“Describe the fundamental concepts of information-seeking behaviors.”
Science fiction authors have long loved to explore what it means to be human by contrasting our too-mortal flesh (and thoughts) with the artificial nature of robots and androids. From Isaac Asimov and his enduring “Three Rules of Robotics”, to Philip K. Dick, and his near-human androids, writers have used this device to question the nature of thought and free will. Dick’s novella, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (loosely adapted into the film Blade Runner), is a benchmark study on humanity, mortality and the freedom of thought. His androids are so uncannily human that it requires a special polygraph test, called the Voight-Kampff Test, to determine their humanity through the dilations of their irises in response to emotionally sensitive questions. While Philip K. Dick’s androids physically resemble humans (down to the replicated human flesh), they lack genuine emotion and empathy. Their “brains” move in straight lines, lacking the sometimes-frustrating complexity that makes us human.
It is our tidal thought process that identifies us as human, and gives rise to music, art and the appreciation of beauty. It is this same cluttered mind that challenges reference librarians and the designers of our information infrastructure. Reference interviews and online research tools need to facilitate our layered thought process. Google Search essentially thinks like an android. We can do better. Research methods and tools need to be designed to work with our sometimes-illogical information-seeking behaviors.
How do researchers find what they are looking for? Do they always know what they are looking for, and how to describe it? If there is a pattern, how do information professionals harness and organize information in such a way as to fit that pattern? Studying how and why users seek out information has become a major field of study in information science.
Information-Seeking Behaviors in Reference
Carol C. Kuhlthau is one of the most widely published authors in the subject and is a Professor Emerita at Rutgers University in New Jersey, having previously served as head of Rutgers University’s well-regarded MLIS program.
One of her most highly referenced concepts is a theoretical approach to library reference she refers to as “Zones of Intervention”. Based on the librarian’s dialog with the patron, Kuhlthau’s categories of response suggest the time and level of inquiry needed to satisfy a patron’s request. The reference interview is divided into a six-step structure (collaborating, continuing, choosing, charting, conversing, and composing).
A flexible system that encourages dialog and open-ended questions is important because of a recurring pattern seen in many information-seekers. Rather than explaining the full scope of their research subject, many reference patrons will ask terse questions that relate only to a small portion of their research or only indirectly to what they actually want to know. Reference patrons often don’t know how to convey their research needs, either due to shyness or the incomplete nature of their research so far. By creating a step-by-step system that understands this tendency, Kuhlthau is creating a template for library reference service designed around information-seeking behavior.
I submit a paper from LIBR-202, Information Retrieval, in which I discussed Kuhlthau’s theories (as well as those of other theoreticians in the field of information-seeking) as my first piece of evidence regarding my approach towards this subject.
Information-Seeking Behaviors Online
Another theoretician highly referenced in the field of informatics is Donald Norman. His expertise is in the design of technology hardware and software and mapping them to the natural patterns of users. Norman has both practical experience, on the boards of companies like Apple and Hewlett-Packard, and academic, as a professor at the University of California, San Diego. His work emphasizes how both physical and electronic products need to work intuitively, to connect naturally with how the human brain receives input and understands objects.
With the incredible flexibility provided by cutting edge computer technology, I’m often surprised by how impractical a lot of software applications can be, and how much documentation they require to operate (as opposed to functioning off of intuition). Even systems intended for the use of the general public, such as journal databases, often feature heavy, hard-to-use interfaces that intimidate new users.
An essay I wrote in the fall of 2007, also for LIBR-202, applies Dr. Norman’s philosophy to commercially available journal databases. Slow progress is being made; many of the problems I initially described have since been resolved. However, I still submit that paper as evidence of my understanding of information-seeking behaviors as they relate to online information systems. While some of the details in the database interfaces may have changed, the overarching principles remain the same.
Ultimately, both our computer interfaces and our in-person reference interactions need to be informed by the patterns of information-seeking behaviors we observe.
The human brain does not work in a straight line. Our thoughts are part of our messy, organic complexity. Theoreticians such as Carol Kuhlthau and Donald Norman provide the navigational charts for information professionals to use when guiding the research practices of our users. Library patrons and researchers are not linear-minded androids — we must adapt our informational structures and reference practices to the cursive thinking that makes human intelligence so fascinating.
Exhibit J-1: Final, Part A: Personal Information Infrastructure and Zones of Information | Available upon request
Exhibit J-2: Final, Part B: Mapping of Information Retrieval Systems | Available upon request