Competency J

Information seeking behaviors. Each graduate of the Master of Library and Information Science program is able to describe the fundamental concepts of information-seeking behaviors.


Understanding human information needs and different types of information seeking behavior informs librarians’ decisions regarding design and delivery of information services. To fully grasp the concept of information seeking behavior, one must consider its three main components: an information need, information seeking, and information behavior. In The Portable MLIS: Insights from the Experts, Donald O. Case defines those as follows:

  • “An information need is a recognition that your knowledge is inadequate to satisfy a goal that you have.
  • Information seeking is a conscious effort to acquire information in response to a need or gap in your knowledge.
  • Information behavior encompasses information seeking as well as the totality of other unintentional or passive behaviors (such as glimpsing or encountering information), as well as purposive behaviors that do not involve seeking, such as actively avoiding information” (Case, 2008, p. 36).

Information seeking is a “natural course of action to reduce uncertainty, fill a knowledge gap, or make sense of one’s world,” O’Brien and Greyson maintain. “The problem-centered view sees information behavior as a process whereby people encounter situations that prompt them to acquire knowledge or skills, seek specific information, and engage to decision making and sense making as they determine how well the located information meets their needs” (2015, p.120). Information behavior is “the currently preferred term used to describe the many ways in which human beings interact with information, in particular, the ways in which people seek and utilize information,” according to Bates. “Information behavior is also the term of art used in library and information science to refer to a sub-discipline that engages in a wide range of types of research conducted in order to understand the human relationship to information” (2010).

Theoretical perspectives on information seeking behaviors

Many theoretical models of information seeking behavior are known in the field of librarianship, information science, and related disciplines; discussed below are those authored by David Ellis (1989), Marcia Bates (1989), Brenda Dervin (1992), and Carol Kuhlthau (1991-1999).

Grounded in the argument that information seeking behavior is dependent upon the unique characteristics of the information need, information seeker, and the respective context, Ellis’s model consists of six cognitive stages in the search process: starting, chaining, browsing, differentiating, monitoring, and extracting (1989). The starting stage comprises the activities that occur at the original point of information search, e.g. identifying a pool of sources that are likely to fulfill the information need. During the chaining phase, the information seeker follows the references, footnotes, and citations included in the original sources found during the starting stage. In browsing, the seeker usually groups the related information (s)he had acquired previously, e.g. by looking through subject headings, tables of contents, abstracts, etc. In differentiating, the resulting body of sources gets narrowed down based on the differences in their nature, scope, and quality. Monitoring involves following up on the new developments in the field or discipline, e.g. most recent publications, conference proceedings, etc. Finally, during the extracting phase, the seeker identifies the relevant material in the selected sources.

Information systems design theorist, Bates focuses her berrypicking model of information retrieval on the information seeking behavior in the online environment. The author maintains that “typical search queries are not static, but rather evolve; searchers commonly gather information in bits and pieces instead of in one grand best retrieved set; searchers use a wide variety of search techniques which extend beyond those commonly associated with bibliographic databases; searchers use a wide variety of sources other than bibliographic databases” (1989). The berrypicking model of information retrieval views information seeking as a dynamic, multifaceted process, emphasizing the non-linear nature of the information seeking behavior, in contrast to other, linear models.

In her sense-making approach, Dervin posits that information seeking is accomplished through sense-making, manifested through four basic components: situation, gap, outcome, and bridge. “Sense-making assumes that the essential aspects of information use can be captured by looking at qualities of gap-defining and gap-bridging,” Dervin explains. “A person in a moment defines that moment as a particular kind of gap, constructs a particular strategy for facing the moment, and implements that strategy with a particular tactic.  Gap-defining and gap-bridging become, therefore, the essential qualitative aspects to be examined” (1992).

Of great importance to the reference librarianship and information literacy instruction in particular, is Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process (ISP) model of affective, cognitive and physical aspects in six stages of information seeking and use. Influenced by George Kelly’s personal construct theory (Kelly, 1963), Kuhlthau’s model is built on the six stages in the information seeking process: initiation, selection, exploration, formulation, collection, and search closure or presentation. According to Kuhlthau, uncertainty and anxiety are integral to the information search process, particularly during the beginning stages, such as initiation, selection, and exploration (1991, 1993). These affective symptoms result from the feeling of vagueness and lack of clarity at the information search onset. “The Uncertainty Principle is expanded by six corollaries: process, formulation, redundancy, mood, prediction and interest,” Kuhlthau explains (1999). This element of Kuhlthau’s approach is closely related to Belkin’s ASK theory—that people do not have queries but rather an anomalous state of knowledge:

  • information needs are not in principle precisely specifiable;
  • it is possible to elicit problem statements from information system users from which representations of the ASK underlying the need can be derived;
  • there are classes of ASKs; and
  • all elements of information retrieval systems ought to be based on the user’s ASK (Belkin, 1980).

