Thursday, October 14, 2004

On the screen was a collection of boxes, lines, and squiggles. The title of the slide was “Kuhlthau’s ISP”. While the name “Kuhlthau” seemed to ring a bell, her depiction of a process of information-seeking didn’t make much of an impression on me. While valuable in the context of that particular class—LIS 503: Information sources and services—Kuhlthau’s model quickly lost significance as I left the class. And now, here I am pondering over the nature of the field loosely identified as Human Information Behaviour.

How did we get here? How did Kuhlthau’s semantic markings come to be projected at the front of the class? I intend to address these questions by taking a line of analysis that runs through the history of information needs research. The spirit of Michel Foucault, I intend to uncover the historical “semi-silence” that shapes and pervades our current discipline. To fully explore this issue, the question shifts from “How did we get here?” to “Where do we start?” At the beginning.

[1] In the beginning Joshua Bates created the library and the reference desk (of the BPL)

[2] And the library was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the catalogue. And the act of the Great and General Court of Massachusetts moved upon the face of the waters.
[3] And Joshua Bates said, Let there be patron service: and there was patron service.

Rationing of clothes ends in Britain.

Soviet Union tests its first atomic bomb.

Newfoundland joins Canada.

One hundred years later, someone started to ask questions about what sort of information was involved in patron service. This person was Bernard Berelson. Although our story doesn’t start until almost 20-years after Berelson published The Library’s Public, the questions he asked provided the critical turbulence that destabilized the complacency of library managers:

“The report attempts to tell what the public library does, not what it can do or should do. This is important enough to repeat: the report attempts to tell what the public library actually does.” (Berelson, 1949 pg. 3)

Berelson through down the gauntlet and demanded that professionals and academics remove themselves from the idealistic Victorian notions that initiated the public library movement and begin to address the gritty questions of what real libraries do and what real patrons do. With the stage set by Berelson, there began a great outpouring of research committed to documenting what resources users actually use. It should be noted that this sort of bibliographic investigation didn’t necessarily address Berelson’s concerns but did provide some guidance to librarians and library management—the people on the front lines of library service. This tension between academic concerns and professional concerns seems to be a thread of constancy throughout the history of Human Information Behaviour research.

Booker Prize for Fiction is established by Booker plc.

The United States Congress repeals the requirement for a gold reserve to back US currency.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated by James Earl Ray in Memphis, Tennessee.

From the primordial muck of the studies conducted in Berelson’s wake arose an article with a rather unassuming title: Information needs and uses (Paisley, 1968). This article was the third ARIST review published on the topic (following Menzel’s 1966 article Information needs and uses in science and technology, and Herner and Herner’s 1967 article of the same title). Paisley’s article however was markedly different from its predecessors. While focussing primarily on the document needs of scientists and technicians, Paisley dispensed wisdom that still resonates today. Upon reflecting upon the status of research on information needs and uses he wrote: “Conceptual poverty is independent of methodological richness.” (3) Even in 1968 Paisley recognized the lack of unifying concepts within LIS research.

Of particular importance in Paisley’s work was his articulation of the various “systems” in which a scientist—or anybody who uses information—must navigate. He specifically described the scientist within his culture; within a political system; within a membership group; within a reference group; within an invisible college; within a formal organization; within a work team; within his [sic] own head; within a legal/economic system; and within a formal info system. All of the ensuing work on information needs and uses or human information behaviour could arguably be assigned to one of these systems.

Paisley also recognized that the focus on information retrieval that tended to dominate the LIS literature of the time was limiting to the field. He noted that “Computer-based storage and retrieval systems that are not integrated into these social, political, and economic systems will be expensive, unused novelties.” (Pg. 4) Full recognition of the importance of understanding these other systems was not to occur within the broader discipline for a considerable period of time.

President of the United States Richard Nixon orders the development of a space shuttle program.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average closes above 1,000 (1,003.16) for the first time

Stephen Hawking is confined to a wheelchair.

