Zones of intervention in the Information Search Process:
Vital roles for librarians

Keynote Address
Library Orientation Exchange (LOEX) Conference
July 9, 2001
Ypsilanti, MI

Abstract: The model of the Information Search Process (ISP) is based on research into the student’s perspective of information seeking. Recent studies reveal important insights into the ISP in the context of education and the workplace that indicate new roles for librarians. Concepts and questions emerging from this work present challenges for designing user education to accommodate students in their quest for meaning from multiple sources of information, as described in the second edition of “Seeking Meaning”.

I am very pleased to be here with you today. It has been 14 years since I last gave a talk at LOEX and there have been many changes in our work over these years. The theme of the conference this year, “Restating the Need, Refocusing the Response,” is extremely timely. It is essential that we reflect on how these changes effect user education and to consider new ways to enable students in their learning within the context of changing library environments. We need to rethink reference and instruction services for the information age.

My research on the student’s perspective of information seeking and use has revealed a constructive process of seeking meaning that in many ways in even more important for us to be aware of now than when I first presented the ISP model some twenty years ago. For the student information seeking is a holistic experience of interacting thoughts, actions and feelings. The latest brain research confirms that emotions drive thoughts and actions. When planning for the timing and type of instruction and intervention to provide we need to consider feelings as an integral part of the student’s research process.

The second edition of my book Seeking Meaning has been published this year. I have completely rethought the ISP model for this edition and made some adjustments and additions in light of my work and thinking since 1993 when the first edition was published. But the fundamental process that student’s experience and need to work through to accomplish a substantial research project does not change very much. Advances in information technology have made many more sources available to students. In fact this overabundance of information has compounded the difficulty of the student’s task of constructing his or her own understanding of a topic under study. The current information environment makes it easier to just lift other peoples work and present it as your own rather than thinking through the various ideas to formulate your own focused point of view and perspective.

The Model of the Information Search Process developed in my studies describes the thoughts, actions and feelings in six stages of the research process (Initiation, Selection, Exploration, Formulation, Collection, Presentation). In this complex process of constructing personal understanding and knowledge from a variety of sources, students’; expectations often do not match their experience. They commonly expect to move directly to the collection and presentation stages once they have selected their general topic for a research project. Their experience, however, is that of the confusing, uncertain and frustrating stage of exploration that precedes formulation and prepares them for the collection and presentation stages. In exploration stage, where they encounter information that in inconsistent and incompatible and does not match their own preconceived constructs, students uncertainty frequently increases rather than gradually decreasing. The student is “in the dip” of confidence in their ability to accomplish the task and commonly find their interest and motivation in the project faltering. The student at this critical point needs intervention and instruction. Students’ feelings of uncertainty are an indication of a zone of intervention for the librarian.

In Seeking Meaning, I propose an uncertainty principle for librarianship that serves to keep the importance of the feelings of students in the forefront of planning and providing for instruction and reference. This principle, drawn from the ISP research, and is stated as follows:

“Uncertainty is a cognitive state which commonly causes affective symptoms of anxiety and lack of confidence. Uncertainty and anxiety can be expected in the early stages of the information search 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 construction initiates the process of information seeking.”

The uncertainty principle is really just another way of stating the Model of the ISP. It emphasizes the importance of being aware of the student’s uncertainty and confusion in the early stages of the ISP in order to provide helpful, useful process oriented instruction and reference service.

When designing these services it is important to keep in mind how the student works through the stages of the ISP to construct an assigned project. In my studies, I found that from the successful student’s perspective information seeking is a sequence of choices. These choices center on four criteria: task, time, interest, and availability of information.

Choices regarding the task are prompted by the question “What am I trying to accomplish?” Recent information science research has found that there is a major difference between information seeking behavior in routine and complex tasks. In familiar tasks where information seeking is relatively routine there is minimal experience of stages in the ISP. However, in more complex tasks which require learning and constructing, the user’s experience as depicted in the model of the stages of the ISP has been found to hold across contexts of education and the workplace.

In my studies of novice and expert information workers, I found that although each experienced the ISP stages in more complex task there was an important difference in their approach and goal for information seeking that have significant implications for user education. For the novice the goal of information seeking was to find the right answer. However for the expert the goal of information seeking was to form an angle or strategy that adds value to the endeavor. User education that guides students toward a more expert view of information seeking prepares student develops information literacy for the work place.

Choices regarding time are prompted by the question of “How much time do I have?” In my studies over the past few years of the ISP in the workplace, I found that time is perceived in different ways in different contexts. The student has a fixed time for an assignment; the securities analyst is constantly under extreme time pressure to produce value added reports, the lawyer has more control over time in developing an extensive case for trial. Time is a major factor in choices in the ISP.

Choices regarding interest are prompted by the question of “What do I find personally interesting?” Interest was found to increase in the later stages of the ISP after a focus was formulated. The focus was described as a point of view, an angle, perspective, strategy, or theme. Increased engagement and ownership indicated that some personal construction and learning had taken place within the ISP.

Choices regarding availability of information are prompted by the question of “What information is available to me?” The abundance of information available to students raises some challenging questions for user education. It is helpful to think about availability in terms of constructing and learning in the ISP. At the beginning of the research process the student can expect to encounter lots of unique or unfamiliar information and at the end more redundant or familiar information. Information at the beginning may be chosen as generally relevant or possibly relevant. After formulation, however, information is chosen for its pertinence to the focused perspective of the student. In addition, the question of “What is enough?” to accomplish the assigned task within the time and interest constraints is asked throughout the ISP.

Librarians working with students are called upon to provide many different types of instruction and reference according to the situation, assignment and context. In Seeking Meaning I describe five levels of service that help us to think about how our work is organized and what we are concentrating most of our time on. The first level is the organizer that provides the organized collection, whether physical or digital, that is the basis of all librarianship. The next three levels (locator/lecturer, identifier/instructor, advisor/tutor) are source oriented and concentrate on searching and locating sources and information. While these are important roles for librarians they do not directly address the stages of the information search process that the student is experiencing. At the fifth level, the counselor adopts a process approach that emphasizes the whole inquiry rather than the single query. The counselor develops students’ more sophisticated information literacy competencies that underlie learning, creating and innovating in the work place and daily life in an information society.

Of course, librarians cannot intervene with all students at the counselor level at all times. This type of intervention would be not only impractical it would be overwhelming and overbearing for students. Here’s where the concept of a Zone of Intervention comes in, adapted from Vygotsky’s concept of a zone of proximal development. In Seeking Meaning, the Zone of Intervention is described as “that area in which an information user can do with advice and assistance what he or she cannot do alone or can do only with difficulty.” Uncertainty in the student’s information search process indicates a critical Zone of Intervention. The librarian assumes a counselors role by diagnosing critical zones of intervention and provide insightful help that enable students to move ahead in their work. At the same time students develop an understanding of their own process of learning from a variety of sources of information that is transferable to other situations of information need. In Seeking Meaning, I describe a variety of process strategies for counseling students in the stages of the ISP. I also report on an implementation study of the process approach that indicates some inhibitors and enablers in establishing process oriented user education and reference services.

We are at a critical point of transition in librarianship that calls for rethinking user education and reference services for the information age. The challenge before us is to develop services and systems that support student inquiry by taking into account the holistic experience of the information search process. User education programs need to center on developing student expertise in locating and using information for learning, creating and innovating that goes well beyond the walls of the academy.


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