Meeting the Challenge of Intellectual Access: Vital Roles for Librarians

Margaret Mann Lecture in recognition of Professor Joan Durrance’s appointment as the Margaret Mann Collegiate Professor of Information School of Information
University of Michigan Ann Arbor, MI

Libraries provide access to a wide range of sources, information, and ideas. This access encompasses both physical access and intellectual access. Physical access provides sources and materials. Intellectual access addresses interpretation of information and ideas within sources for the process of seeking meaning. The research I have done over the past two decades offers insight into intellectual access and the librarian’s role in providing it. What is the librarian’s role in providing intellectual access to information and ideas? Clearly librarians have met the challenge of providing physical access to sources. But do we have a role in going further than this? In light of my extensive work on the user’s perspective of information seeking, I am convinced that to stop at physical access to sources does not begin to solve users’ critical need for information in the more complex tasks they are striving to accomplish.

My research into the user’s perspective of the Information Search Process reveals a need for assistance in intellectual access as well as physical access and gives an indication of the kind of assistance that might prove helpful. Three important concepts emerging from this research help us to understand intellectual access: The first is process. From the user’s perspective the more important information seeking tasks require formulation and learning and are not accomplished in one search at one time. They are accomplished over time in a process of constructing new knowledge from a sequence of searches, sources and the ideas that are encountered along the way. The concept of an ongoing inquiry rather than one query is important for addressing intellectual access. The second concept of importance is uncertainty. Peoples’ feelings of uncertainty particularly in the early stages of a search affect their approach to searching and sources they choose. The third concept is intervention. Intervention is not necessary or even helpful all of the time. There are particular points or zones in the search process where intervention is most useful and these zones can be identified.

The development of the Information Search Process model began with a qualitative study of secondary school students and the development of the initial ISP model in 1983. The model was verified and refined through quantitative and longitudinal studies of diverse library users in 1989, and further developed in case studies continuing on to 2001, and in inquiry projects from 2002 to the present. All participants were real people with real tasks requiring extensive information seeking in libraries and information systems.

The Information Search Process reveals 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 considerable construction and learning to be accomplished. Thoughts, feelings and actions commonly experienced by users are important and can be 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 and people find themselves “in the dip” of confidence.
  • 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 interplay of thoughts, feelings and actions. These studies were among the first to investigate the affective aspects or feelings 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.

In my first study of secondary school students I found that forming a focus in the process of information seeking was the main task rather than merely gathering sources and information related to a topic. Students who did not form a focused perspective had great difficulty writing and presenting their work. Here is how one student described the dilemma.

“I had a general idea not a specific focus, but an idea. As I was writing, I didn’t know what my focus was. My teacher says she doesn’t know what my focus was. I don’t think I ever acquired a focus. It was an impossible paper to write. I would just sit there and say, ‘I’m stuck.’ If I learned anything from that paper it is, you have to have a focus. You have to have something to center on. You can’t just have a topic. You should have an idea when you start. I had a topic but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it. I figured that when I did my research it would focus in. But I didn’t let it. I kept saying, ‘this is interesting and this is interesting and I’ll just smush it altogether.’ It didn’t work out.”

Other students talked about forming a point of view and gaining a personal perspective of the topic. One person sought “ a story out of the whole thing” and another “ a thread for tying the parts together.” From this study I drew the concept of formulation within the constructive process of information seeking. Later in studies of information seeking in the workplace, I found evidence to support the importance of formulation. The securities analyst talked about finding an angle to present to his clients and the lawyers sought a strategy for presenting a case. The securities analyst explained the main problem many novice analysts had was in gathering and gathering information but not being able to write the report or as he said “get the product out.” Over and over in these studies people revealed the constructive process of forming a focus and the importance of intellectual access within the process of information seeking.

