Information Search Process

(to be published in 2005 in Theories of Information Behavior, edited by Karen Fisher, Sanda Erdelez and Lynn McKechnie)

The objective of library and information services and systems is to provide access to sources, information and ideas. Enhanced access encompasses intellectual as well as physical access. Physical access addresses the location of sources and information. Intellectual access addresses interpretation of information and ideas within sources. The Information Search Process addresses intellectual access to information and ideas and the process of seeking meaning.

The development of the Information Search Process as a conceptual framework is the result of two decades of empirical research that began with a qualitative study of secondary school students and the development of the initial model in 1983, that was verified and refined through quantitative and longitudinal methods of diverse library users in 1989 and further developed in case studies continuing on to 2001 (Kuhlthau, 2004). Longitudinal methods were applied extensively collecting data at three points during the process of information seeking with interview techniques to elicit personal accounts. All participants were real people with real tasks requiring extensive information seeking in libraries and information systems.

Based on George Kelly’s personal construct theory, the Information Search Process depicts information seeking as a process of construction. The model describes common patterns in users’ experience in the process of information seeking for a complex task that has a discrete beginning and ending and requires construction and learning to be accomplished. Thoughts, feelings and actions are described in six stages.

  • Initiation, when a person becomes aware of a lack of knowledge or understanding making uncertainty and apprehension common
  • Selection, when a general area, topic or problem is identified and initial uncertainty often gives way to a brief sense of optimism and a readiness to begin the search.
  • Exploration, when inconsistent, incompatible information is encountered and uncertainty, confusion, and doubt frequently increase
  • Formulation, when a focused perspective is formed and uncertainty diminishes as confidence begins to increase
  • Collection, when information pertinent to the focused perspective is gathered and uncertainty subsides as interest and involvement in the project deepens
  • Presentation, when the search is completed, with a new understanding enabling the person to explain his or her learning to others, or in someway put the learning to use.

People experience the Information Search Process holistically, with an interplay of thoughts, feelings and actions. These studies were among the first to investigate the affective aspects or the feelings of a person in the process of information seeking along with the cognitive and physical aspects. One of the most surprising findings was the discovery of a sharp increase in uncertainty and decrease in confidence after a search had been initiated that was evident in the exploration stage. However, this experience is one of the most recognizable when people are presented with the model. Information seeking is a process of seeking meaning not just finding and reproducing information. This process of construction involves exploration and formulation and rarely proceeds directly from selection to collection. The holistic experience influences the decisions and choices a person makes throughout the process of information seeking.

Within this task model the process of information seeking from the user’s perspective may be thought of as a sequence of choices based on four criteria: task, time, interest and availability. The person in the midst of seeking information is concerned with the task to be accomplished, the time allotted, personal interest, and information available. These criteria offer an alternative way of understanding relevance judgments in the context of a sequence of choices within the stages of the Information Search Process. People in the course of information seeking were found to base choices on these questions: Task: What am I trying to accomplish? Time: How much time do I have? Interest: What do I find personally interesting? Information available: What information is available to me? One or more of these may predominate at any given time.

Since an important element in theory building is to state findings and patterns revealed through extensive research as a conceptual premise, the conceptual premise proposed from the model of the Information Search Process is stated as an “uncertainty principle” for library and information services and systems. This uncertainty principle states that uncertainty is a cognitive state that commonly causes affective symptoms of anxiety and lack of confidence. Uncertainty and anxiety can be expected in the early stages of the process. The affective symptoms of uncertainty, confusion, and frustration are associated with vague, unclear thoughts about a topic or question. As knowledge states shift to more clearly focused thoughts, a parallel shift occurs in feelings of increased confidence. Uncertainty due to a lack of understanding, a gap in meaning or a limited construct initiates the process of information seeking. The uncertainty principle is expanded by six corollaries, each of which offers an explanation of a particular component of the Information Search Process: process, formulation, redundancy, mood, prediction, and interest.

The axiom that information reduces uncertainty is not necessarily the person’s experience in information seeking. In certain situations information actually increases uncertainty. This research reveals that prior to formulation people are likely to experience heightened uncertainty in the face of unique, incompatible, inconsistent information that requires construction and interpretation to be personally understood. It seems helpful for people to expect uncertainty to increase during the exploration stage of the process rather than thinking that increased uncertainty is a symptom that something has gone wrong. The expectation that information reduces uncertainty initially may be at odds with the person’s experience in actual situations of information seeking. These findings indicate the need for considering uncertainty as a natural, essential characteristic of information seeking as a sign of the beginning of learning and creativity. Uncertainty is a concept that offers insight into the user’s quest for meaning within the Information Search Process.

How can library and information services and systems be responsive to the stages of the Information Search Process? The concept of a zone of intervention drawn from Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development has been introduced for diagnosing user’s need for assistance and support. The zone of intervention is that area in which a user can do with guidance and assistance what he or she cannot do alone or can do only with difficulty. Intervention in this zone enables the person to move along in the information search process. Intervention outside of this zone is intrusive on the one hand and overwhelming on the other. Intervention on both sides of the zone of intervention is inefficient and unnecessary.

Taken together the stages of the Information Search Process, uncertainty principle and concept of a zone of intervention proposes a conceptual framework for understanding information seeking as a process of construction from the user’s perspective (Kuhlthau, 2004). The conceptual framework is based on the experience and behavior of people involved in extensive research projects that need to be accomplished in a prescribed period of time. People using libraries and information systems to accomplish complex tasks that require them to gain new understandings commonly experience increased uncertainty and decreased confidence in the early phases of information seeking. Increased uncertainty in the Information Search Process indicates a zone of intervention for librarians, information professionals and information system designers. The conceptual framework of the Information Search Process also challenges researchers to look beyond the query to the inquiry to discover ways to enhance intellectual access that leads to learning, creativity and innovation.


Kuhlthau, Carol Collier Seeking Meaning: A Process Approach to Library and Information Services, 2 nd ed. Libraries Unlimited, 2004.