In 1972 (in a chapter similarly titled Information needs and uses), Lin and Garvey reiterated Paisley’s call for an integrated conceptual framework for understanding information needs (Lin & Garvey, 1972). Still rooted in the survey work conducted in the sciences and social sciences, Lin and Garvey place increased emphasis on the importance of local knowledge practices and indicate that the best predictor of information needs is actually the type of work being conducted by the user rather than demographic factors. Within the framework of the formal surveys, the authors are able to recognize that in addition to documents, an informal information network of “stars” and “gatekeepers” are also important. This attention to social information requirements runs throughout the history of HIB research.

Of particular interest in Lin and Garvey’s review are their guidelines for information systems. These guidelines explicitly direct designers to recognize the requirements of users in addition to the affordances of their collections and indexes. These guidelines include: 1) the definition and characteristics of potential users; 2) the communication behaviours and information needs of these potential users; 3) the information diffusion and dissemination strategies for the new system; and 4) strategies to facilitate user feedback and system modifications. (pg. 27) It should be noted that these discussions of the user are still couched in the language used by builders of information retrieval systems rather than social scientists concerned with how users seek information. Nicholas Belkin was to provide this crucial epistemic bridge.

Rhodesia's prime minister Ian Smith and three black leaders agree on the transfer to black majority rule.

Comic Strip Garfield debuts in newspapers.

Sex Pistols' final concert in Winterland, San Francisco

Belkin’s concept of “Anomalous States of Knowledge” (ASK) was to provide a crucial link between system builders and social scientists. ASK explicitly recognizes the gap that exists between the “knowledge structures” of askers and of responders. The differences between these structures lead to information seeking in an effort to resolve this discrepancy:

“The recipient instigates the communication system by recognizing an anomaly in her/his state of knowledge, this recognition being akin to the partition of generator’s state of knowledge which identifies the conceptual structure to be communicated. The recipient then converts this anomalous state of knowledge (ASK) into some communicable structure (e.g. a request), which is used to retrieve from the corpus of texts some text or texts which might be appropriate for resolving the anomaly. The recipient interprets the text to discover the conceptual structure underlying it, this structure interacts with recipient’s ASK, and the recipient then makes a decision as to whether the anomaly has been sufficient resolved.” (Belkin, 1978 pg. 81)

To establish his discussion of ASK, Belkin admirably attempts to address the “conceptual poverty” indicated by both Paisley, and Lin and Garvey. He appends a number of different definitions for the concept of “information” (see Appendix A) and finally provides his own definition: “Information is that which is capable of transforming structure.” (pg. 80) The structure that Belkin refers to is arguably the cognitive structure of the user. Of equal importance to the definition of information provided by Belkin are the requirements that he establishes for any definition of information:

“…any information concept should be both operational and relevant. Being relevant means referring to at least the problem and context of information science, and being operational means capable of being applied to the problem of information science.” (Pg. 61)

This constraint of being both operational and relevant seems to be lacking in may of the concepts of information behaviour currently en vogue.

While ASK was an important contribution to the literature, Belkin’s greatest contribution is perhaps a small aside that he wrote in explanation of the “behavioural requirements” of information: “…different users respond to (learn from) the same set of data differently; that the same user will respond to the same set of data differently at different times; and that the nature of a user’s response depends to some extent upon the presentation of the data.” (60). There is, therefore, no “best” system for all users since each user and each situation is unique and particular. This observation led to a shift in research that is popularly described as a paradigm shift from the “physical paradigm” of IR systems to the “cognitive paradigm” of users.

Ronald Reagan become president of the United States; and is shot; so is Pope John Paul II.

The Commoder Vic-20 is released.

Céline Dion releases her first album seven months after Chilean president Augusto Pinochet is sworn in.

Wilson took Belkin’s attempt to create a single definition of information as a symptom of the problems within information science rather than as a potential solution. In 1981, Wilson stated: “The problem seems to lie not so much with the lack of a single definition as with a failure to use a definition appropriate to the level and purpose of the investigation.” (Wilson, 1981 pg. 3) Instead of creating yet another definition for information, Wilson exhorted the LIS community to shift their focus of study to the actual use of documentation and information, particularly by exploring the social aspect of information exchange.

