“Taking a Drink from a Fire Hydrant”: How Do We Find Information? (Part 2 of 4)

Brenda Dervin-018

It is helpful first to view the information that was present in every part of my experience as existing in the three typologies that are posited by Brenda Dervin in her “sense making” school of thought. While other typologies do exist, I believe the Dervin definitions fit my particular experience best because the categories are not defined by the type of physical information being utilized, but rather relies on broader definitions which allow for “formal information systems (e.g., books)” and “informal sources (e.g., friends, relatives, or coworkers)” to be seen as equally valid avenues for information gathering (Case 43).

Dervin lists three types of information. The first is “Objective, external information, [which] is that which describes reality (but never completely so)” (Case 43). Into this category can be placed all the information I sought about the types of programs available, their deadlines and admission information, and also the information I sought about the UW ISchool requirements prior to my rejection. This information must be taken for reality by the mind in order to be useful, but the searcher should be aware that it can never encapsulate the true “wholeness” of the topic it describes. I learned this very well when, despite utilizing all the information I gained about the ISchool, I was still unsuccessful.

INFORMATION [ Tokyo International Forum ]

I attempted to close the gap between the pieces of objective, external information I received with the second type of information, “Subjective, internal information, [which] represents our picture or cognitive map of reality, the structures we impute onto reality” (Case 43). This category represents the information I gained from myself, the answers to questions about my own goals and intentions, which I also supplemented with subjective internal information from others about their experiences and perceptions.

The third category of information is the most fluid, containing information from both of the previous categories. “Sense-making information reflects the procedures and behaviors that allow us to ‘move’ between external and internal information to understand the world, and usually to act on that understanding as well” (Case 43). While both the information I gained from various program websites and information I gained from my mother about online programs could go into this category of sense making, the information contained within the ALA website is probably the best example of this type. Through it, I was given the tools necessary to reconcile my internal data about having the skills necessary to complete an MLIS and the external information about programs and requirements that allowed me to ultimately succeed in fulfilling my information need.

Puzzle pieces

Dervin’s theory of “sense making” carries far beyond a general definition of information. She uses it to define information needs and information seeking and behavior. There are opposing views, however, that also helped me understand how and why I searched for information in the way that I did. Atkin’s theorizes that an information need can be understood as the moment when “humans sense differences between what they know and what they want to know as regards a salient ‘thing’ in their mental universe. Thus, they constantly compare current levels of knowledge against goal states that they wish to reach…” (Case 73). While on the face of it, Atkin’s operational definition of information needs seems similar to Dervin’s, it lacks the deeper emotional motivation that I feel was key to most of my information searches. While it is true that I compared my level of knowledge about MLIS programs against my goal of getting into one and found myself grossly lacking in the required material, for me the realization was not so scientifically dispassionate. Rather for me, as for Dervin, “Many…searches for information are prompted by a vague feeling of unease, a sense of having a gap in knowledge, or simply by anxiety about a current situation” (Case 77).

An information need is not necessarily fully formed at the start, but is often a vague, but urgent desire for a solution to a perceived problem or threat. It does not necessarily entail knowing how to get there. People who feel an information need are often not just in search of ‘information’, a fairly abstract concept, but “They are engaged in a search for meaning”, in search of a complete solution (Case 75); just as I felt a vague urge to go to library school, but was relatively ‘out at sea’ about what exactly to look for. I knew that my desire to get an MLIS was on one side of a chasm and the actual information I was looking for was on another, but it was my attempt to bridge that gap lead me into information seeking.

Rope Bridge

The term information seeking is not very well-defined in many information research texts. “The few authors who state an explicit definition of information seeking typically describe a process of either discovering patterns or filling in gaps in patterns previously recognized” (Case 80). This fits in neatly with continuing Brenda Dervin’s idea of sense making driven searching. “[Her] definition of sense-making in terms of confronting problematic situations [has] for some investigators [made] information seeking…synonymous with sense-making” (Case 80).

In the Dervin approach of information seeking, “a search for information starts with questions directed at making sense of the situation” (Case 75). This relates well to my experience of searching. I began my search with questions that were my attempt to make sense of my rejection from my desired school. These questions varied greatly from more psychological considerations (e.g. ‘Did I just want to go to that school or did I really want to become a librarian?’) to more practical questions (e.g. ‘What kind of jobs or internships are available that might make me look more attractive to MLIS programs?’). However the information seeking process does not always go in a straight line from query to information to solution. It operates, in a kind of self-regulated feedback loop. A person’s questions can only be as good as their perception of the problem they have and the answer they think they need. Dervin’s idea of information seeking takes this into account, allowing that the “strategies employed are shaped by the searcher’s conceptualization of both the gap and the bridge, and by the answers, ideas, and resources obtained along the way” (Case 75). For example, I went to the ALA website because I knew it was a general information source about librarians and libraries. But it wasn’t until my conceptualization of the bridge changed from needing an internship to needing information on other MLIS programs that my search methods towards this source changed.

I think it’s also important to note that my information behavior was driven by one main factor widely discussed in information research literature: uncertainty. Uncertainty, and more specifically the need to alleviate uncertainty, was what compelled me to search for information in the first place. I needed to understand what my choices were and how these remaining choices would shape events in my future. Many researchers have acknowledged that “Uncertainty is a beginning stage is any search, and this is often accompanied by feelings of anxiety – which is a powerful motivator to either get on with the work, or to give up entirely’ (Case 74). This was, of course, the initial decision my uncertainty faced me with – was I going to look for information to achieve my goal of starting graduate school in the fall or was I going to give up and accept the rejection from the ISchool and simply wait till next year? In choosing to ‘get on with the work’ my uncertainty increased, as did my need for information. This held true the statement that “Actively acquiring information implies recognition of uncertainty or anomalies at some level” (Case 54).

Schrödinger's cat carrier

Works Cited

Case, Donald Owen. “The Concept of Information.” Looking for Information: A Survey of Research on Information Seeking, Needs, and Behavior. London, U.K.: Academic, 2007. 39-67. Print.

Case, Donald Owen. “Information Needs and Information Seeking.” Looking for Information: A Survey of Research on Information Seeking, Needs, and Behavior. London, U.K.: Academic, 2007. 68-83. Print.

Case, Donald Owen. “Models of Information Behavior.” Looking for Information: A Survey of Research on Information Seeking, Needs, and Behavior. London, U.K.: Academic, 2007. 119-140. Print.

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Published by rsjeffrey

Robin Jeffrey was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming to a psychologist and a librarian, giving her a love of literature and a consuming interest in the inner workings of people’s minds.

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