March 15, 2008

Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process

Posted in Kuliah-koe at 9:41 am by byupustakawan

How the theory was developed

Carol Kuhlthau developed the Information Search Process modelin the field of library and information science. Kuhlthau began her research in response to two main factors. First, as a high school librarian, she noticed that students beginning research papers behaved in a similar way, no matter how well they were oriented to the library. They were confused and anxious and had difficulties getting started. She wanted to explore this hunch further, from a constructivist approach borrowed from the educational philosophy of John Dewey and the personal construct theoryof George Kelly. Building on Dervin’s sensemaking theory and Belkin’s Anomalous States of Knowledge (ASK) theory, Kuhlthau aimed to explore information seeking and use as a

constructive process of creating meaning (Kuhlthau, 1993 & 2000). She was also one of the first to incorporate affective as well as cognitive dimensions in her research.

The theory’s premise and propositions

Kuhlthau’s initial hypothesis was “that information seeking is a process of construction that begins with uncertainty and anxiety” (Seeking Meaning, p. xx). Her main premises and propositions include:

• Information seeking (like learning more generally) is a constructive process, in which individuals assimilate new information into their own personal constructs or existing structures of meaning.

• Information seeking occurs in cognitive, affective, and physical domains.

• The information search process can be divided into six stages: Initiation, Selection, Exploration, Formulation, Collection, and Presentation. At each stage, individuals encounter different feelings or affective states (see Table 1).

• The uncertainty principle: uncertainty due to a lack of understanding, gap in meaning, or a limited construct initiates the process of information seeking. Uncertainty is a cognitive state that causes affective feelings of anxiety. These can be expected in the early stages of the ISP.

• Kuhlthau describes five levels of intervention or mediation for reference services based on the ISP model: Organizer, Locator, Identifier, Advisor and Counselor. For instruction, the five levels are: Organizer, Lecturer, Instructor, Tutor, and Counselor.

• Kuhlthau describes five zones of intervention for reference services based on the ISP model. The librarian diagnoses the level of intervention needed, ranging from identifying a specific source to process intervention (e.g. guiding users in the exploration and formulation stages).

Methodological Recommendations

In order to get access to individuals’ internal processes, Kuhlthau used multiple qualitative methods, especially in her initial exploratory study. Both concurrent and post hoc methods were used, including interviews, diaries, search logs, short writings, and conceptual maps and timelines. Diaries provide rich data for initial analysis, while timelines and flowcharts highlight process and choices. All of these methods were designed to elicit the search process from the user’s perspective. In later quantitative studies to confirm the ISP model, Kuhlthau used a process survey to confirm her initial findings. In her work, Kuhlthau provides a model for

researchers of information behavior in the use of such varied methods, beginning with rich qualitative studies, followed by quantitative studies with larger numbers to provide more generalizable findings. The use of process surveys, however, might be limited for long-term

confirmation of the ISP model. Kuhlthau’s process surveys, for instance, might not address any new phenomena that occur outside the original model.

How the theory has been used in past work and in which fields

Kuhlthau’s writings on the ISP have been among the most cited in library and information science research. Several studies have verified her findings, at least in part, with different populations, such as college students and graduate students (Swain, 1996; Vakkari, 2000). Other studies have explored whether teaching the ISP to students reduces anxiety about research (Kracker, 2002; Kracker and Wang, 2002). Kuhlthau herself has conducted several longitudinal studies, including a follow-up of some of her original case studies during college and later in their work setting, such as the implications of the ISP theory in the work environment of securities analysts (Kuhlthau,1999) and information search process of lawyers (Kuhlthau & Tama, 2001)Kuhlthau also conducted her research with an eye towards practice. She proposed ways in which both reference service and instruction could be modified to adapt to user’s needs as they go through the Information Search Process (Isbell & Hammerlocher, 1998). Kuhlthau’s work has been especially influential in school librarianship and information literacy. She herself has written widely on using the ISP in practice, to teach a process approach

to students at all levels.

Connections with other theories

Kuhlthau builds upon the work of several theorists in education, psychology, and information science, such as Dewey, Kelly, and Belkin. The ISP model might also be viewed in conjunction with other cognitive theories in information behavior. Ellis, for example, created a model of information seeking among academics that is less linear than Kuhlthau’s ISP model.

Ellis described six generic information seeking behaviors: starting, chaining, browsing, differentiating, monitoring, and extracting (Ellis, 1993). Choo et. al. built on Ellis’s model to create a more task-oriented model of information seeking on the Web. They outlined modes of scanning (undirected viewing, conditioned viewing, informal search, and formal search) and then correlated these modes with Ellis’s behaviors (Choo, 2000). Both theories lack Kuhlthau’s holistic approach, but they also might address potential gaps in Kuhlthau’s model. Kuhlthau, for example, pays little attention to task or context. Choo et. al.’s model of web searching and browsing, for example, might inform Kuhlthau’s recommended tasks for each stage of the search process, especially in an electronic environment.


ISP theory filled a gap in library and information science research, which traditionally focused on the systems and search techniques, rather than studying users’ holistic behavior in a variety of contexts. One of the strengths, of the ISP model is that it is a holistic model with explanatory and predictive power. Kuhlthau was one of the first in library and information science to study the cognitive and affective aspects of information behavior. Unlike many information retrieval studies, the ISP explores information use as well as information seeking. The ISP can help place notions of relevancy, for example, in a richer context than more traditional IR studies. According to the ISP, individuals might need general information as they explore a topic. Later, as they have a more focused need, the same information might be deemed irrelevant. The primary strength of the ISP model is its application to practice. It is a model that is easily communicated to librarians and other educators. The model can be used to design instruction and reference interventions. Several studies have suggested that teaching the ISP to students can improve their confidence and performance on research assignments.


