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Book review & notes - Looking for Information

 ·  ☕ 17 min read


Title: Looking for Information: A Survey of Research on Information Seeking, Needs, and Behavior: 4th Edition

Author: Duncan O. Case & Lisa M. Given

How I learned about it: I was talking to my mom about my dislike of infoboxes on wikis. There’s a number of reasons I hold this opinion, and a lot of them have to do with the fact that infoboxes constrain you into certain representations of information. She suggested I read some information science books, and since I’d never even heard of this field as a discipline before I just went to Goodreads and searched the topic; this book was one of the ones that came up, and the reviews made it seem pretty interesting.

I also bought Foundations of Library and Information Science, and I would have probably read that book first if they’d arrived at the same time, but this one got here first.

Would I recommend: I loved this book; however it is a large time investment to read it. So it depends. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, your time may be better spent reading books like Developing Quality Technical Information (I really love that book), but if you have the time, Looking for Information is super cool! And if you’re here just for this review, then at least as an introductory book, I definitely recommend this book! If you’re already really familiar with the field, maybe not - you’re probably better off doing your own research in your own topics of interest and also you don’t need my recommendation at this point, do you :)

Book structure

This book is divided into five parts, with eleven chapters, but it conceptually divides into roughly two halves. The first half, chapters 1-6, gives you a background in information behavior history, definitions, and concepts, while the second half runs through models, theories, and experimental design to provide you with an overview of recent research and literature.

Not that the first half lacks literature citations - nearly every paragraph in the entire volume contains at least one citation, and every single chapter contains a list of “recommended readings,” making this a great introductory text if you’re looking for a first book to read and not just a book to read. At least, I hope so - I bought several books based on their recommendations that I’m now looking forward to reading!

General comments

Looking for Information was one of the most eye-opening introductions to a completely new field I’ve ever experienced. As I mentioned earlier, I had never even heard the terms “information behavior” or “library information science” prior to a couple weeks ago. I had no background AT ALL going into this book and no idea what to expect. What I got was an introduction to an amazing world full of new definitions, concepts, theories, models, studies, and ways of looking at the world of information that I’d never considered before.

Some terms/concepts that are relevant to UX that I hadn’t ever seen discussed before include information avoidance and information overload; and serendipity and browsing. These are all ideas that are now going to be in the front of my head any time I’m designing a process or large component - will a user who’s casually browsing ever interact with this? If so, what elements on the page create a salient experience? And is there too much information? Are we providing a way for active seekers to easily filter a lot of it and focus only on what they want? If not, we are risking information overload, and users will deal with it themselves, probably in a way that leads to consequences we don’t want.

As usual, there were some topics that weren’t present just because the book was published in 2016 and not 2021: fake news and disinformation campaigns weren’t mentioned at all; and while there were lots of discussions of getting information from friends or the internet, there weren’t any mentions of influencers or parasocial relationships.

Another sign of the book’s age is that some cited studies about internet usage are dated as far back as 2001 - so make sure you check the year of the study any time you see something that mentions the internet! I would expect that the next edition, if there is one, will omit anything that old.

While obviously the COVID-19 pandemic was not specifically mentioned, there was still a ton of discussion tangentially relevant to the pandemic: people’s health-related information seeking behavior patterns, information overload, and preferences for familiar over expert sources can all help to explain the efficacy of anti-vax and anti-mask propaganda over scientific sources. (When I did a quick google search for recent studies, I found one paper studying information overload and COVID-19, but it was fairly limited in scope, and this was the most relevant paper I found; however I didn’t spend that much time looking.)

I do have to caution that this book is NOT light reading by any means. I’m used to reading books by UX authors, technical writers, and developers. These writers all constantly interrupt their text with entry points like headings, bulleted lists, charts, diagrams, etc, either because they’re professionals whose job is literally to make text accessible or because (in the third case) their topics mandate it. This book is not like that. It’s walls and walls of text, and that definitely took some getting used to (and also I constantly complained about it lol). (So while I think the UX field should learn from LIS, so should LIS learn from UX!) So if you don’t think you can deal with that, this book might not be for you.

The rest of the review will be my chapter-by-chapter notes on the book.

Chapter summaries

These summaries are not complete; I’m just writing down what I thought was most interesting in each chapter, and in a lot of cases I’m omitting multiple entire sections from chapters. I’m not repeating my OSTEP notes (I will probably never do that again).