Physical access does not address the stages of searching for formulation in the process of information seeking. One lawyer explained that it was difficult to initiate a complex task using a current system. “There is something I would miss if I did it the way the system would have you research, which is to plug in the phrase and have it pop up every case that says “George”. Well, I can tell you I have looked for “George” a lot of times and I have found “Kevin” and that is the key.” Here is another description of searching that leads to formulation, “I start looking for A, and while looking for A, I find B. Then A isn’t the issue I am looking for, now it is B. I have found something that really starts to formulate the issue…”

Merely throwing all relevant sources at a person in the early searching stages prior to formulation is not the best way to serve a person in the constructive process of seeking meaning. This is where physical access falls short. How can we go beyond the query to respond to the inquiry and provide the intellectual access that leads to formulation.

Joan Durrance’s research on willingness to return gives some insight into providing intellectual access at the reverence desk. This research of reference services found that the person’s willingness to return to a staff member another time was an indicator of success from the users point of view rather than the more traditional indicator of accuracy being a true measure of reference success, Willingness to return studies show that users are likely to return to librarians who are effective communicators, who use open questions, who appear available, who were observed working with others, who were identified by name. Most successful interaction from the perspective of the user were those where librarian showed a great deal of interest in the question, possessed very good listening skills, used open questions effectively, and determined the need behind the initial question. When a person returns the librarian has an opportunity for engagement in intellectual access within the stages of the ISP.

I am often asked if I think that people always experience the stages of the ISP in every information-seeking task. Clearly they do not. The research into peoples’ information goal helps us to understand different approaches to information seeking by individuals with the same or similar tasks. Louise Limberg has studied the influence of differing information goals. She found that within the same assignment the students’ goals of fact finding, getting a right answer or analyzing and synthesizing resulted in different outcomes. Ross Todd came up with similar findings.

In my studies of the novice verses the expert approaches to work tasks, I found the expert had quite different goals in information seeking than the novice. The novice was looking for the right answer. The expert was seeking to add value to the client’s knowledge. Here is how this expert explains the change in his information goal. “The task has changed from when I first started. It is not to buy or sell but to add value. The best way I can help my more sophisticated clients is by adding value to their knowledge base…The young analyst who is not confident in his industry worries about getting the story right. Now my attention is on adding value.” These information goals resulted in very different outcomes within the same assignment. Understanding the person’s goal enables the librarian to tailor services to a range of information goals. It is not, of course, the librarian’s role to change the user’s goal. However to address all queries as fact finding or seeking a simple answer falls short of providing intellectual access for the more complex goal of adding value or creating a strategy.

Another important factor in a person’s experience of the information search process is the complexity of the task they are seeking to accomplish with the information. In recent studies I found that workers could easily distinguish between different types of information seeking in tasks that were unfamiliar and complex and those that were routine and simple. They described simple straightforward information seeking in routine work tasks and a process of construction and formulation in those tasks identified by them as complex. One person explained that complex tasks involve a dynamic change in thinking referring to these tasks as “the really good ones that you lose sleep over.” These projects were found to take an extended period of time. A participant explained, “Those are the ones that are really time consuming because you are changing your entire thinking on an industry.” And went on to explain the uncertainty in connection with complex tasks in this way, “you feel anxiety because you are changing you whole view of the world.” He described being “out of my element” and treading into new territory.” This sense of uncertainty in more complex tasks indicates a need for intellectual access to sources and ideas in the ISP.

From the studies of the Information Search Process a conceptual premise was proposed as an uncertainty principle for library and information services. 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 feeling 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 axiom that information reduces uncertainty is not necessarily the person’s experience in information seeking. In some 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 what the person is experiencing 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 provides insight into the person’s quest for meaning in the process of information seeking that forms the basis of services that address intellectual as well as physical access.

The research findings have had important implications for librarians meeting the challenge of intellectual access. In many cases librarians have come to acknowledge the process of information seeking and use, and the term “process” is more common in library vocabulary. Library services that formerly concentrated solely on the physical attributes of information seeking, such as locating and circulating materials, are attending to the more cognitive and affective attributes of using information for solving problems, for learning, and for seeking meaning. For example reference librarians who have become aware of stages in the information search process describe important changes in the way they view people who approach the reference desk. They now listen for an indication of the stage in the process of the user and particularly note when someone is “in the dip” and needs some extra help formulating a research focus. They are especially careful not to give too much too soon and to assist in pacing the use of sources.