“The whole experience of users affects their information use, their feelings as well as their intellect, particularly in the exploration stage. By neglecting to address affective aspects, information specialists are overlooking one of the main elements driving information use,” Kuhlthau maintains (1991, p. 370). In order to alleviate the patrons’ uncertainty and anxiety and accommodate library users by facilitating the search for information, Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process model requires intensive interactions with patrons, in the user-centered environment.

Awareness of the information seeking behaviors is fundamental to the professional understanding of information services for the diverse library audiences. “Information professionals use their knowledge of information-seeking behaviors to assist individuals who have information needs,” Simmons maintains. “Carol Kuhlthau’s work on the information search process is especially useful in that it articulates common intellectual and affective stages that seekers of information typically experience, thereby allowing information professionals to intervene with appropriate assistance at each stage, no matter the technology or the medium of service delivery” (2015, p. 131).


To support my skills in this competency, I present the following examples of my work:

  1. The Adapting the Information Search Process model in today’s academic library environment discussion post from LIBR 210 (Reference and Information Services)
  2. The Next-generation Library Catalogs discussion post from INFO 241 (Automated Library Systems)
  3. The Ready Reference and Bibliographic Sources assignment from LIBR 210 (Reference and Information Services)
  4. The Digital Asset Integration into a Learning Content Management System proposal from my professional experience

LIBR 210 Adapting the Information Search Process model in today’s academic library environment discussion

The first piece of evidence to demonstrate my mastery of competency J is a discussion post, Adapting the Information Search Process model in today’s academic library environment, from LIBR 210 (Reference and Information Services). In this post, I discuss the application of Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process model in the contemporary academic library reference services. Calling for intensive interactions with patrons, the Information Search Process model might or might not be feasible in web-based library environments.  In my own discussion post, as well as in my reply to a classmate, I reflect on how we might transfer the principles of Kuhlthau’s model to a large university setting.

This piece of evidence showcases my understanding of the information seeking behavior theories and the ways in which they  apply in the academic library environment.

Click here to read the paper.

INFO 241 Next-generation Library Catalogs discussion

The second piece of evidence to demonstrate my mastery of competency J is a  Next-generation Library Catalogs discussion post from INFO 241 (Automated Library Systems). In this discussion, I review the next-generation features used in an online catalog of an academic library (University of Southern California Libraries). My analysis reveals the strategies employed by the library in order to meet diverse information needs and accommodate a variety of information seeking behaviors of its primary audience: student, faculty, and visiting scholars. The next-generation library catalog features discussed in the post include better information content (electronic resources, special collections, and digital library); better information discovery (enriched content, federated search, faceted search, relevance filter, and RSS search results feed); and better information delivery (Ebook library, electronic reserves, and interlibrary loan (ILL)).

This assignment shows my understanding of the ways in which libraries can improve their information content, information discovery, and information delivery in order to accommodate the diverse information seeking behaviors and information needs of their users.

Click here to read the paper.

LIBR 210 Ready Reference and Bibliographic Sources assignment

The third piece of evidence to demonstrate my mastery of competency J is a Ready Reference and Bibliographic Sources assignment from LIBR 210 (Reference and Information Services). In this assignment, we were tasked with using basic reference tools and searching techniques to answer a wide range of questions, as well as identifying and assessing the characteristics and functions of various types of reference sources. In our final paper, we were allowed to skip one out of twelve questions, and answer the remaining eleven questions.

Each of the answers presented in my paper includes a source that adequately and appropriately fulfills the patron’s request and an explanation for how the person should use the resource. I also provide an explanation of my search strategy, the sources consulted, whether they were helpful or not, as well as the source in which I located the answer or the source that I selected as the best one to recommend to the patron. Further, for each of the sources I used in this assignment, I created my own question and answer, which are also included in the paper, and indicated approximate amount of time spent on the question.