Inherent in work preceding Wilson’s contribution was the focus on information retrieval (notwithstanding Paisley’s prescience). Wilson, however, recognized that the investigation of information behaviour must extend beyond the confines of just documents and systems:

"…the study of information-seeking behaviour can stand on its own as an area of applied research where the motive for the investigation is pragmatically related to system design and development. A different motivation is involved if we wish to understand why the information seeker behaves as he does. This is an area of basic research and, although the resulting knowledge may have practical applications, there is no necessity that it should.” (Pg. 7)

Of particular importance in Wilson’s work is his recommendation of research methods. In particular, he recommended the use of qualitative research to understand information behaviour. This recommendation was taken by a variety of subsequent researchers and has become a characteristic mark of academic—if not professional—research through the ensuing years. His focus on anthropological or sociological methods of study is inherent in his emphasis on “context”—a hallmark of subsequent work:

“An 'information science' firmly founded upon an understanding of information users in the context of their work or social life is also likely to be of more use to the information practitioner, by pointing the way to practical innovations in information services, and to potentially beneficial associations with other communication/information-related subsystems.” (Pg. 12)

Royal Assent (in London) of Canada Act repatriates constitution.

Soviets invade Afghanistan.

The computer is Time’s “man of the year”.

Blade Runner released; Phillip K. Dick dies.

1982 was a bumper year for information seeking with the publication of two particularly important works. Chen and Hernon published the manuscript Information seeking : assessing and anticipating user needs. This extensive exploration of how people use information involved telephone sampling and led to several important conclusions for subsequent research. The first, involves the importance of actual context for understanding information needs:

“This study demonstrates that this methodology is applicable. In its analysis of the raw data generated through telephone interviews, our study brushes aside an old conception of the information seeking process as a cut-and-dried, mechanistic procedure; it refuses to envision the individual seeking information as an entity that can and should be fit into rigid, objective grids of statistical probability. In short, information seeking is placed by the study into a human context.” (Chen & Hernon, 1982 pg. 4)

It seems ironic that many of the information seeking models that began in this period of information behaviour research attempt to generalize behaviours that fit into “rigid, objective grids.”

Chen and Hernon’s work also reiterated the need for researchers to move beyond their typical demesnes of IR and library services while simultaneously reiterating the importance of context.

“Information seeking cannot be viewed solely from the perspective of the library, but also from the opposite side of the need, from the perspective of the individual who sees the library as one potentially adequate information provider among many. And, information needs must be viewed as indivisibly a part of the person, situation, and prejudices with which it is associated in the user's mind. If we do not understand information needs as life-engendered problems and libraries in the context of all other information providers, then we cannot design programs to meet the wide range of the public's needs.” (Chen & Hernon, 1982 pg. 105)

While Chen and Hernon’s work begins to explore the entire context of the needs of information seekers, they largely rely on quantitative survey methodologies. By extending their work beyond the library they were perhaps meeting Wilson’s call for “basic research” that may have limited application to the professional aspects of LIS practice.

The second important work of 1982 refuted Wilson, and Chen and Hernon and decried how useless contemporary research was for actual library settings reiterating the tension between professionals and academics:

“The fact that the results are of relatively little use to an operating library or information service has gone unchallenged. Even librarians themselves have carried out this type of study without realizing that the results are very difficult, and in some cases impossible to apply—at least without considerable amount of further developmental work.” (Brittain, 1982 pg. 142)

While seemingly refuting the work of authors such as Chen and Hernon, Brittain also echoes some earlier concerns such as the importance of informal and local knowledge and document use: “Although user studies have concentrated upon the methods by which users get to know of bibliographic references and the ways in which they retrieve documents, very little attention has been paid to what happens to documents when they arrive upon the user’s desk.” (pg. 143)

Of key importance in Brittain’s contribution is the recognition of a lacking paradigm to guide research: “One of the major problems is that the results of many hundreds of user studies have not accumulated to form a body of knowledge about the information needs of users, from which conclusions can be drawn about the way existing information services can be improved, and about the design and development of new ones.” (pg. 144)

The early 1980 was to see the emergence of a new chapter in the history of information behaviour research with the emergence of researchers such as Brenda Dervin and Robert Taylor. The tension between practice and research noted by Brittain and eschewed by Wilson, however, remains a common refrain.