Chapter 1 - Information Behavior: An Introduction

We’re introduced to some terms that the authors promise to re-define in depth later. Unless quoted I’m paraphrasing the definitions. Also sometimes I’m including elaboration from later chapters with notes:

  • Information - A perceived difference. Later: “Any difference that makes a difference” (p. 76) or “Some pattern of organization of matter and energy that has been given meaning by a living being” (p. 77) (I like that definition).
  • Information need - Discussed in chapter 5 from pages 81-83, A need is an “inner motivational state that brings about thought and action,” and an information need is “a cause of information seeking.”
  • Information seeking - A “conscious effort to acquire information,” in contrast to the unconscious absorbtion of information through your environment. Making sense of your environment (p. 92).
  • Information use - A poorly-defined (p. 93) term that means what it says it means.
  • Information behavior - A catch-all term referring to any action you take that has to do with information. This can include avoiding information!
  • Information practices - Mostly a synonym for Information behavior.
  • Information experiences - Also mostly a synonym for Information behavior, but with an emphasis on information in everyday learning.

The chapter also introduces ten myths about information and information seeking. I thought a lot of these were relevant to infoboxes on wikis. Here’s just the headlines for all ten, with no elaboration (the secton starts on page 10):

  1. Only “objective” information is valuable
  2. More information is always better
  3. Objective information can be transmitted out of context
  4. Information can only be acquired through formal sources
  5. There is relevant information for every need
  6. Every need situation has a solution
  7. It is always possible to make information available or accessible
  8. Functional units of information, such as books or television programs, always fit the needs of individuals
  9. Time and space - individual situations - can be ignored in addressing information seeking and use
  10. People make easy, conflict-free connections between external information and their internal reality

Most of the rest of the chapter discusses the organization of the book.

Chapter 2 - The Complex Nature of Information Behavior

This chapter contains five case studies of examples of information behavior. The case studies are occasionally explicitly mentioned in future chapters, and they also serve as examples of concepts frequently even when they go unmentioned.

  1. Julie wants to buy a new car. She has to make a decision (section 6.2, page 100) between three different cars. She conducts research by reading Consumer Reports, has personal encounters with friends who give her recommendations and a sales person who gives her a negative impression, and also ultimately uses personal taste - the colors available - to make her decision.
  2. Leslie is writing a paper about the 1898 war between Spain and the USA. She starts out by using Google, then takes a break to discuss the paper with her friends, then goes to the campus library. At the library, she starts by using the online catalog, then gets help from a librarian, and finds some books. In her search, she ignored using journals because she knew that was a separate search and didn’t want to deal with that (avoiding information).
  3. Graham needs to vote in a political referendum on whether Scotland should leave the UK after living abroad for nearly five years. He has opinions influenced by partisan sources, but he consults additional media, wanting to see other sides of the issue. Leading up to the referendum he gets information from friends in a pub while watching televised debates.
  4. A patient is admitted to the hospital after being involved in a traffic accident. Information comes in from medical devices attached to the patient and is communicated in between attending nurses and doctors. The patient’s name and medical history are unavailable until a police report arrives. The patient himself is not conscious until the next day, and likely lies to the staff in an attempt to obtain opioid painkillers. The staff is highly trained and needs to communicate precise information between themselves in order to save a life.
  5. Maria’s cousin gets cancer, and Maria becomes curious about the disease. Over time, she attempts to learn more about it, by reading brochures, calling a toll-free number to obtain more brochures, reading information online (this is the first time she’s used the internet to learn about things like this), and talking to a friend who’s a nurse. She becomes someone who listens to her friends about health matters, joins health-related events, and has a life-long interest in health matters.

Chapter 3 - The History and Focus of Information Behavior Research

IB research maybe dates back to 1849 (p. 42) but mostly is relevant in the past 70 years or so. This book cares more about user-centered research rather than system-centered research. It’s also going to focus on more recent studies (mostly 2000-2015).

Chapter 4 - The Concept of Information

This chapter is pretty philosophical, and in fact the “Organization of the Book” section in chapter 1 literally tells you to skip it if you’re new to the field (p. 17) (I ignored this advice obviously).

There’s a couple of typologies presented:

  • Brenda Dervin’s (p. 59):
    • “Objective, external information” (the real world)
    • “Subjective, internal information” (our conceptual understanding of the world)
    • “Sense-making information” (the mapping between the two)
  • M. K. Buckland’s (also p. 59) - here’s a pdf with further reading:
    • “Information-as-process” - the act of informing / becoming informed
    • “Information-as-knowledge” - the “thing” which is the final state of the first category, that which you know
    • “Information-as-thing” - no relation to the knower or communicator, information held in tangible, physical things

Then there’s this whole thing about Shannon’s model which goes Source -> Transmitter -> Receiver -> Destination. Except he used really confusing terms and I hate it; because “Rex is a mammal” is more surprising to hear than “Rex is a dog,” the “mammal” sentence somehow contains more information? If you pretend that he called his thing “entropy” instead of “information” then it makes more sense.

