Theoretical and methodological approaches to the study of information need in the
context of the impact of new information and communications technologies on the
communication of parliamentary information
Rita Marcella, Graeme Baxter and Nick Moore
Rita Marcella, The University of Newcastle at Northumbria, email@example.com
Graeme Baxter, The Robert Gordon University, firstname.lastname@example.org
Nick Moore, Acumen, email@example.com
This paper discusses critically the theoretical and methodological background to an
Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) research project designed to investigate the
impact of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) on the communication of
parliamentary and legislative information to the general public or citizen. It sets out the
context of the study in terms of the changes in governance, resulting from devolution and, via
a wide ranging literature review, describes the ways in which the authors’ research approach
has developed. The design of the project methodology, that of an interactive online interview
executed via a roadshow, is also described.
This paper describes the ideas and methodological approaches underpinning an Economic and
Social Research Council (ESRC) project, currently being undertaken by the authors, which
examines the impact of new technology on the communication of parliamentary information
to the general public. In addition to setting the current scene in terms of parliamentary
information and communication, the paper explores the kinds of questions that theorists have
set out to answer in relation to information seeking behaviour, and outlines the ways in which
such research has developed.In developing their ideas for this new project, the present
research team were motivated by a desire to apply a data collection instrument that was best
suited to their theoretical stance.
The project is particularly significant in that it takes place at a time of dramatic constitutional
change in the United Kingdom: Scotland has elected its first Parliament for almost 300 years,
with primary legislation and tax varying powers; Wales has established its own National
Assembly, albeit less powerful than the Scottish Parliament; while the New Northern Ireland
Assembly ended over 20 years of direct rule from Westminster. These three new legislatures
are currently developing their library and public information services in order that they meet
the information needs of their elected members and the general public. They are coming into
operation at a time when concepts of informed citizenship and the role of information in
democratic processes are being re-shaped with the emergence of information-based societies.
The current research project will consist of a comparative study of the three services, together
with the traditional parliamentary information service at Westminster, assessing the
information produced by each and its relevance to the community at large, and developing a
model of parliamentary information provision to the public. The research is focusing upon
the appropriateness, approachability and utility of Information and Communications
Technologies (ICTs) in delivering parliamentary information to the general public and in
encouraging the public to interact with government. The project team are observing and
gathering comparative data on end-user behaviour in the application and use of ICTs, in
particular in the navigation around web-based technologies which enable access to public
information. It seeks to gain insight into the behaviour of the information user in the context
of the use of information about government.
This paper will outline the background to the project and review the theoretical and
methodological approaches that underpin it. It is impossible within the paper’s scope to
review all of the significant researchers in the field of information need and use: the paper
will, therefore, be limited to those that have been most influential in terms of the authors’
Background to the Project in the United Kingdom
The research is taking place during the formative period of the three new devolved
legislatures in the UK. The Government’s Joint Consultative Committee with the Liberal
Democrat Party (Liberal Democrat Party, 1998) described the four key principles of this new,
devolved approach as:
the decentralisation of power from Westminster;
the strengthening of the rights of every citizen through legislation;
making government more open and accountable to the people; and
making institutions more representative and accountable by reforming Parliament,
cleaning up the financing of political parties and other measures.
The formation of the Scottish Parliament, in particular, is seen as heralding a new, more
transparent style of government:
‘...the establishment of the Scottish Parliament offers the opportunity to put in place a new
sort of democracy in Scotland... an open, accessible Parliament; a Parliament where power
is shared with the people; where people are encouraged to participate in the policy process
which affects all our lives; an accountable, visible Parliament...’ (Consultative Steering
Group on the Scottish Parliament, 1998a).
In creating their public information services, the devolved administrations have drawn upon
the experiences of the traditional UK Parliament in Westminster. Established in 1978, the
House of Commons Information Office, part of the House of Commons Library, dealt with
almost 114,000 enquiries from the public in 1999-2000 (House of Commons Information
Office, 2000); while the more recently established (in 1998) House of Lords equivalent dealt
with around 28,000 enquiries during the same period (House of Lords, 2000). Since 1996, the
UK Parliament has had its own website providing access to a wide range of Commons and
Lords publications, including Hansard, Private and Public Bills, Acts, Statutory Instruments,
Select Committee Reports, and Minutes and Order Papers (United Kingdom Parliament,
In 1998, the Consultative Steering Group (CSG) on the Scottish Parliament developed a draft
Information Strategy, based on the Swedish Public Information Strategy, which stated that:
‘The Scottish Parliament is committed to providing an Information Service aimed at
ensuring that the Parliament is as open, accessible and participative as possible. Only
well-informed citizens can maximise the opportunities which this presents for individuals
and organisations to contribute to the democratic process.' (CSG, 1998b).
