Information Needs and Information Seeking

In Donald Case’s chapter, Information Needs and Information Seeking, we are introduced to some of the foundational theories of information-seeking behavior from Robert Taylor, Charles Atkin, Nicholas Belkin, and Brenda Dervin. Following Case’s logic, it is assumed that information-seeking behavior is based on an underlying need, analogous to Abraham Maslow’s definition of needs. While there have been scholars who have questioned the idea that searching for information has anything at all to do with needs, I think that there is indeed a primal itch or an innate human instinct toward knowledge. Or perhaps better stated, there is an innate instinct toward gathering information in order to make sense of the world around us. In Andreas Ekström’s Ted Talk on the moral bias behind our search results, Ekström mentions that we become human in the process of searching for knowledge, a particularly salient quote when considering this question. Indeed, Maslow insisted that the urge for self-actualization was deeply entrenched in the human psyche. Self-actualization is, of course, contingent on personal knowledge, and knowledge, as we have seen, requires information gathering.

The problem with any part of cognitive science is that there is a tendency to only accept objective data and to dismiss out of hand as unscientific anything related to qualia; feelings and mental states that cannot be measured in concrete, empirical terms. For example, some scholars maintain that there is a problem with quantifying information needs because these behavioral states emanate from a first-person view of phenomenal conscious activity, and there is no empirical way to determine if what one is experiencing (in this case an expression of needing to know something) is truly a need or not. Well, this thinking veers dangerously toward solipsism, which I have always had a problem with. We can argue that needs are mental or physical states that are expressly felt and immediately recognizable (i.e. hunger, thirst, warmth, etc.). But if we allow that it is possible to be unaware of one’s needs, then the question opens up into wider terrain.

People seek information for different reasons, and they filter and interpret information in different ways. If we follow the school of thought that considers information-seeking behavior to be driven by nothing more than a rational judgement that some uncertainty exists that can be resolved by specific information, we are ignoring other contexts in which information-seeking can occur and function.


This is why Brenda Dervin’s sense-making theory is important. Dervin’s theory identifies the information-seeking process with emotions, as well as cognitive processes. Dervin’s information seeking illustration explains the theory visually. In Dervin’s research, the search for information is based on a need that arises within a person. This need can be intrinsic or extrinsic based on the person’s situation. The situation is the starting point of the information seeking process. For instance, a person may seek information because they are in a class in graduate school. The process of searching will be influenced by past experiences and previous knowledge.

Sense-making theory emphasizes emotions and feelings. The bridge to the outcome will be influenced by environmental and biological factors. Maybe health will deteriorate or mood will dampen, which will make the information-seeking process seem more arduous and burdensome, and this strain will inevitably color the results or outcome. On the other hand, strong heath and a positive attitude will likely result in faster and more thorough information processing.

Dervin’s sense-making theory is based on everyday life, so it is not context specific or spatially oriented. Time and space are infinite factors. As an example, in undergraduate school, there were times when I had to drive a distance to procure a book at another academic library because my research project was dependent on said book, and it could not wait or my outcome (my term paper) would suffer. Indeed, the search for information may be quick or it may be long, depending on the query and the scope of the question. In Ekström’s words, one may be looking for an “isolated fact,” or they may be searching for knowledge, which is a much more complicated and intricate thing. But knowledge is part of what makes us human, and it is driven by an innate need.


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