Some questions about information. Does information require…

  • Utility? (no) Does it need to reduce uncertainty? (certainly not; consider adding a statistical outlier to a sample)
  • Intentionality? Communication?
  • Truth/accuracy?
  • Physicality/observability?
  • Structure or process?

The last one seems kind of weird but some definitions rely on some structure/process of change in order to remove the reliance on uncertainty in their definitions.

Everyone disagrees on the answers to all of these btw. We probably don’t actually need a true definition of this term (remember chapter 1 said skip chapter 4!).

Chapter 5 - Information Needs, Motivations, and Use

We start by talking about needs:

  • A need involves reaching a goal
  • And it’s stronger than wants
  • It carries some sort of positive moral weight - “human needs” or “basic needs” are good things
  • It’s possible to be unaware of your true needs

Robert Taylor provides a typology for seeking answers that’s illustrative of why no one ever asks the right questions, ever. The motivation was “how and why people come to ask questions at library reference desks” (p. 83-84)

  1. A “visceral need” for information that may be unconscious
  2. A “conscious mental description” of what they want to know
  3. A formalized statement of what they want to know, except they have no idea if this statement is answerable or not
  4. At this point they compromise between what they want & what they think is available, and then attempt to get an answer (which may be asking a librarian)

So the first question you ask is always to get from 4 back to 3.

The text also discusses ideas by Nicholas Belkin (you have a “state of knowledge” with an “anomaly” and some uncertaintiy, which you which to correct), Carol Kuhlthau (a staged approach beginning with uncertainty/anxiety but not discussed in detail), and Brenda Dervin (a “gap” leads to sense-making).

Later, there’s also a spectrum between objective motivation (some uncertainty to be resolved) and subjective motivation (unease/anxiety, sense-making).

This chapter runs through a bunch of different definitions (or concepts) and explains them all, with examples from literature.

Decision-making and problem-solving

Decision-making and problem-solving are related, but distinct; decision-making assumes a finite set of distinct alternatives, while problem-solving does not. People are likely to experience information overload when faced with over 10 alternatives and attributes when faced with a decision to make, and will resort to satisficing (page 102).

Unintended or unstructured searching

There’s a lot of related terms:

  • Browsing
  • Scanning
  • Encountering
  • Serendipity - the accidental discovery of information, a special case of browsing
  • Surfing (used in websites/digital documents, to mean the same thing as browsing)

A “view” is a “span of attention regarding what one could see at a single time” (page 107).

Four stages of browsing:

  • Glimpsing
  • Selecting
  • Examining
  • Acquiring

Four modes of “scanning the environment”:

  • Undirected viewing
  • Conditioned viewing
  • Informal searches
  • Formal searches

How do we decide something is relevant?

  • “Aboutness”
  • “Topicality”

We need “document surrogates,” aka metadata - this is something that usability & technical writing talks about a lot!

What is relevant depends on context as well as our expertise. For example, is global warming relevant to the state of the Peruvian economy? (p. 112)

What is the most bird-like bird? An ostrich is less relevant of a bird than a pigeon, if you’re North American.

We need salience to engage in information-seeking behavior.

Information selection

Selective exposure - we seek out information in line with our prior knowledge, beliefs, and opinions (p. 115). Our emotional needs also play a part in information behavior, and research has focused on that more recently.

Information avoidance - there is too much information in libraries (and in infoboxes on wikis!!).

Information poverty is the phenomenon of an entire human group persistently having lower knowledge than another.

When we have information overload, it results in (p. 123):

  • Omission
  • Error
  • Queuing
  • Filtering
  • Approximation
  • Multiple channels
  • Escaping

Most of these are bad!

Information vs entertainment

This is a continuum. We watch the news for entertainment, and we learn from fiction. People will often seek out the most entertaining source rather than the most authoritative.

Chapter 7 - Models of Information Behavior

This chapter runs through a bunch of different models. The ones that seemed to me to be the most important:

  • The Kuhlthau Model - “Information Search Process”
  • The Savolainen Model - “Everyday Life Information Seeking” (aka ELIS) (not to be confused with the Ellis Model)
  • The Foster Model, which is extremely non-linear, and places “Opening,” “Orientation,” and “Consolidation” in the middle of a series of concentric squares

Chapter 8 - Metatheories, Theories, and Paradigms

Once again, we start out with some definitions. We distinguish between objectivist (quantitative) and interpretivist (qualitative) theories, and define the word “theory” itself as an “interrelated set of definitions, axioms, and propositions” (p. 185). In a hierarchy, we place theories between paradigms (also referred to as “perspectives” or “traditions”) and observations.