To this end, the Scottish Parliament has established a Public Information Service, based in
Edinburgh. Part of the Information Systems section, which is a subdivision of the
Communications Directorate, the service consists of an enquiry unit, an education service for
schools, and a visitor centre and shop. In the calendar year 2000, the service dealt with just
under 40,000 visitors, almost 88,000 telephone calls, and over 3,700 more detailed enquiries
on various aspects of the Scottish Parliament (Scottish Parliament Public Information Service,
2001). The Scottish Parliament website, maintained by a team within the Communications
Directorate, contains a wide range of publicly accessible parliamentary information, including
the Official Report (the record of the proceedings of the Parliament and its committees), Bills,
Petitions, research briefings, news releases and a weekly newsletter What's Happening in the
Scottish Parliament (WHISP); a webcasting service also broadcasts events from the
Parliament's Chamber and Committee Rooms (Scottish Parliament, 2001).
Meanwhile, the Scottish Parliament's internal information service, designed to meet the needs
of Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs), their staff and Parliament staff, has been titled
the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) and also forms part of the
Communications Directorate. Significantly, SPICe has appointed a Library Liaison Officer,
whose main function is to foster good relations with other libraries, and has established a
network of 76 'Partner Libraries' (one in each of the 73 parliamentary constituencies, plus an
additional three in the Highlands and Islands) to act as a focal point within local communities
for information about the Parliament (Anderson, 2000). SPICe currently offers three key
services to the Partner Libraries. Firstly, it supplies, free of charge, a range of Scottish
Parliament publications to each library. Secondly, it provides support to library staff in
answering enquiries about the Parliament received from the public (based on anecdotal
evidence only, the number of enquiries received by libraries so far has been low, but is slowly
increasing). Thirdly, SPICe offers training to Partner Library staff in the use of Scottish
parliamentary documentation, with the aim of developing their information handling and
information seeking skills. SPICe is also encouraging Partner Libraries to provide Internet
access for members of the public, so that they might utilise the Scottish Parliament website.
In an unpublished, internal survey in February 2001 (Scottish Parliament Information Centre,
2001) it was established that 60 (78.9%) of the Partner Libraries currently provide public
Internet access; and that, of these, 22 (36.7%) provide free access. It is also hoped that MSPs
will develop close links with Partner Libraries, perhaps using them for constituency surgeries
and meetings. By February 2001, however, only 14 (18.4%) Partner Libraries had held MSP
surgeries, while just 5 (6.6%) were aware of users having been referred to them by MSPs'
The National Assembly for Wales, meanwhile, has established a Public Information and
Education Service, based in Cardiff. Part of the Presiding Office, the service comprises: a
visits team, responsible for individual and group visits to the Assembly; a special projects
team, responsible for answering enquiries from the public (currently at a rate of around 200
each week), producing publications and providing an Assembly presence at major public
events throughout Wales; and an education team, which organises an educational programme
for Welsh schools. A new visitor and education centre, situated at the Pierhead, Cardiff Bay,
opened in Spring 2001.Like its Scottish Parliament counterpart, the Welsh Assembly's
website provides public access to a range of material, including the Record of Proceedings
(the official record of what was said in the Chamber), agendas and minutes, annual reports,
consultation papers and press releases (National Assembly for Wales, 2001a).These
materials are available in both English and Welsh.
Supported by the National Assembly for Wales Library and a Publications Centre located in
the Pierhead building, the Assembly has adopted the Scottish Parliament's Partner Library
concept to create Information Link, a network of 41 designated public libraries throughout
Wales, approximately one in each of the 40 Assembly constituencies. Each library receives
one paper copy of every Assembly publication and has to retain it for a minimum of 6
months. Libraries are obliged to provide 'free and open access' to Assembly information in
both printed and (where available) electronic form, and to provide it in 'a designated area'
within the library (National Assembly for Wales, 2000). There are currently no plans for
Information Link libraries to establish links with elected Assembly Members, or to host
constituency surgeries and meetings. To date, the Assembly has gathered no details (not even
of an anecdotal nature) on the level of public use of the libraries' Assembly materials and/or
the number and type of Assembly-related enquiries received at these libraries.
