem-solving approach which have relevance to library and information skills development. These themes help to highlight the advantages of using the Big Six Skills process for teaching information problem-solving skills. Themes include:

Eisenberg and Berkowitz's Big Six Skills seems to be the model which most closely describes the actual information search process, as well as being a model which can be easily adapted to teach the skills required to become an information literate student and citizen. Certainly, underlying the model is the aspect of information literacy, as previously discussed. The researcher's book Information-Problem Solving provides guidance on how to systematically implement a library and information skills curriculum which leads to information literacy. "Library and information skills instruction should always be implemented within a curriculum context" (Eisenberg and Berkowitz, 1992, p. 43). The Big Six Skills instructional effort, therefore, focuses on the intersection of library and information skills objectives, and subject area curriculum objectives. Eisenberg and Berkowitz provide a schematic picture of this interaction.



Is it possible for academic librarians to implement a library and information skills curriculum which interacts and responds to the academic curriculum. Currently, the academic librarian provides specific skill instruction for specific academic courses, such as how to use Chemical Abstracts for a Chemistry 250 class. The majority of the instructional classes focus on location and access skills; they do not encompass the entire information problem-solving process, as described by Eisenberg and Berkowitz.

Academic librarians need to reflect on how to best provide an integrated information and library skills curriculum. We need to question who is the library community; we need to question how we can provide a responsible curriculum that leads students towards information literacy.