While working on this assignment, I learned to work with a variety of reference tools, such as Oxford English DictionaryDictionary of American Regional English, A New Dictionary of EponymsThe Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style, Oxford Art Online, Oxford Music Online, Encyclopedia of Religion and Film, The A-Z Encyclopedia of Food Controversies and the Law, The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, Gale Encyclopedia of Multicultural America, and Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia. This assignment demonstrates my reference skills and the ability to use various reference sources and explain my search strategies to library patrons, while thinking critically about their information behaviors and information needs.

Click here to read the paper.

The Digital Asset Integration into a Learning Content Management System proposal from my professional experience

The fourth piece of evidence to demonstrate my mastery of competency J is a Digital Asset Integration into a Learning Content Management System proposal I wrote at work, in order to integrate a print resource into an educational website, IWitness. In this proposal, I present several search strategies, based on various information seeking behaviors, with emphasis on searching and browsing. I then develop implementation strategies accommodating these behaviors—aimed at integrating the print resource (a book in a PDF format) into the existing information architecture and facilitating the resource discovery by the website’s users via the site’s search. In addition, during the implementation phase, I used an innovative e-book technology, in order to produce the individual digital assets of the book (text, images, maps, photographs, etc.) from the PDF version of the book. After the successful implementation of my proposal, the book’s resources have been seamlessly integrated into the site’s information retrieval and discovery system.

The results of my work demonstrate the practical skills arising from the knowledge of information seeking behaviors I received while in the MLIS program. This piece of evidence shows my understanding of how this knowledge can lead to improved service in digital libraries and online educational environment.

Click here to read the proposal.

Click here to view the implementation results.


“Information behavior research has grown immensely from its scattered beginnings earlier in the twentieth century,” Marcia Bates points out. “The further complexity of information seeking through the use of various technologies and genres is coming to be better understood, though there is much more to be studied. In fact, even as I write, some six billion people are interacting with information worldwide, drawing on cognitive and evolutionarily shaped behaviors, on social shaping and environmental expectations, and interacting with every information technology from the book to the wireless handheld “smartphone.” There is unimaginably much more to learn about information behavior” (2010). Understanding the information seeking behavior of diverse user groups, the knowledge of current information technologies accommodating diverse information needs, and the ability to anticipate what the future may hold, are, without a doubt, the vital tasks of library and information professionals in the 21st century.


Bates, M. J. (2010) Information behavior. In M. J. Bates and M. N. Maack (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences, 3rd Ed. (vol. 3, pp. 2381-2391). New York, NY: CRC Press. Retrieved from

Bates, M. J. (1989). The design of browsing and berrypicking techniques for the online search interface. Online Review, 13(5), 407–424.

Belkin, N. J. (1980). Anomalous states of knowledge as a basis for information retrieval. Canadian Journal of Information Science, 5, 133-143.

Case, D. O. (2008). Information seeking. In K. Haycock, & B. E. Sheldon (Eds.). The portable MLIS: insights from the experts (pp. 35-41). Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Ellis, D. (1989). A behavioural approach to information retrieval system design. Journal of Documentation, 45(3), 171-212.

Dervin, B. (1992). From the mind’s eye of the user: the sense-making qualitative-quantitative methodology. In J. D. Glazier and R. R. Powell (Eds.), Qualitative Research in Information Management (pp. 61-84). Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.

Kelly, G. A. (1963). A theory of personality: The Psychology of Personal Constructs. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Kuhlthau, C. (1993) A principle of uncertainty for information seeking. The Journal of Documentation, 49(4), 339-355.

Kuhlthau, C. (1999, February/March). Accommodating the user’s information search process: Challenges for information retrieval system designers. Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science, 25(3). Retrieved from

Kuhlthau, C. (1991). Inside the search process: Information seeking from the user’s perspective. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 42(5), 361-371.

Kuhlthau, C. C. (1993). Seeking meaning: A process approach to library and information services. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Pub. Corp.

O’Brien, H., & Greyson, D. (2015). Information needs: Understanding and responding to today’s information user. In S. Hirsh (Ed.), Information services today: An introduction (pp. 119-129). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Simmons, M. H. (2015). Finding information: Information intermediation and reference services. In S. Hirsh (Ed.), Information services today: An introduction (pp. 130-138). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.