Information behavior theories can be sourced from several related disciplines, including:

  • Sociology
  • Mass communication
  • Psychology
  • Management & business
  • Consumer research
  • Economics
  • Linguistics

We then go on to discuss some individual theories. The chapter divides them into two parts.

Objectivist paradigms

Zipf’s Principle of Least Effort is a power law stating that we will “adopt a course of action that will involve the expenditure of the probable least average of [our] work - in other words, the least effort” (p. 191). It’s a power law, like the 80-20 rule, that 80% of the use will be gotten from 20% of the material in a library (or website, etc).

The Cost-Benefit Paradigm states that “as people seek information they select information channels based on their expected benefits weighed against likely costs” (p. 193).

Uses and Gratifications talks about people as active consumers of media and has been criticized for a number of reasons, but remains relevant to information seeking (p. 198).

Interpretivist paradigms

This section goes through a large number of theories, the most important one being sense-making.

Chapter 9 - Research Design, Methodology, and Methods

This chapter goes through a large number of topics related to experimental design, including types of design, stages of experimentation, purposes of study, and ethics.

Stages of experimentation (begins page 222):

  1. Conceptualization & research problem identification
  2. Methodological design
  3. Method & procedure design
  4. Analysis, interpreting, & writing
  5. Drawing conclusions

Ethical guidelines (begins page 231):

  • Do not harm participants
  • Do not mislead participants
  • Participation should be informed & voluntary
  • Any collected data should be confidential
  • Additional considerations are arising in the digital age too - what is fair game to use out of public data on the internet?


  • Surveys
    • Questionnaires - print & digital
    • Interviews - brief or intensive (example: a study that followed three Danish brothers on their views of advertising, p. 244) - the tradeoff is sample size
    • Focus groups
    • Diaries
  • Lab-based & field experiments
    • Really cool example - studying how people choose their breakfast cereal, with both real-world & lab-based components, p. 255
  • Textual methods
    • Discourse analysis
    • Historical analysis (accretion - people leave things behind, e.g. “favorites” in your browser; erosion - people take things away, e.g. popular films in video rental stores (these still exist?))
    • Context analysis
  • Visual methods
    • Observation
    • Visual analysis - photo inventories, card-sorting activities
  • Multi-method experiments
  • Meta analyses

Chapter 10 - Research by Roles and Contexts

Split into two sections, this chapter quickly covers a huge number of studies that have been performed on various groups of people; first, it segments the population by occupation, then by non-job-related roles. Like chapters 7 and 8, this one is already mostly a set of brief summaries, and I’ll just highlight a couple specific studies I found interesting.

  • p. 314 - Case and Rogers - the scope of relevance for farmers growing dramatically over time
  • p. 334 - Information needs of the urban poor tend to be significantly more short-term rather than long-term
  • p. 337 - The Sligo and Jameson study of Pacific Island immigrants finding that information needs are influenced by patients’ native language lacking a word for “cervix” - this also shows how hard it is to generalize about minority groups

For anyone reading this section, make sure you take note of the dates of any studies relating to the internet - there were several instances of studies dated around 2001 or so discussing internet usage and/or trust, and anything from that time period is going to be completely irrelevant by now.

Chapter 11 - Reviewing, Critiquing, Concluding

The general conclusion of this chapter seems to be that the field of information behavior is improving in rigor and theory over time. However, it does point out that there is a lack of awareness and applicability of conclusions, which I definitely agree with - I had never even heard of the term “information behavior” prior to a couple weeks ago, and I’ve read a ton of UX/accessibility/technical writing/etc books and articles. This seems like the kind of thing that should be discussed constantly in them!


I went into this book with no idea what to expect, but hoping to get one or two justifications for why infoboxes shouldn’t be used on wiki pages. I left with not just that but also a huge appreciation for and interest in a giant new field that I never knew existed before, and a growing frustration that everyone is messaging about COVID mask, vaccine, and social distancing practices completely incorrectly. I hope to read more in this field, and that it will improve the UX of webpages that I design & build - though even if nothing else is applicable, it will still be interesting to learn about!

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River is a developer most at home in MediaWiki and known for building Leaguepedia. She likes cats.

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