Information-seeking behavior

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A widely accepted definition amongst scholars is that information-seeking behavior begins when someone realizes the existence of an information need and ends when that need is believed to have been satisfied (Krikelas, 1983). The seeker turns to formal and informal sources of information and is ultimately satisfied or dissatisfied with the end result (Wilson, 1999). The theories of information-seeking behavior tend to differentiate between immediate needs, the related activities of which are deemed to be “information-seeking behavior,” and deferred needs, which many researchers have termed “information gathering” (Krikelas, 1983).


Because much of the research on information-seeking behavior has focused on specific user groups, such as academics or scientists, a comparison of the theories is problematic (Leckie & Given, 2005). Some similarities, however, have been observed across disciplines.

The type of information people search for is situational in that it depends on a need that is linked to a given time and place (Krikelas, 1983). People of disparate backgrounds have different needs and go about meeting these needs in correspondingly dissimilar manners (Prentice, 1980). They bring with them varying levels of prior knowledge and a high degree of subjectivity (Weiler, 2005). Thus, a universal model of the specifics of information-seeking behavior is largely impossible to define (Leckie & Given, 2005).


There are a wide variety of barriers to success for the typical information-seeker, ranging from limited time to an inability to narrow down the vast array of sources available to them (Bopp & Smith, 2001). Wilson (1981) proposes that information seekers are acting on secondary, rather than primary, needs and are in actuality motivated by physiological, cognitive or affective needs. He further suggests that the barriers information seekers face will stem from those physiological, cognitive or affective realms.

Studies have found that many people will not seek out the assistance of a reference librarian unless there are obvious indications that reference help is available (Katz, 2002). To meet patrons’ needs, many libraries have developed alternative methods of providing reference services, ranging from email requests to live chat technology and digital reference sources (Leckie & Given, 2005).

Overall, however, research has shown that information seekers overwhelmingly prefer informal, human sources (face to face) when they are looking for information (Case, 2002). Other main sources people tend to use often include books, looking through a collection without assistance, reading a newspaper, talking to someone on the phone and listening to the radio (Marcella & Baxter, 1999).

In addition, people tend to seek out sources that they perceive as convenient, or easy to find, rather than the most accurate (Krikelas, 1983). Information seekers also expect emotional support during their search and tend to return to sources that have served them well in the past (Harris & Dewdney, 1994).

When the information seeker finds a source to meet his or her perceived need, several scenarios are possible, according to Carol Kuhlthau’s (2004) often-cited model of the Information-Search Process: the recognition that information is needed; the identifying of the general topic; a period of general confusion and uncertainty; the gaining of confidence about the search; the collection of information; and closure, which can include either satisfaction or dissatisfaction with what is obtained. Several studies have noted that, when presented with an unsatisfactory result, the information seekers often resort to “counterstrategies” (Ross & Dewdney, 1998) These tactics include returning to the reference desk for more help, suggesting a different method of searching and asking another librarian.


Information Needs

Information Problem

Reference Desk

The Reference Librarian

Search Strategies


Case, D.O. (2002). Looking for information: a survey of research on information seeking, needs, and behavior. Amsterdam: Academic Press.

Harris, R.M. & Dewdney, P. (1994) Barriers to information: how formal help systems fail battered women. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Katz, W. A. (2002). Introduction to reference work, Vol. II. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

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

Kuhlthau, C. (2004). Seeking meaning: A process approach to library and information services,, 2nd ed. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Leckie, G.J. & Given, L.M. (2005). Understanding information-seeking: the public library context. Advances in Librarianship, 29, 1-72.

Marcella, R., and Baxter, G. (1999) A national survey of the citizenship information needs of the public. Aslib Proceedings, 51, 115-121.

Prentice, A. (1980). Information Seeking Patterns of Selected Professionals. Public Library Quarterly, 2, 27-60.

Weiler, A. (2005). Information-seeking behavior in Generation Y students: motivation, critical thinking and learning theory [Electronic Version]. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 31, 46-53.

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

Wilson, T.D. (1999). Models in information behaviour research. Journal of Documentation [Electronic Version], 55, 249-270.

Gretchen L. Hoffman