Information-seeking models

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The information literate researcher understands the importance of appropriate information practices
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This entry is out of date, and will not be updated, June 2017


See also Evaluating health information | Goffman's frame analysis | Information management | Information needs of users | Teaching library users | Wearable computers

... information-seeking is a conscious effort to acquire information in response to a need or gap in your knowledge. ~ Case (2007)

Information-seeking models have been created to provide a theoretical basis in the understanding of attitudes and behaviours of searchers. The field of information-seeking has grown considerably over the last two decades. A large theoretical literature now exists about information-seeking and what steps information-literate adults take to locate and use information in their professional lives. Some of these models are: Wilson (2 models 1981, 1999), Krieklas (1983), Leckie, Pettigrew and Sylvain (1996), Bystrom and Jarvelin Savolaienen (1995) and Johnson (1997). In 1949, Zipf also introduced a theory called Principle of least effort which seems to apply to information-seeking equally in 2012 since the path of least resistance is the default position for so many searchers in their use of the Internet.

From physicians (Gorman, 1996; Ramos, 2003), patients, educators and students (as well as CEOs and consumers), there has been a sharp rise in the academic research in this area in the last twenty years. With the rise of knowledge creation and the range of information sources on the web, the importance of information-seeking theory is worthy of every academic librarian's attention and understanding. If health librarians are able to understand how their users browse for and find information, they will be more likely to effectively assist them in their information-seeking activities.

In higher education, for example, students, faculty and researchers seek out and use information in order to construct their own knowledge and understanding of scholarly topics. However, academic librarians can seek to better understand why scholars, students and researchers begin their information exploration in the first place. For example, examining their motivations (intrinsic or extrinsic), learned (or innate) behaviours and cognitive processes as they engage in information-seeking may be important; this intellectual process will help academic librarians assess the learning needs of their users.

Academic librarians & information professionals

In library and information science research, Kuhlthau is one of the pioneering researchers in the area of information-seeking attitudes and behaviours. For more than 20 years, she has spent time examining and framing the models and processes of information-seeking.

The information-seeking process (ISP) model describes users’ experiences as a series of thoughts, feelings and actions. For example, any thoughts that start as uncertain, vague or ambiguous soon become clearer, more focused and specific as the user works through the challenges involved in information-seeking. Over time, feelings of anxiety and doubt are often replaced by other more confident, and certain feelings. Through their activities, library users aim to find information that is relevant to their topics at the early stages of the search process; later, this transmutes to information that is more pertinent to the focused topic - leading towards closure. The framing, focus and personal perspectives on the process are all pivotal in navigating the search process. At some point, the searcher's feelings shift from uncertain to confident, and thoughts change from vague to something more clear. As users move through the ISP stages, their interest in their topic increases correspondingly.

The ISP describes experiences in the process of information-seeking for complex tasks that have discrete beginnings and endings and requires that some learning is accomplished. The model reveals a search process where users find meaning in the course of their information-seeking. From the users' perspective, the primary objective is to accomplish the task that initiated the search not simply to collect information. The ISP presents seeking information as a means to accomplish a perhaps unarticulated goal (at least at the outset).

Kuhlthau's visual model of the information seeking process (ISP)

Kulhlthau's visual model in six stages

The ISP model is articulated in a holistic view of information seeking from the user’s perspective in six stages:

  • Initiation, when a person first becomes aware of a lack of knowledge or understanding and feelings of uncertainty and apprehension are common.
  • Selection, when a general area, topic, or problem is identified and initial uncertainty often gives way to a brief sense of optimism and a readiness to begin the search.
  • Exploration, when inconsistent, incompatible information is encountered and uncertainty, confusion, and doubt frequently increase and people find themselves “in the dip” of confidence.
  • Formulation, when a focused perspective is formed and uncertainty diminishes as confidence begins to increase.
  • Collection, when information pertinent to the focused perspective is gathered and uncertainty subsides as interest and involvement deepens.
  • Search closure, when the search is completed, the person will express a sense of relief (perhaps disappointment) and have a new understanding enabling them to explain their experience.

At which stage in the process the student is makes it easier for the educator to assist by re-direction, re-focusing, or re-starting the research process or information search. Knowing where the student is in the process allows the educator to provide efficient and effective help.

