Presentation of Competency J

Competency J: describe the fundamental concepts of information-seeking behaviors


What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.
– Herbert Simon

Understanding how people look for information helps to improve reference services, because then librarians can tailor their assistance to the seeker’s specific needs. Some people may prefer a “good enough” answer quickly, while others are willing to wait a while for a more involved answer. People also need different kinds of assistance for their particular stage in the information seeking process–someone just trying to brainstorm need only general guidance while others in a data-gathering phase need help finding specific data.

Perhaps the most famous theory about information-seeking behaviors is Carol Kuhlthau’s 6-stage process, which incorporated not only the intellectual needs but also the affective or emotional needs of seekers. The six stages of the information search process according to Kuhlthau are initiation, selection, exploration, formulation, collection, and closure. (Kuhlthau, Heinstrom, & Todd, 2008).

Another popular theory is based on linguist George Zipf’s “principle of least effort,” which posits that people will seek the path of least effort when communicating. The principle is often applied when designing to the information environment in libraries, including reference services and information retrieval systems. as it recognizes that users want information quickly and easily. This explains why research shows that information seekers tend to start their search process with Google or another internet search engine instead of navigating their library’s catalog and databases or talking with a librarian. (Griffiths & Brophy, 2005)

Information-seeking behavior has adapted to the nature of the Internet, and librarians must similarly adapt. While Marcia Bates first articulated the concept of “berrypicking” in internet-based research in 1989, the idea is still applicable for today’s information-seekers. The passive version of information absorption is described as browsing, while the more active version is termed “berrypicking.” (Bates, 2002). Answers to questions don’t usually come from a single query, so searchers tend to sample and take bits of information to further refine their search. That is, they pick the single berries of information to shape their information-seeking process, causing their queries to evolve over time until they finally reach a satisfactory cumulative answer from all of the individually picked berries (Bates, 1989).

Each of these prominent theories, as well as others not discussed here, all have their merits. Information professionals don’t have to ascribe to just one or two theories in order to provide good reference services, but rather they can sample across a wide range of theories and choose tactics depending on the patron and their information needs.

Competency Development

Herbert Simon wrote the above quotation in 1971, and it is even more relevant today with  information retrieval tools easily yielding hundreds of results. Information seekers, myself included, can get easily overwhelmed by these results when beginning to research about a topic. Receiving too much information can encourage people to opt for the first results they see, following the “principle of least effort.” The problem is that the first results may not be accurate or authoritative.

Knowing this about people helps us better provide reference services that they will appreciate. As discussed in Competency I, some library users who follow the “Principle of Least Effort,” don’t want to spend time waiting for librarians to search for just the right resource. They may actually be okay with an answer from Wikipedia, provided they know that the answer may possibly be inaccurate. If we did take too much time, it may deter these users from returning for future questions. On the other hand, providing inaccurate answers will certainly deter users from coming back.

I once served as an Guide, or answer-er, for, which is a speed reference service that functions mainly through text messaging or an app. I figured it would be good practice for reference work even though I was sorely underpaid (on a good day I could make a couple dollars per hour). I was supposed to answer questions such as, “What important things did Genghis Khan do during his reign?” in only a couple minutes. Ideally, less than a minute. It is exactly this speedy reference service that serves to perpetuate the principle of least effort on part of both the asker and the Guide.

Many questions sounded like homework questions, and it is these kinds of questions where librarians should teach these kids how to look for information. As discussed in Competency I, it’s important to know how much information people want when providing reference assistance. However, some people only want a quick answer instead of a “good enough” answer. In these cases, we should slowly get people used to the idea of taking a little bit of extra time to find a better resource to help them move beyond the principle of least effort.


I discussed the issues surrounding “good enough” answers and students’ information-seeking behaviors in two discussion posts. The first post reacts to two articles, one by Carol Kuhlthau, and one by Angela Weiler. The second post provides a more in-depth look at “good enough” answers as it relates to providing better service to information seekers.

Finally, in a paper (“Good Answers Quickly”) that compares and contrasts the reference services at two public libraries, I examined how the type of reference services in relation to information needs of patrons affected patron satisfaction. Specifically, the use of roving reference at one public library branch better fit the information-seeking behavior of patrons, as it is perceived to be “easier” to ask a librarian in the bookstacks than it is to bother him or her at the reference desk.

Concluding Remarks

A good reference librarian uses a theory or combination of theories about information seeking behavior to guide and improve their reference services. By being able to understand how people look for information, librarians can tailor their assistance to the seeker’s specific needs or specific stage in the information seeking process.


Discussion post 1

Discussion post 2

Good Answers Quickly


Bates, M. (1989). “The design of browsing and berrypicking techniques for the online search interface.” Retrieved from:

Bates, M. (2002). “Toward an integrated model of information seeking and searching.” New review of information behaviour research, 3. Retrieved from:

Griffiths, J., & Brophy, P. (2005). “Student searching behavior and the web: Use of academic resources and Google.” Library trends, 53(4). Retrieved from:

Kuhlthau, C., Heinstrom, J., & Todd, R. (2008). “The ‘information search process’ revisited: Is the model still useful?” Information research, 13(4). Retrieved from:

Simon, H. (1971). “Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World.” Found in Martin Greenberger, Computers, Communication, and the Public Interest. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Press. Retrieved from:

Last updated: October 12, 2012