Due to delays in the peace process, the information services of the Northern Ireland Assembly
are not as advanced as those of its Scottish and Welsh counterparts, although the wish for an
‘open, transparent, accessible and accountable’ Assembly with a ‘high standard of
information and communication systems’ was identified at an early stage (Fee, 1999). The
Assembly's Public Information Office is currently a 'hybrid' office, reporting both to the
Keeper of the House and to the Director of Research and Information. When the Assembly is
sitting, it answers around 20-25 enquiries each day from the general public and a further 10-
12 enquiries from the press. An education programme for schools is in the early stages of
preparation. The Assembly website, however, has recently been upgraded; it contains
documents such as the Official Report, committee reports, minutes of proceedings and
forthcoming business, and it also provides live broadcasts of Assembly plenary sessions
(Northern Ireland Assembly, 2001).
The current research is also timely in that it coincides with a number of major developments
within the UK in terms of public access to parliamentary and other government information.
The UK's much delayed Freedom of Information Act finally received Royal Assent in
November 2000 (Great Britain: House of Commons, 2000), although it is not expected to
come into force until Summer 2002. Criticised initially as ‘a major retreat’ from the
Government’s original white paper (Campaign for Freedom of Information, 1999),
subsequent revisions made to the bill as it passed through Parliament have failed to silence the
critics. This is in contrast to the situation in local government, where the Local Government
(Access to Information) Act 1985 has required local authorities to be much more pro-active in
the disclosure of information (Steele, 1995).
In July 1999, the Scottish Executive introduced a non-statutory Code of Practice on Access to
Scottish Executive Information (Scottish Executive 1999), but plans to replace this with a
Freedom of Information regime. A draft bill was published in March 2001 (Scottish
Executive, 2001) and has been welcomed, but with reservations (Campaign for Freedom of
Information, 2001; Scottish Library and Information Council and Scottish Library
Association, 2001). The National Assembly for Wales has also implemented a Code of
Practice on Public Access to Information, now in its second edition (National Assembly for
Wales, 2001b); while in February 2000, David Trimble, the then First Minister of the
Northern Ireland Assembly, indicated that the Executive Committee would discuss the
introduction of separate Freedom of Information legislation for the Province (Trimble, 2000).
In March 1999, the UK Government published its white paper on Crown Copyright (Cabinet
Office, 1999), which listed a number of categories of material from which Crown Copyright
has been waived and which announced the establishment of an electronic Information Asset
Register - inforoute (Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 2001) - which will act as a gateway and
central information point to direct people to government information and materials.
Additional changes to Crown Copyright currently being considered have been outlined by
The UK Government has recently re-emphasised its commitment to what it terms 'information
age government', and has set a target that all dealings with government will be deliverable
electronically by 2005 (Blair, 2000). Its strategic framework for e-government was published
in April 2000 (Cabinet Office, 2000). Using the People's Network infrastructure (30,000
publicly accessible Internet terminals in public libraries across the UK by the end of 2002
(Batt, 2000)) as a core component, it plans to establish up to 3,500 UK Online Centres in
public libraries (in England in the first instance), with each one having the potential to act as a
centre for e-government. A key feature of the UK Online Centre initiative is the provision of
the UK Online citizen portal, which provides a single online point of entry to government
information services, including parliamentary and devolved assembly resources (UK Online,
The Scottish Executive published its own draft e-government framework in December 2000
(Scottish Executive, 2000a); while a target parallel to that set by the UK Government - that all
devolved public services in Scotland be available online by 2005 - has also been established
(Dewar, 2000). A Scottish government portal, linked closely with the UK Online citizen
portal, is to be developed.
Research conducted on behalf of the Cabinet Office Central IT Unit indicated that 29% of the
UK public would be very likely to use electronic government services, while an additional
44% would be quite likely to use them (Cabinet Office, 1998). The Parliamentary Office of
Science and Technology (1998) reported upon the potential for electronic interchange of
information between government and the electorate; while in 1999, the Hansard Society
launched its e-democracy programme, which explores inclusive ways of involving citizens in
the parliamentary process. Ecclestone (1998) provides an excellent critical examination of
the UK Government’s performance in making public information available on the Internet, in
particular in evaluating the quality of information presently provided and in the enabling of
feedback from the public on government policy making and initiatives.