Swatch introduce their first timepieces.

Soviet military officer Stanislav Petrov averts a worldwide nuclear war.

McDonald's introduces the McNugget.

James Krikelas provided the first cogent description of the emerging field of information behaviour in 1983 in an article titled: Information-seeking behavior: Patterns and concepts. Krikelas’s definition is still applicable and useful today:

“Information seeking behavior is defined here as any activity of an individual that is undertaken to identify a message that satisfies a perceived need. In this context, information is viewed as any stimulus that reduces uncertainty; need is defined as a recognition of the existence of this uncertainty in the personal, or work-related, life of an individual.” (Krikelas, 1983 pg. 6)

In this same article Krikelas reiterates the importance of setting and context for understanding information needs and provides research questions to guide ensuing research: “The principal questions that must be addressed, therefore, are 'What sources are selected for information?' and 'Why?'” (pg.14) While the “what sources” question had been addressed by a number of earlier studies the “why” question had proved to be considerably more elusive and was to become the focus of much ensuing work notably by Brenda Dervin.

Dervin revisited the question of information posed by Wilson and Belkin and determined that the problem was not the definition of information but rather who was doing the defining: “…the dismal portrait of the potential of information services that comes from the literature is not that people are, indeed, disinterested in information but, rather, that systems and researchers have been looking at something they call information rather than something users call information.” (Dervin, 1983 pg. 158)

This focus on the user and their interpretation of information marks the beginning of a new type of research within the LIS community. The explicit focus on user perceptions is markedly different from the type of research conducted by, for example, Chen and Hernon. While the goal of both Dervin and Chen and Hernon was to understand the context and environment of information needs, Dervin shifted the focus to the ways in which people make sense of their environment and how information plays into this “sense-making”. Refuting the quantitative notions of information of authors such as Shannon and Weaver—and even Belkin—Dervin claims that a communication model in which “information bricks” are dropped into the “empty buckets” of receivers is completely inappropriate:

“In this view, the empty bucket has evolved into a thinking, self-controlling human being. And information changes from brick to clay, moved and shaped in unique ways by each perceiver.” (pg. 169)

The shaping of Dervin’s “information clay” is dependent on the specific spatio-temporal context of the user. Echoing the refrains of earlier researchers such as Wilson and Paisley, Dervin claims “it is clear from the literature that unless messages are constructed in terms that have meaning in the day-to-day lives of users and potential users, they won't be used.” (pg. 176)

Bundled with Dervin’s theoretical approach is a particular method that she described as the “micro-moment timeline approach”. This combination of theory and method has had a profound impact on the subsequent development of human information behaviour research.

Clara Peller is featured in the "Where's the Beef?" commercial.

The first Apple Macintosh goes on sale.

Bhopal Disaster.

1n 1984, Robert Taylor wrote a second work that marks this turn towards the user’s perception of information (Taylor, 1984). While ostensibly about abstracting and indexing services, Taylor reveals that his true focus is the user: “A critical point to keep in mind is that the emphasis of the value-added approach is on the user—the person who makes use of the information—and on his perceptions of utility and value.” (pg. 127)

Taylor’s work is perhaps the first fully realized study that embraced Wilson’s earlier (1981) commendation of qualitative methods. These methods were not, however, easy to operationalize within the context of a conventional information needs and uses study:

“It was difficult to explain briefly to those being interviewed that we were interested in something beyond the conventional image of the user as an asker of questions. Those being interviewed had difficulty in seeing system response in the context of problems rather than questions.” (pg. 132)

Of perhaps more importance than Taylor’s own work was the description of it provided in (ironically) Dervin and Nilan’s highly influential ARIST review of 1986 titled—unsurprisingly—Information needs and uses. They described Taylor’s work as important for several reasons

“It focuses on the perceptions of utility and value that users bring to systems.” (Dervin & Nilan, 1986 pg. 18)

“This body of conceptual work can be seen as reaching for two different kinds of understandings: 1) of problems (or cognitive criteria) users bring to bear on systems; and 2) of different characteristics of information and information bases that would allow users to locate whatever might server their criteria.” (pg. 19)

While utilized as a trope of authority by Dervin and Nilan, Taylor’s work was to become eclipsed by Dervin’s own.

Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.

Chernobyl disaster.

Top Gun released (disaster?).

Stanley Cup: Montreal Canadiens won 4 games to 1 over the Calgary Flames (disaster!).

Dervin and Nilan reiterate previous claims of “conceptual poverty” within the nascent field of information behaviour. Citing recent works on topic such as Taylor’s “user values approach”, Belkin’s ASK, and Dervin’s “sense-making”, they call for a complete “paradigm shift” within the academic discourse. They eschew needs-and-uses surveys fro approaches that are “subjective”, “constructivist”, “situational”, and “wholistic”:

“The ‘alternate’ paradigm posits information as something constructed by human beings.” (Dervin & Nilan, 1986 pg. 16)

While the review is quite thorough, most of the concepts it presents have already been presented. The greatest value of this work, however, is as a milepost indicating the emergence of an “alternate paradigm”. The actual naming of this paradigm and describing what it entails, however, has been proved to be a considerable challenge.

Unabomber bomb explodes.

Martha Stewart signs a contract with Kmart to be the company's lifestyle spokesperson.

Prozac® makes its debut in the US.

The alternate paradigm seemed to be gaining some acceptance in 1987 as Varlejs publishes Information seeking : changing perspectives. This work—written by an author noted for their contributions to professional practice—served as both a commendation and a warning for the new approach to research. Varlejs (in the manner of Brittain) called on researchers to remember the applications of their research:

“Regardless of the type of library or information service, the first commandment seems to be, pay attention to the user. This imperative to 'know your user' has a long history in the literature, and many studies of users, information needs and use continue to be produced every year.” (Varlejs, 1987 pg. 167)

According to Varlejs, this new approach is the result of a number of movements within both the LIS community and greater societal forces while still reinforcing the importance of research for library practice:

“The switch from a materials centred outlook to an information centred one was not only a function of the ascendancy of television and the recognition of the importance of mass and nonprint media in general. It was to some degree propelled by calls for greater accountability, but more significantly, it was a fundamental reconceptualization of the purpose of public libraries.” (pg. 70)

Varlejs also provided a warning to researchers that although their focus should be the user, the easily collected demographic and behavioural variables related to users are poor indicators of information use. Furthermore, Varlejs notes a tension between the unit of analysis for this new paradigm. Should researches focus on the user’s problems as indicated by Krikelas or should they focus specifically on the constructs of the information seeker according to Dervin?

In closing, Varlejs pondered the future of information behaviour and perhaps augured the exploding nebulae of loosely related literature that characterizes the current state of the literature. Varlejs noted that the future of research would become increasingly complex: “…it appears that research in information seeking needs to become increasingly complex. As the previously dominant demographic variables are downplayed, other variables describing the cognitive states of both information seekers and intermediaries, as well as variables which differentiate among information problems/situations can be given greater attention.” (pg. 78)

Time Warner is formed from the merger of Time Inc. and Warner Communications Inc.

The Berlin Wall comes down

The first McDonald's opens in Moscow, Russia.

Collapse of the Soviet Union.

ARIST published their next review on information needs in 1990. Hewins summarizes the recent literature and notes both a lack of theory building and the increased use of critical incident research methods (e.g., micro-moment time line) in addition to the conventional survey approaches. Hewins also notes the various cognitive processes that had been explored yet notes that they are all poor predictors for actual information use.

While Hewins’s review was largely lacklustre, it indicated a certain degree of stagnation within the field. From the review, it seems that the projects of Dervin’s “alternate paradigm” had been largely unrealized in a comprehensive manner that facilitated the growth of the field. Indeed, Hewins notes the application of information behaviour research for IR applications. This trend back to IR perhaps indicates a field-wide departure from Wilson’s image of information behaviour as a basic science. The general lack of movement within the field resulted in a certain level of introspection throughout the early 1990s.