While Kuhlthau’s ISP model is holistic and focuses on a wide range of behaviors and feelings, it is still a limited model. It is centered on the lone individual and ignores potential social contexts of information seeking. The ISP model, while confirmed in different settings, is also centered on a specific kind of research process, most often related to school assignments. The model has not been applied to information needs and tasks, such as everyday life information seeking, which are less well-defined. Can the ISP be scaled to processes unrelated to school research?The ISP model also includes prescriptive elements that might limit its applicability to wide scope of information behavior, such as less impact on systems design than on library services. . Kuhlthau outlined several “appropriate tasks” for each stage of the research process (see Table

1). But does this reflect what people actually do, or only what they should do? Is the process

actually much messier than the model suggests? This prescriptive element makes the model usable for librarians and other educators teaching information literacy skills in the classroom, but it diminishes the explanatory power of the model outside of these settings. This might be one reason why systems design has not built upon the ISP model. Finally, the ISP model might be dated. With easier access to information, via sophisticated end-user systems and the World Wide Web, does the model still hold in the electronic environment? The immediacy of information, in addition to the sheer increase in the amount of information available, might affect both the cognitive and affective behaviors of users. Relevance judgments might be colored by the increase in easily accessible information. Kuhlthau herself has suggested that electronic information has altered notions of what is

“enough” information. New qualities of value and use in information, such as speed, convenience, readability, or portability (e.g. cut and paste) might also alter information choices and searching preferences.

Future uses

Further research is needed to answer questions of the ISP’s ability to explain information behavior in an electronic environment more holistically, especially with the complex interaction of cognitive, physical, and affective domains. Kuhlthau herself argues that advances in technology require librarians as mediators to shift from the role of locator to that of sense-maker, which requires librarians to address process needs not just location needs. Given the disintermediation suggested by advances in networked technologies and the Web, Kuhlthau’s model can be used as a jumping off point for research and discussions of the role of librarians as mediators in this new environment. Do the interventions outlined by Kuhlthau, for example, require updating or a complete overhaul? The ISP model might also be used to inform user-centered system and service design, either in traditional way or electronic environment, especially if it is updated and expanded. The advances in end-user search systems have, she argues, potentially increased feelings of confusion and anxiety for users. Therefore, promoting more browsing capabilities is necessaryfor the exploratory phase of the search process. Other useful system features might include productivity tools that promote more notetaking and charting so users can keep track of their thoughts about sources during the search process. As for information service design, the way of providing information should be related to the users’ stages in the information search process, which correspond different information needs to different information searching stages. Finally, the ISP model might have its most effective use in promoting collaboration on information literacy, both in the K-12 and college environment. Despite its limits, the ISP remains a strong model in that it communicates complex ideas about human behavior. That explanatory and communicative power can be applied to practice.Given the growing push for integrated information literacy instruction in schools and the decline in resources, including school librarians, the ISP model might be used to create partnerships with teachers in the classroom. The stages of the model, for example, can be used to develop a scope and sequence for Information Literacy instruction. Classroom instructors and librarians can better define and share teaching goals. Librarians can use the ISP model to communicate more effectively the need to teach deeper concepts, such as exploring general information in the early stages of research and viewing research as a recursive process. (I am thinking to shorten this paragraph and add something about ISP in a context)


• Authoritative primary publication sources:

Kuhlthau, C.C. (1991). Inside the Search Process: Information Seeking from the User’s

Perspective. Journal of the American Society of Information Science 42:5, 361-371.

Kuhlthau, C.C. (1993). Seeking Meaning: A Process Approach to Library and Information

Services. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Kuhlthau, C.C. (2000). The Information Search Process (ISP): A search for meaning rather than

answers. Library and Information Science 43, 35-42.

• Other References:

Choo, C. W., Detlor, B., & Turnbull, D. (2000). Information seeking on the Web: an integrated

model of browsing and searching. First Monday, 5(2).

Ellis, D. (1993). Modeling the information-seeking patterns of academic researchers: a grounded

theory approach. Library Quarterly, 63(4), 469-486.

Isbell, D. & Kammerlocher, L. (1998). Implementing Kuhlthau: A new model for library and

research instruction. Reference Service Review, 38(3), 267-273.

Kracker, J. (2002). Research anxiety and students’ perceptions of research: an experiment. Part I.

Effect of teaching Kuhlthau’s ISP model. Journal of the American Society for Information

Science and Technology, 53(4), 282-294.

Kracker, J. & Wang, P. (2002). Research anxiety and students’ perceptions of research: an

experiment. Part II. Content analysis of their writings on two experiences. Journal of the

American Society for Information Science and Technology, 53(4), 295-307. 9

Kuhlthau, C.C. (1999). The role of experience in the Information Search of an Early Career

Information Workers: Perceptions of uncertainty, complexity, construction, and sources.

Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 50(5), 399-412

Kuhlhau, C.C. & Tama, S.L. (2001). Information Search Process of lawyers: A call for ‘just for

me’ information services. Journal of Documentation, 57(1), 25-43.

Swain, D. E. (1996). Information search process model: how freshmen begin research.

Proceedings of the ASIS Annual Meeting, 33, 95-99.

Vakkari, P. (2000). “Cognition, Sources, and Contributory Informationof Documents in Writing

a Research Proposal.” In D. Kraft (Ed.), Proceedings of the American Society of

Information Science 63rd Annual Meeting (Vol. 37, pp. 352-362).


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