Information seeking

Information seeking is the process or activity of attempting to obtain information in both human and technological contexts. Information seeking is related to, but different from, information retrieval (IR).

Information retrieval

Traditionally, IR tools have been designed for IR professionals to enable them to effectively and efficiently retrieve information from a source. It is assumed that the information exists in the source and that a well-formed query will retrieve it (and nothing else). It has been argued that laypersons' information seeking on the internet is very different from information retrieval as performed within the IR discourse. Yet, internet search engines are built on IR principles. Since the late 1990s a body of research on how casual users interact with internet search engines has been forming, but the topic is far from fully understood. IR can be said to be technology-oriented, focusing on algorithms and issues such as precision and recall. Information seeking may be understood as a more human-oriented and open-ended process than information retrieval. In information seeking, one does not know whether there exists an answer to one's query, so the process of seeking may provide the learning required to satisfy one's information need.

In different contexts

Much library and information science (LIS) research has focused on the information-seeking practices of practitioners within various fields of professional work. Studies have been carried out into the information-seeking behaviors of librarians,[1] academics,[2] medical professionals,[3] engineers[4] and lawyers[5] (among others). Much of this research has drawn on the work done by Leckie, Pettigrew (now Fisher) and Sylvain, who in 1996 conducted an extensive review of the LIS literature (as well as the literature of other academic fields) on professionals' information seeking. The authors proposed an analytic model of professionals' information seeking behaviour, intended to be generalizable across the professions, thus providing a platform for future research in the area. The model was intended to "prompt new insights... and give rise to more refined and applicable theories of information seeking" (1996, p. 188). The model has been adapted by Wilkinson (2001) who proposes a model of the information seeking of lawyers.

Theories of information-seeking behavior

A variety of theories of information behavior – e.g. Zipf's Principle of Least Effort, Brenda Dervin's Sense Making, Elfreda Chatman's Life in the Round – seek to understand the processes that surround information seeking.

A review of the literature on information seeking behavior shows that information seeking has generally been accepted as dynamic and non-linear (Foster, 2005; Kuhlthau 2006). People experience the information search process as an interplay of thoughts, feelings and actions (Kuhlthau, 2006). Donald O. Case (2007) also wrote a good book that is a review of the literature.

Information seeking has been found to be linked to a variety of interpersonal communication behaviors beyond question-asking, to include strategies such as candidate answers.

Robinson’s (2010)[6] research suggests that when seeking information at work, people rely on both other people and information repositories (e.g., documents and databases), and spend similar amounts of time consulting each (7.8% and 6.4% of work time, respectively; 14.2% in total). However, the distribution of time among the constituent information seeking stages differs depending on the source. When consulting other people, people spend less time locating the information source and information within that source, similar time understanding the information, and more time problem solving and decision making, than when consulting information repositories. Furthermore, the research found that people spend substantially more time receiving information passively (i.e., information that they have not requested) than actively (i.e., information that they have requested), and this pattern is also reflected when they provide others with information.

Wilson's nested model of conceptual areas

Wilson's Nested Model of Conceptual Areas

The concepts of information seeking, information retrieval, and information behaviour are objects of investigation of information science. Within this scientific discipline a variety of studies has been undertaken analyzing the interaction of an individual with information sources in case of a specific information need, task, and context. The research models developed in these studies vary in their level of scope. Wilson (1999) therefore developed a nested model of conceptual areas, which visualizes the interrelation of the here mentioned central concepts.

Wilson defines models of information behavior to be "statements, often in the form of diagrams, that attempt to describe an information-seeking activity, the causes and consequences of that activity, or the relationships among stages in information-seeking behaviour" (1999: 250).

See also


  1. Brown, C. M.; Ortega, L. (2007). "Information seeking behaviour of physical science librarians: Does research inform practice". College & Research Libraries. 66 (3): 231–247.
  2. Hemminger, B. M.; Lu, D.; Vaughan, K. T. L.; Adams, S. J. (2007). "Information seeking behaviour of academic scientists". Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology. 58 (14): 2205–2225. doi:10.1002/asi.20686.
  3. Davies, K.; Harrison, J. (2007). "The information-seeking behaviour of doctors: A review of the evidence". Health Information & Libraries Journal. 2 (2): 78–94. doi:10.1111/j.1471-1842.2007.00713.x.
  4. Robinson, M. A. (2010). "An empirical analysis of engineers' information behaviors". Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology. 61 (4): 640–658. doi:10.1002/asi.21290.
  5. Kuhlthau, C. C.; Tama, S. L. (2001). "Information search process of lawyers: A call for 'just for me' information services". Journal of Documentation. 57 (1): 25–43. doi:10.1108/EUM0000000007076.
  6. Robinson, M. A. (2010). "An empirical analysis of engineers' information behaviors". Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology. 61 (4): 640–658. doi:10.1002/asi.21290.


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