I am now attending the COLIS (International Conference on Conceptions of Library and Information Science) conference in University College London, UK: http://colis.soi.city.ac.uk/. I will intersperse posts about COLIS and the AULIC seminar (also at some point I will catch up on the other events I attended last week!) So, as a first post from COLIS: Anna Lundh talked today about studying information needs as question negotiations in an educational context: a methodological comment. As you will see if you get to the end of this post, there are, in particular, implications for those who are supporting learners who have been told to think up a topic or question of their own.
Lundh identified that information needs have been traditionally seen as the factor that triggers someone into seeking information. Therefore information needs have been seen as important, but not investigated nearly as much as information seeking. Taylor (1962) identified levels of need: the visceral need (the actual unexpressed need), the conscious need, the formalised need and the compromised need (the latter is the one presented to the information system), and there has been more research on the last two levels. However this assumes the information need being isolated to the individual. Lundh was taking the starting point that information needs can be seen as question negotiation, emerging through "social interaction and language use". If you take that standpoint, then you have to think of an appropriate way to research it, and Lundh talked about the concept of language games and looking at use of language in social interaction. When looking at negotiations, you have to consider who is interacting, when and where.
Her own research has been in a primary school in Sweden. The children were told by their teacher to investigate a question about something they were interested in. Thus they had to think up their own questions. She observed how the questions did gradually emerge from interactions between the teacher or librarian and pupils. Lundh showed an example where a question posed by two young pupils started as vague ("drinks"). The interaction with the librarian was almost imposing a question on the girls, although that evidently was not the librarian's aim: she probably thought she was helping them to clarify their question into something achievable. Lundh presented this incident effectively, having converted (for confidentiality) some still video frames into comic strips, so you could see the body language of the participants as well as what they said. In this kind of situation, talking about negotiation does seem more meaningful than "identifying the information need", since the latter could imply that the "information need" is already decided, whereas in fact it will not just be articulated, but also determined, by the dialogue that takes place with others. This is a subtle shift, but it is (my interpretation) one from thinking you are neutrally trying to tease out the need that has been poorly articulated, to one where you are more openly acknowledging that you are influencing what the final need (and "solution") will be.
I think it is true, also, when students are developing research questions (whether at undergraduate or postgraduate level) that a process of negotiation goes on between the student, the supervisor (e.g. me), the literature (which, if it is engaged with well, can help spark new ideas and directions, and change the research question, and thus the information need), and anyone else involved in mediating the literature or the topic (e.g. librarians).
An article about a previous stage in the research is: Lundh, A. (2008). "Information practices in elementary school" Information Research, 13 4). http://InformationR.net/ir/13-4/wks10.html
Reference: Taylor, R.S. (1962) “Process of Asking Questions” American Documentation,13 (4), 391-396.
Photo by Sheila Webber: I didn't take any photos today, possibly because I'm suffering awfully from hay fever. This is a photo of Bath, June 2010.