Four other approaches to information-seeking

  1. Known-item information-seeking or searching is one of the most common approaches to locating relevant information. Here, searchers know what they want and have the words necessary to describe what they want; browsing may be a part of the process
  2. Exploratory information-seeking is when users have some idea of what they need but they may not want something as specific as a known-item or specific document. In other words, they want to browse. Here, too, finding the correct keywords to express their information need may be problematic. The right words and description of information needed may be elusive. In addition, users may not know where to start a search or whether there will be enough information. Information needs will change frequently in an exploratory mode as users discover new information and learn how search systems work. This can start to close the so-called information-gap.
  3. Don’t know what they need to know is where users may not know exactly what they need. Users may believe they need one thing but find later that they need something else; or, they may seek information without any specific goal in mind.
  4. Re-finding is relatively straightforward: users look for things they have seen or found before. Searchers may recall where they saw something but maybe not where. They spend time trying to remember what they did or may have little idea about where to go. This is when they need to seek help from an academic librarian.

Whether using this simple model or others, academic librarians can take time to discover what lies behind their users' information-seeking behaviours. In doing so, they will be better able to guide students and faculty in their research. At times, academic librarians may be responsible for helping their users find themselves and in gauging their understanding of the literature they are seeking to find.

The Big6 model in information-seeking


The development and writing of educational objectives guided by Bloom's Taxonomy and learning models such as Vygotsky's social cognition assumes a high level of understanding on the part of academic librarians. The two stages in this process that involve information processing and building knowledge are the focus here. The Big 6 tackles information-seeking skills in two of its six steps. Developed by Eisenberg and Berkowitz, the Big 6 is a widely-known approach to teaching information and technology skills. It is both an information and technology literacy model, and curriculum, and used in schools, colleges and universities. The Big 6 is also an information problem-solving strategy where students learn how to handle information problems, assignments, decisions and tasks. (see Big6 model)

The first two stages of the Big6

1. Task definition

  • Defining the information problem
  • Identifying the information need

2. Information seeking strategies

  • Determining all possible sources
  • Selecting the best sources

After a series of information literacy workshops, academic librarians can design assignments or activities that focus on these two steps; the idea is to help with the assessment of the information-seeking competencies of their users. By focusing on these two steps, a greater understanding of the learning process is possible. Information-seeking is one of the building blocks of critical thinking and problem solving, and serves as an important part of what Wolf calls metacognitive scaffolding.

Irving's Study of Information Skills

In 1985, Ann Irving discussed the idea of cross-curriculum connections in a book entitled Study and information skills across the curriculum. She stated that the research process is an integral part of our everyday lives and is directly linked to life-long learning. When we're sick, we seek medical information. When we are learning how to parent, we read books about parenting. Irving stressed a resource-based learning approach that emphasized addressing individual differences in teaching and learning styles. She emphasized the importance of students, teachers and librarians collaborating toward this joint goal. Many other models came after Irving's Nine Step Information Skills Model but it continues to be used in schools:

  1. Formulating
  2. Identifying
  3. Tracing
  4. Examining
  5. Using
  6. Recording
  7. Interpreting
  8. Shaping
  9. Evaluating

Irving A. Study and information skills across the curriculum. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1985.


Information-seeking is a highly subjective process where users approach the process with prior knowledge, strongly held opinions and differing levels of cognitive development. From the research, it seems self-evident that there are many available models to use to gain insight into users' patterns and behaviours. Apart from some personal preconceptions around time and levels of difficulty in obtaining the right information, users seem to be less concerned than academic librarians about issues of accuracy. Is this because searchers assume most published information is by its nature accurate - or something else? The ease with which students seem to accept information as being true or not, particularly in the early stages of information-seeking, tend to bear out the last hypothesis. In medicine at least, the source of information (ie., information written by an authority, in a respected peer-reviewed journal) seems to take some precedence over other matters when (and if) the searcher has enough time. However, this concern diminishes when time is short; synthesized sources such as Cochrane and point-of-care decision-making tools are therefore very popular as they take away the effort in finding and evaluating the literature (or information) itself.


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