Academic journal article School Libraries Worldwide

The Paradoxical World of Young People's Information Behavior

Academic journal article School Libraries Worldwide

The Paradoxical World of Young People's Information Behavior

Article excerpt

Although thousands of articles about information behavior have been published in recent years, little attention has been given to the paradoxes that emerge in terms of either the features of such behavior or the investigation of it through research. This article draws on a wide range of studies, many conducted by the author, to explore 10 particular paradoxes that are apparent in the information behavior of children and young people. Several indicate discrepancies between theory and practice, whereas others show that when some priorities are addressed, other areas of concern may suffer.


Information behavior (IB) is complex. It takes place in a multiplicity of environments as individuals employ varying strategies with a diversity of materials, resources, and organizations to meet a range of needs associated with the various roles, issues, demands, and personal interests arising in their lives. All the research that has been undertaken and theories that have been derived in attempts to understand the intricacies of IB have drawn on such disparate disciplines as anthropology, communication, health, management, politics, psychology, and sociology (Shenton, in press a). The number of articles, as well as the variety of material to which they refer, is considerable. An estimate by Case (2006) indicates that in the period between January 2001 and December 2004 alone, over 2,000 sources of potential relevance to IB came into existence, and hundreds of new items relating to it are appearing each year. Despite the complexity of the area and the volume of research about to IB, little attempt has been made to explore the paradoxes that are apparent with regard to both IB itself and the study of it. In this article, I seek to highlight these anomalies in terms of young people's IB and incorporate insights from a range of research projects conducted in the last 35 years. I give particular weight to my own investigations. Although somewhat different in focus in that the paradoxes presented here tend to counterpoint two key features of the modern "information world," the article was inspired by the work of Dervin (1976), which identifies a series of questionable assumptions that have hindered research into IB.

The Paradoxes

Connecting Users with Information

The first two paradoxes concern access to information. Few would dispute the pertinence of one of Urquhart's (1981) foremost principles of librarianship, namely, that libraries are for users, and indeed these organizations put in place many systems and procedures to ensure that as far as possible, information materials are readily available to users seeking to satisfy their needs and wants. The classification system, for example, arranges artifacts in logical categories, and the catalogue provides entry points by which endusers, after forming statements of their needs, can trace items in the collection that are relevant to their purposes. The spatial arrangement is designed to sequence the stock so as to enable searchers to find on the shelves the material they require. Fines are imposed in order to increase the likelihood that volumes that are legitimately borrowed are returned on time and can then be made available to others.

Yet much empirical research with young people reveals that far from facilitating information access, these measures often form barriers and act as deterrents to use. In terms of classification, a research project carried out in northeast England found that several teenage participants considered the Dewey Decimal Classification Scheme employed in their school library unhelpful and confusing (Shenton, 2007b). One youngster wrote of her preference for "different categories"; another did not find the groupings systematic; and a third called for "better organisation of books" (p. 40). The mismatch between the keywords employed in library catalogues and the language that young people themselves use to represent their information needs has long been a matter of concern. …

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