Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Information Seeking in Theory and Practice

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Information Seeking in Theory and Practice

Article excerpt

Rethinking Public Services in Libraries

The philosophical and practical work of M. M. Bakhtin provides an important aid to theoretical grounding with regard to information seeking. In particular, his ideas of dialogic communication suggest a way to engage in the act of information seeking and the accompanying mediation. His work is especially important because of its phenomenological basis, which emphasizes the intentionality of communication, the connection of practice to being, and the relationship between self and other. Bakhtin's thought offers a framework for the rethinking of public services in libraries.

Librarianship is still searching for fruitful conceptual foundations that can help inform both inquiry and practice. Since the information-seeking phenomenon and services integral to meeting the needs of information seekers are of essential concern to us in libraries, it is imperative that we explore potential conceptual frameworks that can lead to better understanding of the process and product of information seeking. The necessity to devote our energy to a conceptual framework of information seeking is rooted in the complexity of information seeking itself. A first task is to define the phenomenon, and we are not served by a simplistic or mechanistic definition. For the purposes of this paper, information seeking is defined as the action of individuals who consciously search for, or ask about, content that may be relevant to the individuals' needs (recognizing that relevance is dynamic, not static). This definition includes the interactive events that involve stated queries and professional mediation between the seeker and the record, such as reference transactions in libraries, and individuals' queries of technical systems, including libraries' catalogs and electronic databases. In both cases individuals initiate the event by structuring a question. The emphasis in this paper will be on the former events, and will not address technical queries in detail. Ultimately, a useful conceptual framework can be developed to create a new vision for effective public services in libraries.

Previous Work

Of course it would be impossible and impractical to review all prior work on information seeking here. Discussion of some work on the matter, though, will help provide a context for the examination that will follow. The writings of Nicholas Belkin cannot be ignored. His articulation of the cognitive viewpoint offers an ostensible replacement of an object-centered approach to information seeking with a user-centered one. There are some difficulties with the application of his program, however. While he does advocate a user-centered orientation, his position implies that each individual is in a definable state regarding knowledge, and that the existing state can be altered by some action by information specialists or system designers. He writes that it is reasonable to expect an information seeker to describe "goals, problems, and knowledge, and that such a description can be represented and used in comparison with similar document representations for retrieval purposes.[1] A difficulty with this stance is the assumption that knowledge can be translated into specific, discrete information needs from which representations (usually in the form of terms or descriptors that can form a query) can be generated and matched with other representations derived from the retrievable documents. The stance is not sufficient to include the complexity of query formation, representation, and relevance assessment--complexity that involves shifts and changes as a stated information seeker evaluates the content of searches and retrieved information.

Peter Ingwersen is also an adherent of a cognitive viewpoint. While his work has some similarities to Belkin's (and others), Ingwersen more explicitly recognizes the necessary element of perception of a potentially informing set of data and the transformative nature of information (the difference that information makes in the knowledge structure of a seeker). …

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