The establishment of the Scottish Parliament is seen as providing an ideal opportunity to
develop understanding of the impact of ICTs upon social behaviour in relation to the public’s
interaction with government. The Advisory Committee on Telematics for the Scottish
Parliament (1997) recommended the creation of an open parliament based upon state of the
art ICTs: ‘the creation of a Scottish Parliament, based on the principles of openness and
accountability to the people, offers the opportunity to utilise modern applications of
telematics to realise those principles’.
The Committee also suggested that there be online experimentation with citizens’ panels,
citizens’ inquiries, deliberative polling groups, MSPs’ surgeries, fora and town meetings.
This led Coleman (1999) to state that ‘if just some of these initiatives are followed through in
the first few years of the new parliament, it will stand as a model of communicative
democracy and will surely set an example for legislative assemblies across the world’. An
Expert Panel on Information and Communications Technologies (CSG, 1998c) recommended
that the Scottish Parliament should focus upon how ICTs may assist democratic participation,
including governance and citizen participation, and the contribution that emerging
technologies can make in enabling greater openness and accessibility.The Panel
recommended that the Scottish Parliament should ‘aspire to be an example of best practice in
parliamentary information systems’, while being aware of the danger of exclusion for
marginalised, disillusioned and less educated groups, on the basis of information, economic
and technology deficits.
In May 2000, the Digital Scotland Task Force, a Scottish Executive initiative which aims to
ensure that Scotland obtains and retains maximum economic and social advantage from ICTs,
produced a report which stated that ‘technology creates opportunities for more citizens to
become more actively involved in public consultation and in the democratic process
generally’. It recommended that the Scottish Executive provide such opportunities through
the provision of online consultation (and online feedback on consultation), online opinion
sampling, e-mail access to officials and elected members, and electronic voting (Digital
Scotland Task Force, 2000). In its response, of September 2000, the Scottish Executive stated
that ‘concrete action is being taken to enhance its capability in online consultation’, and that it
is also to consider implementing electronic voting pilots (Scottish Executive, 2000b).
Theoretical and methodological approaches
While what is required is an extended monograph on the subject, this paper will seek in a
necessarily superficial manner to review some of the ideas that have fed into the authors’
study. It is worth noting that the research also builds upon previous work conducted by the
present authors. Marcella and Baxter (1998, 1999a, 1999b & 2000) investigated information
need and information seeking behaviour in relation to citizenship information (i.e.
information produced by or about government and public sector organisations); while Moore
(1998) explored people’s attitudes to public services, establishing that the better informed
people felt, the greater was the level of satisfaction they expressed with the services. The
main elements of the citizenship information project were two large-scale, nation-wide
surveys of the citizenship information needs and information seeking behaviour of the British
public. The first of these was a questionnaire-based survey of just under 1,300 individuals.
This questionnaire was distributed in public libraries, Citizens Advice Bureaux (CABx) and
other generalist information and advice agencies throughout the UK, and was designed to
gather some preliminary data on the public’s use of and need for citizenship information. The
second survey was designed to gather more in-depth, qualitative and extended responses, and
consisted of personal doorstep interviews with almost 900 citizens, with the interviewees
being selected using the random walk sample method. These interviews were carried out by
undergraduate and postgraduate librarianship and information studies students. The interview
schedule paid particular attention to national and local government issues and to ‘survival
information’ (i.e. information to help people overcome the problems that occur in day-to-day
life), and also sought to investigate the concept of the well-informed and active citizen.
Many writers comment on the lack of theory in studies of information seeking, although it
may be that the problem is less a lack of theory than the lack of a good road map guiding us
through the theory. Menzel (1960), Paisley (1965) and Ford (1977) argue that the progress
towards a theoretical understanding of information need has been slow. As early as 1965,
Fishenden (1965) was moved to call for the broadening of the base of research from scientists
to other information users. Ford also describes a ‘general lack of theory and an equal lack of
definition of concepts’ (Ford, 1973). He criticises the lack of investigation of need and the
focus upon the evidence of use via statistics in much of the earlier work that had been carried
out, defining information need as ‘an awareness of “not knowing” – or some conceptual
incongruity in which the learner’s cognitive structure is not adequate to the task’. Ford calls for
a more complete understanding of the user in terms of the way in which information will be
used to add to cognitive understanding and also of the user’s psychological motivations for
acquiring information. He criticises the over concentration on topics and subjects in earlier
information needs research. Wilson’s excellent review (1994) of research into information
needs and uses considers critically the most significant research to have taken place over a
fifty year period, from what he describes as an early emphasis on information systems use to a
later more person-oriented approach that evolved in the 1980s.
