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.

Good Ideas

I believe that the digital environment can serve as a rhetorical seedbed for the growth of good ideas. But continuing with this garden analogy, the fact that virtually everyone can now be a contributor of information or news on the Internet means that there will invariably be weeds choking the development of intellectual flowering.

In his TED Talk, Steven Johnson recounts how the popularity of coffee and tea in the eighteenth-century stimulated better and more profound ideas. Essentially, the switch from depressants like beer or wine (which was the safe drink of choice in the days of contaminated water) to coffee and tea led to better thought processing and better ideas. Not just the drinks themselves led to better ideas, but the commodification of these drinks, which brought people together in public coffeehouses to consume both caffeine and each others discourse. Well, I don’t think caffeine was the sole catalyst of the Enlightenment, but this thought is a good point of departure nonetheless.

Johnson emphasizes that good ideas come either in one of two ways, and it doesn’t matter what field of study we are talking about here. For one, people will come together and share ideas through discourse until a larger idea becomes evident. Individuals may conceive of good ideas in seclusion, but their good ideas will not take hold as an innovative solution or accepted theory until they have had the opportunity to stew among others and reach a consensus with a larger group or network of people. This is crucial to understanding the development of good ideas in the twenty-first century, where networks are increasingly global and digital.

Secondly, individuals are not incapable of coming up with good ideas alone, but good ideas, when not aided by communal discourse, will be staggered and slow to develop. Johnson posits the idea of the “slow hunch,” or the fact that historically, good ideas have had very slow incubation periods. For example, he offers the story of Charles Darwin, whose theory of natural selection was long in the process of materializing. Indeed, Darwin had the full theory worked out for months before he even realized that he had discovered something so grand and unifying.

Such is the case today. Our ideas do not flower in a vacuum. We often do not realize we have even come up with a good idea until that idea has been shared, reviewed, or collaboratively developed. But the digital environment can pose challenges that may retard the development of good ideas instead of aiding them. I think it depends on the digital venue where ideas are being shared, and the common ground of all its participants.

I feel like Johnson privileges the idea of the liquid network over and above the slow hunch, because more innovation and greater productivity seem to result from collaborative thinking and idea formation. Yes, collaboration does make for a good business model. However, I am not ready to jump on board quite yet, because I still have a deep fondness for philosophy and individual thinking. I still think many people actually do better thinking on their own. You have to take people’s feelings and proclivities into account. I know for one that I am not comfortable when flung into a room and made to exchange ideas with strangers. So, the energy and personality of participants in modern “coffeehouses” will affect the interplay and development of ideas. Unfortunately, I find that people are overly attached to digital abstractions, making it difficult to socialize and be comfortable in an organic environment. That energy is more often than not a nervous and anxiety-ridden energy. And let’s face it, good thinking doesn’t happen under mental distress.