Bill Clinton defeats George H. W. Bush and H. Ross Perot in the U.S. presidential election

Barney & Friends, a children's educational television show starring a giant purple dinosaur, premieres.

Benny Hill, comedian, dies.

Appendix A

Otten: “In this general model, information is a system-specific interpretation of external stimuli; that is, an internal state-change in the system which may or may not be externally observable. System-specificity allows different ideas of information to exist at different levels, which are unified by the general concept and by the interdependence of the levels.” 69

Ursul: “…information itself is a fundamental property of matter and of consciousness, acting to connect the two by means of its relationship with variety and reflection. This relationship lies in the postulate of two basic kinds of information: objective information, which is a property of matter and is a measure of its categories associated with a particular natural object; and subjective or ideal information, which is the reflection in an individual’s consciousness of the objective, material information.” 70

Shre?der: “Thus, Shre?der notices that one reason that the Shannon information measure has not been applicable to information science is that it does not deal with meaningful, semantic information, which is the kind of information with which information science must be concerned.” (71-72) Shre?der’s definition of information is basically “the degree of change of the thesaurus under the action of the given statement…” (quoted p. 72)

Pratt: “Pratt then returns to one of the original Latin meanings of inform, to inwardly shape, in order to say that: ‘Information is the alteration of the image which occurs when it receives a message.’” 73

Stachowiak: “…information in its widest sense is reduction in certainty (that is, appropriate change in the relevant elements of the operator), and information for information science (its narrow sense) is reduction in uncertainty by means of communication processes.” 75

Wersig: “…he has failed to develop an adequate information concept because he has concentrated exclusively upon the recipient in the communication system, without considering how the recipient can be related to the rest of the system through an information concept.” 76

Yovits: “[There are] two kinds of uncertainty, structural and relational, which correspond to the types of knowledge that a decision-maker can have of a system about which it must make a decision. These two types of uncertainty, together with the decision elements of: courses of action; possible outcomes; goals; and states of nature, are used by Yovits in order to construct a probabilistic decision matrix, using standard decision-theoretic techniques.” 76

Belkin: “Information is that which is capable of transforming structure.” 80


Belkin, N. J. (1978). Information concepts for information science. Journal of Documentation, 34(1), 55-85.

Berelson, B. (1949). The library's public; a report of the Public Library Inquiry. New York,: Columbia Univ. Press.

Brittain, J. M. (1982). Pitfalls of user research, and some neglected areas. Social Science Information Studies, 2(3), 139-148.

Chen, C.-c., & Hernon, P. (1982). Information seeking : assessing and anticipating user needs. New York, NY: Neal-Schuman Publishers.

Dervin, B. (1983). Information as a user construct: The relevance of perceived information needs to synthesis and interpretation. In S. A. Ward & L. J. Reed (Eds.), Knowledge structure and use: Implications for synthesis and interpretation (pp. 155-183). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Dervin, B., & Nilan, M. (1986). Information needs and uses. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, 21, 3-33.

Krikelas, J. (1983). Information-seeking behavior : Patterns and concepts. Drexel Library Quarterly, 19(2), 5-20.

Lin, N., & Garvey, W. D. (1972). Information needs and uses. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, 7, 5-37.

Paisley, W. J. (1968). Information needs and uses. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, 3, 1-30.

Taylor, R. S. (1984). Value-added processes in document-based systems: abstracting and indexing services. Information Services and Use, 4, 127-146.

Varlejs, J. (1987). Information seeking: Changing perspectives. In J. Varlejs (Ed.), Information seeking: Basing services on users' behaviors. Proceedings of the twenty-fourth annual symposium of the graduate alumni and Faculty of The Rutgers School of Communication, Information and Library Studies, 10 April 1986 (pp. 67-82). Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co.

Wilson, T. D. (1981). On user studies and information needs. Journal of Documentation, 37(1), 3-15.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home