Librarians planning instructional sessions describe being more cautious about offering one-shot sessions where students are expected to learn everything at once. Instead they are accommodating the student’s constructive process by giving a series of instructional sessions spread over a period of time aimed at different tasks in the stages of the process. Once aware of the process, teachers also change the way they design assignments to give more time for exploring and formulating. They are acknowledging the learning process in information seeking and finding new ways to assess and evaluate the creative construction of students. The impact of the ISP model on library services may be judged by “a sense of rightness” by those most closely involved in the process. Librarians and library users alike have acknowledged the authenticity of the model. The model serves as an articulation of the stages of the process of information seeking that forms a basis of providing intellectual access.

This research reveals that users are concerned with much more than merely finding sources relevant to their topic. From the user’s perspective the process of information seeking 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 a way of understanding the user’s perspective of the choices they make 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 readily available to me? One or more of these may predominate at any given time. By incorporating these criteria in their services librarians can enhance intellectual access. The librarian assumes a process approach that is sensitive to the user’s situation.

How can librarians respond to the call for intellectual access in the stages of the Information Search Process? Librarians certainly cannot intervene with each person in every instance of information seeking. The concept of a zone of intervention drawn from Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development has been introduced for diagnosing user’s particular 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 great 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.

By concentrating on theses zones, librarians can provide effective and efficient library and information services tailored to users’ constructive process. I found that the participants in my studies wanted help in their information seeking but not necessarily the kind of help that they thought was available. The securities analyst explained that a serious problem for many people in his line of work was collecting masses of information but not formulating a focused perspective to present in a report to clients. The student explained that without a focus the paper was impossible to write. The lawyer dreamed of a “just for me” service that would enable constructing a complex strategy for trial. These calls for intellectual access indicate vital roles for librarians.

In the past two years I have turned my attention to understanding more about student learning in school libraries. Professor Ross Todd and I have established a research center at Rutgers, called CISSL, the Center for International Scholarship in School Libraries. In an earlier evaluation study of the Library Power initiative to improve libraries and library programs in 40 schools in states across the US, I found strong evidence that a team teaching approach to inquiry was a key component to fostering student learning in school libraries. Over three years that the librarians were studied they had changed their view of their role in student learning. When asked to describe an incident of student learning in their libraries, the largest percentage of the school librarians responded the first year that the students showed interest and enthusiasm, the second year that they had improved their information skills and use of technology. However the third year the largest percentage emphasized content learning within curriculum areas. Librarians were concerned with intellectual access to ideas within sources as well as physical access of locating sources. This has led us to concentrate our research efforts on the gathering clear tangible evidence of impact of school libraries on student learning from the student’s perspective. We have two distinct approaches to studying this impact, a macro or large-scale approach for studying a large population of students at a state or large district level and a micro or small-scale approach for studying individual students within a school. The combination of macro and micro study of student learning in school libraries is providing comprehensive evidence of the benefits of an inquiry approach to educating students in the information age school. Check website:

This has led me to my latest project, developing a program of Guided Inquiry. We need to prepare the next generation of information users in innovative educational programs that enable students to experience and internalize their own process of constructing from a variety of sources of information. I am working on a program for librarians and teachers of elementary and secondary school students called Guided Inquiry. Guided Inquiry immerses students in information seeking as a way of learning within the content areas of the curriculum and prepares them for the active engagement with information required in all aspects of living and working in the information society. Guided Inquiry lays a foundation for lifelong learning. Through Guided Inquiry students gain the ability to use the tools and the resources for learning in the information age.

The Information Search Process is based on the experience and behavior of people involved in extensive information seeking for complex 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. We can meet the challenge of serving these people by looking beyond the query to the inquiry to discover ways to enhance intellectual access that leads to learning, creativity and innovation. There is much more to learn about providing intellectual access. In my book Seeking Meaning I have explained these ideas more thoroughly. Professor Durrance’s work opens up new ways to approach reference services with application in the development of community information systems. I am very pleased to be here today to honor her work and celebrate her distinguished appointment to the Margaret Mann Collegiate Professor of Information at the University of Michigan School of Information.