Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

The False Focus in Online Searching

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

The False Focus in Online Searching

Article excerpt

The Particular Case of Undergraduates Seeking Information for Course Assignments in the Humanities and Social Sciences

To avoid information overload, undergraduates seeking information for course assignments in the humanities and social sciences might skip the necessary stages of topic definition and elaboration, as Kuhlthau describes in her six-stage Information Search Process (ISP). This tendency can be reinforced by information professionals who seek to facilitate the users' searching of electronic databases with the suggestion that they limit their search so that the end result will be "manageable." This strategy can lead to a "false focus": a focus that is induced so that it comes too soon and is ultimately incompatible with the information need and interests of the user. We will examine the characteristics of false focus, and present a strategy that allows the reference librarian to identify the undergraduate's information need and automatically attach the most appropriate electronic database search strategy for the satisfaction of that need. Thus, the construction of a search strategy becomes wholly dependent on the user's information need, not the constraints posed by the accessing technology and the idea that the eventual output should be limited to thirty items or less.

In an academic library, the undergraduate's purpose for approaching the reference desk is generally to ask for assistance in finding the information necessary to complete his or her assignment or research paper. The student's purpose can be labeled as an "information need." In two related articles on the subject, we divided the models of information need currently in use into two camps: (1) where the need for information is considered an absolute category; and (2) where the information need is considered a secondary category need, dependent on the more fundamental affective, psychological, and physical needs associated with the problem situation or task that brought the patron to the library seeking information.(1)

The two approaches to information need above prescribe two very different approaches to how an information professional should react to the undergraduate's request for help in finding information for a course assignment. The first view suggests the student has the same information need from start to finish, and that the information professional's role is to uncover it and direct the student to information that will fulfill the need. The undergraduate's lack of focus in asking for the information can be attributed to this uncovering not being done, or not being done properly. The second view, on the other hand, looks at vague, unfocused information-seeking behavior quite differently. According to this view, the undergraduate's information need is constantly evolving, so that each stage of the student's researching the term paper is in effect a separate information need.(2) In the early stages of performing this task, the information need requires that the undergraduate engage in explorative, undefined, or unfocused information-seeking behavior.

For reasons described briefly below and more fully in the above-cited articles, we believe that the second position more accurately reflects the situation of undergraduates. In this article, we argue that any attempt to override the state of focus, or to push the student to a higher degree of focus merely to facilitate online searching, can be detrimental. The result for the information seeker can be what we have called a "false focus." Since the patron has not mentally prepared the groundwork for achieving real focus by first seeking topic definition, a false focus can lead to shallow reasoning and errors in the assignment. The use of online resources can be an area particularly vulnerable to false focus, because the patron is pushed to a narrow search strategy too soon in the search process in order to conform to an image both the user and the technology have of what an ideal search output should look like. …

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