Dervin (1977) recognises similar limitations in existing research, arguing that the majority of
information studies research has focused upon the library and its activities and has considered
the user only in this context: she advocates research questions that are ‘based upon a set of
pervasive and internally consistent assumptions about the nature of people and how they cope
and the nature of information and how it helps’. She recommends a sense-making approach in
‘a programmatic effort to study how people construct sense of their worlds and, in particular,
how they construct information needs and uses for information in the process of sense making’.
Significant elements or life situations in her model are: decisions; problems; worries; and
comprehendings. The six-stage model includes initiation, selection, exploration, formulation,
collection and presentation, and Dervin recommends that researchers should go beyond the
process of information seeking to consider how users learn from the information they acquire,
by examining the role of intervention (whether human or system) via collaboration and
constructing meaning from the information acquired by users acting and reflecting, feeling and
formulating, predicting and choosing and interpreting and creating. She argues that information
is only an input to being informed and that information only has meaning in relation to what the
person already knows. This work is further extended by that of Saracevic, Mokros and Su
(1990) in developing a model of information value processes and in consideration of the
interaction between information seekers and intermediaries, via information consolidation.
Saracevic (1999) typifies information need research as emerging from the idea of ‘relevance’ in
terms of the need to develop a better understanding of the manner in which information relates
to individuals’ lives.
The present authors aim to investigate information seeking in a context potentially far removed
from the library, and their methodology has been partially determined by that need to get as
close to the user’s everyday life as possible. This closeness is attempted both on the physical
and the personal level in that a better understanding of the ways in which information relates to
respondents’ real lives is sought through a methodology that goes to the respondent at home,
work or in social situations. This is in line with Wilson who claims that information need
research should focus upon ‘uncovering the facts of the everyday life of the people being
investigated … to understand the needs that exist which press the individual towards
information-seeking behaviour [and that it is] … by better understanding those needs we are
better able to understand what meaning information has in the everyday life of people’ (Wilson,
1981). He (Wilson, 1999) has developed a number of increasingly complex models of
information behaviour and proposes that the basis of such a model is a problem, or state of
uncertainty, that impels individuals to engage in often successive searching, where the solution
to the problem becomes the goal and individuals engage in goal-seeking behaviour.
Marcella and Baxter, in the design of the citizenship information surveys, included questions
which sought to explore this link between a problem and information need. While this was
often useful, it did not always enable respondents to recollect an example of information need.
Other approaches which ask about occasions of information need in other ways are likely to be
equally useful. In fact a phalanx of methods should be adopted in a complementary fashion, for
as Audunson (1999) concludes, ‘real life information seeking exhibits traits that cannot be
understood if information seeking is seen as an instrument to solve problems or build bridges
over gaps’. Taylor (1987) has developed a framework for investigation of different information
use contexts which may be useful: however, the authors recommend that a theoretical model of
ways of conceptualising information need should be developed drawing upon the body of
existing research and the experience of information intermediaries. Belkin (1984) considers the
dynamic interaction between the user, the information resource and the intermediary and the
ways in which they build and use models of each other, in terms of the intermediary’s role in
helping the user to clarify a problem and reach a resolution, via the construction of a cognitive
model. Vakkari’s work (1999) focuses upon the ways in which information seeking is
inextricably linked to the user’s task and concludes that ‘prior knowledge about a task by an
actor is a major factor in determining what information is needed for its accomplishment’. All
of these suggest ways in which questions about information need might be formulated, and in
devising interview or questionnaire schedules it is worth reviewing such theorists to determine
which questions should he asked and how they should be formulated.
A number of researchers have advocated an open approach to information needs research. Beal
(1979), for example, argues that ‘what information we believe people ought to know is a value
judgement, and a political one, made up of the views we hold of people’s lives’. It is certainly
imperative that researchers should make a genuine open and unbiased effort to allow
respondents to express freely their actual need.This argument reinforces the value of a
phenomenological approach. However, the authors would argue that in too open an approach,
little meaningful data will be collected and soundly constructed active questioning is preferable.
