San José State University MLIS E-Portfolio

Erica Krimmel, May 2014

Core Competency J: Information Seeking

“Describe the fundamental concepts of information seeking behaviors.”

Kuhlthau’s “information search process,” Bates’s “berrypicking” model, and Dervin’s concept of “sense-making” are three pillars of information seeking behavior theory. Each strives to explain how and why people search for information, and methods that Library and Information Science (LIS) professionals can use to assist their searches. This is a defining role for the LIS field, and the ability to effectively connect people to appropriate, accurate, and relevant information (as discussed in Competency I) depends on a thorough understanding of information seeking behavior.

In 1989, Marcia Bates shook up the existing theory of information seeking behavior and ushered in a new era of search patterns for more easily accessible and more diversely formatted information. The classic model of information seeking behavior stated that an information need was transcribed into a query, which would match a document representation, which would lead to the document itself (Bates, 1989). Although this was a helpful model for the early development of the LIS field, Bates argued that it failed to model true user behavior with the advent of computer-aided searching.

Bate’s “berrypicking” model states that the nature of the query evolves with the user’s search process, which itself does not follow a linear pattern. For example, a user interested in climate change might begin with a broad search, and then modify her next query depending on the results of this initial search. The user may continue narrowing her information need, or she may be intrigued by search results that invite her to explore tangents to the original query. This nonlinear nature of search behavior is what Bates refers to as “berrypicking.”

Dervin’s concept of “sense-making” offers theoretical support for Bates’s berrypicking model of information seeking behavior. Sense-making is a process that users go through to fulfill an information need: they begin in a situation/context, see a knowledge gap, and desire to bridge this knowledge gap with certain outcomes. In a 1998 paper, fifteen years after her original introduction of sense-making to the LIS community, Dervin argues that as users go through the sense-making process, they are actively engaged in making information search decisions. Therefore, LIS professionals must frame information seeking behavior as an active, verb-based process that emphasizes “diversity, complexity and sense-making potentials,” (Dervin, 1998). Continuing with the same example as above, the user should no longer be seen as an individual with a single query: “climate change.” Rather, in order to assist this user, a LIS professional must determine the context of the user’s existing knowledge on climate change, what aspects of this broad topic the user is interested in, and how she intends to use the information she finds.

Both Dervin and Bates describe abstract concepts for information seeking behavior; Kuhlthau (2004) offers LIS professionals a more practical approach in her “information search process,” which is based on these same theories. Kuhlthau’s information search process defines six stages: initiation, selection, exploration, formulation, collection, and presentation. During each stages, users experience different emotions, thoughts, and actions. By understanding the user experience, LIS professionals can better assist the information search process.

All information seeking, Kuhlthau claims, begins with uncertainty (2004). Her “uncertainty principle” holds that users will feel confused and frustrated as they initiate their search process and realize their goals are unclear. Through selection, users may experience brief optimism, but this is likely to fall back into frustration as they explore further resources. During formulation, however, users begin to clarify their information need and develop a sense of direction. The users’ interest continues to increase as collection and presentation focus the information search process and finally result in a satisfying bridge of their knowledge gap.

The best time for LIS professionals to begin interacting with a user’s information search process is during the exploration phase, according to Kuhlthau (2004). This interaction may take several different forms–collaborating, continuing, choosing, charting, conversing, or composing–depending on the specific task, available time, user’s interest level, and LIS professional’s availability.


Understanding and being able to effectively interact with users’ information seeking behavior leads to improved service. In the evidence below, I demonstrate experience both analyzing my own information seeking behavior, and preparing to assist the information search process of others. Without such experience, as well as the theoretical background outline above, I would find it difficult to relate to and guide the information seeking behavior of my future users.

EVIDENCE 1. In LIBR 210 – Reference Service, we were assigned a bibliographic resources search, and asked to record our own information seeking behaviors and strategies as we completed it. Doing so helped me think critically about information seeking from a user perspective, especially noticing barriers to entry and dead ends. The assignment required us to use WorldCat, the King Library online catalog, and Ulrich’s Periodicals Dictionary; becoming familiar with these search tools allowed me to see which of them I may or may not recommend to patrons. For instance, WorldCat has a very user-friendly browse interface, and would be an excellent tool for a patron still in the exploration phase of their search process.

EVIDENCE 2. Understanding users’ information seeking behavior is also an important factor in interaction design, as I learned in LIBR 251 – Web Usability. In this course, we covered a multitude of design principles that can assist users navigate and find information in online interfaces. The evidence I present here is three discussion posts where I apply a few of these principles to specific website examples.

The first post, “Fat Menus,” observes that users of the San Jose Public Library website cannot find the links they need because the navigation is hierarchically hidden. I sketched a prototype design centered around fat menus to facilitate browsing and make information more accessible to users. My second post, “Instant Gratification and D2L,” provides an example of how many library websites provide online users with a clear, short path to accomplish simple tasks. Meanwhile, the SJSU D2L site inhibits instant gratification by “forgetting” user settings, thus making it more difficult for students to see course assignments and other necessary information. Finally, my third post, “Re: Hick’s Law,” is a response to another classmate’s example of this principle. Hick’s Law states that user decision time is affected by the number of possible choices they have, but that subdividing choices into themed groups does not decrease the decision time. This principle is controversial, but in my discussion post I present an example of a website where I think incorporating Hick’s Law would be appropriate because it would allow users to find the information they need more quickly.

EVIDENCE 3. As Dervin states, understanding the situation/context of your patrons is critical to facilitating sense-making and their information search process. In this paper, written for LIBR 210 – Reference Services, I evaluated the amateur naturalist user community to determine who they are and how LIS professionals can best provide reference services to them. Based on my research, I decided that amateur naturalists have distinct information seeking behaviors because they lack experience and domain knowledge, but are very curious. Often, this user community relies less on traditional resources and more on digital, live data sources, in addition to visual and audio guides.

To serve the amateur naturalist user community, LIS professionals with domain knowledge can help clarify patrons’ information needs and direct them to appropriately relevant information sources. Berrypicking may be a particularly useful concept to keep in mind, as the amount of relevant information to most naturalist topics is immense, and must be refined based on the patron’s individual interest and skill level.


Thanks to coursework at SLIS, I am confident in my ability to understand and interact with information seeking behavior, as I am versed in the theories of berrypicking and sense-making, and familiar with the information search process. Not only have I observed this behavior in others, but I have worked through it myself. Information seeking is an activity that I expect to do frequently for the rest of my life, and I appreciate being prepared to assist others in this process as well.


Bates, M. (1989). The design of browsing and berrypicking techniques for the online search interface. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA Graduate School of Library and Information Science.

Dervin, B. (1998). Sense-making theory and practice: An overview of user interests in knowledge seeking and use. Journal of Knowledge Management, 2(2): 36-46.

Kuhlthau, C.C. (2004). Seeking Meaning: A Process Approach to Library and Information Services. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Park, T. (1994). Toward a theory of user-based relevance: A call for a new paradigm of inquiry. Journal of the Am. Soc. for Info. Science and Technology, 45(3):135-141.