Describe the fundamental concepts of information-seeking behaviors

Competency J

Human beings are constantly looking for information. Whether it is figuring out where to find a jar of olives in the grocery store or finding the most recent information on global warming, people are constantly seeking information. Librarians and information professionals are the people whose job it is to make information available and findable when their users need it. Therefore it is important for librarians and information professionals to understand the ways in which users seek out the information they need.

Information-seeking is defined as "a process in which humans purposefully engage in order to change their state of knowledge" (Marchionini, p.5). There are several steps involved in information-seeking behavior. The first step involves the users information need. This could either be a known information need, or one in which the need is not fully realized. In either case there is a gap in knowledge that the user is trying to fill. This is defined by Belkin as an anomalous state of knowledge, or ASK. "This term means nothing more than that the person recognizes the lack of or need for data, information, or knowledge. This is the start of the IR process" (Meadow, p.6).

The next step involves translating that gap into language. Whether this is a translation for her own use or so that that need can be communicated to a third party, such as a librarian, it needs to be communicated in some way. Once the information need has been expressed, it can be used to find the desired knowledge. The user then formulates a search strategy, or a plan to get the desired information. "The search strategy is the general plan for finding the needed information" (Meadow, p.9). This can be done either by the information professional or by the user, but someone makes decisions about how they will go about finding the information they need. This might include choosing appropriate databases or other resources, going to a section of a collection, or finding similar items.

Next, the information need must be placed in terms that an information system can understand. This can apply to any information system, electronic or paper system, such as a card catalog. The information can be translated into possible subject headings, or into a Boolean search that can be used in a database. The system will then return items that match the search. However, the translation from need into communicated need into search query may not return items that satisfy the original need. The user then evaluates the materials and decides whether or not their information need if filled. If it is, then the process ends there. However it often does not. The user may then make changes to the communicated need and to the query to the information system, and evaluate the new results. This process can continue until the user's information need has been satisfied.

Librarians and information professionals must understand this process so that they understand how users are searching for something. They must realize that there is a difference between the communicated need and the actual need. In a reference interview, for example, a librarian can try to get the user to fully explain their information need, which in turn will allow for a better query of the information system.


Midterm - LIBR 202 - Spring 2005
In this midterm examination for LIBR 202 Information Retrieval, I answer a number of questions about information seeking, including an explanation of the topology of an information system and how different systems can present results to the user to help them determine which items satisfy their information need.

Reference Interview Analysis II: Digital Reference, Academic Library - LIBR 210 - Summer 2005
In this assignment, I looked at a digital reference service for an academic library. When asking the same question, the academic librarian tried to determine the nature of the query and if it was from a research or patient perspective. Because the reference interaction was via chat, a website was sent immediately that provided information for the subject requested. This is an example of evaluating how well the information need is translated and how the reference librian helped the user communicate the information need.


Marchionini, G. (1995). Information seeking in electronic environments. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Meadow, C. T., Boyce, B. R., & Kraft, D. H. (2000). Text and information retrieval systems. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

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© 2017 Deirdre Stretton