Dervin and Wilson tend towards the phenomenological, while acknowledging the significance
of the broader context of the life situation of the individual and the context of needs other than
the cognitive. Huber (1983) likewise concludes that ‘the study of cognitive style … has not
been fruitful, although he does suggest that if better instruments for the assessment of cognitive
styles were developed, they could be useful in establishing the natural propensities of
information users. Kuhlthau (1991) emphasises the importance of exploring the feelings,
thoughts and actions associated with the various stages of the information search process from
the user’s perspective, together with other concepts that emerge from her information seeking
research such as ‘uncertainty’, ‘complexity’ and ‘the concept of enough’ (Kuhlthau, 1999). The
present authors recognise the validity of all of these as factors impacting upon information need
and information seeking and have tried to develop a data collection tool that would be
sufficiently open to allow such aspects to be explored.
There are a number of researchers, who have sought to develop theories about the
characteristics of the information seeker from Shutz (1946) and Dervin (1976) onwards. In the
first of these, Shutz categorised individuals into three groups: the expert; the well-informed
citizen; and the man on the street. Others have gone beyond this simple yet useful typology.
Bystrom (1999), for example, seeks to map and evaluate theories about the individuals who
engage in information seeking in order to develop a better understanding of what she terms the
‘doer’ in information behaviour research. She identifies three major categories of ‘doer’: the
Platonian Man; the Debater; and the Chessman. Others have also renamed the information
actor, suggesting that ‘user’ as a term may have a negative connotation. Palmer (1991), for
example, identified five categories: non-seekers of information to whom information was a
problem; lone, wide-rangers who scanned within and outwith their subject field; unsettled, self-
conscious seekers, who are relatively new to information seeking; confident collectors, who had
abandoned regular information seeking but held developed collections; and hunters who
maintained regular routines to make sure that nothing relevant escaped them.Wilson and
Walsh (1996) identify four patterns of information acquisition: passive attention when
information seeking is not intended; passive search when one type of behaviour incidentally
results in the acquisition of information; active search; and ongoing search when efforts are
made periodically to enhance and update information already held.
Wilson (1981) relates information need to the areas of human need as categorised by
psychologists: physiological needs; affective needs; and cognitive needs. In their review of
research into information behaviours, Wilson and Walsh (1996) seek to synthesise work in a
variety of disciplines, such as psychology, health communications, decision making and
information systems design, in order to determine whether useful models of information
behaviour may be developed. They identify certain categories of need, such as: the need for
new information; the need to elucidate information held; the need to confirm information held;
the need to elucidate beliefs and values held; and the need to confirm beliefs and values held.
Stress and coping theory are also suggested as providing effective ways of exploring
information need, where coping is defined as ‘… cognitive and behavioural effects to master,
reduce or tolerate the internal and external demands that are being created by stressful
situations’ (Folkman, 1984).
While such theories and typologies are interesting and thought provoking, suggesting numerous
research questions, they lie outwith the scope of the present project, which does not seek to
categorise in advance but may do so in light of the results of the exercise, if differing patterns of
information approach observedly emerge.
There is a significant body of research into the information needs of potentially marginalised
groups and of particular localities. These also influenced the present authors, as their project
seeks in particular to target potentially marginalised groups in the community. It was, therefore,
interesting to examine how others had tackled this problem. Bruce, McKennel and Walker
(1991) surveyed the needs of the visually impaired, while Tinker, McCreadie and Salvage
(1994) carried out an exploratory study of elderly people. The Central Office of Information
Informability Unit (1994) has produced guidelines on communication techniques and the
types of media which can facilitate information access for people with a disability; while the
National Working Party on Social Inclusion (1997) identified women, ethnic groups, older
people and rural communities as those groups most at risk from exclusion in the Information
With regard to studies of localities, the most influential study was that carried out in Baltimore
(often referred to as the Baltimore Study), by Warner, Murray and Palmour (1973). This study
is still regarded as ‘a benchmark for large-scale investigations of this kind’ (Wilson, 1994). Its
methodology formed the basis for a major survey of the public’s information needs carried out
in 1977 by the Centre for Research on User Studies in Sheffield (Beal, 1979), which found that
the public required support and help in accessing and using information. The results of such
studies tend to show low levels of awareness of information services, an inability or
unwillingness amongst respondents to articulate information needs and a low level of
understanding amongst information professionals of the problems faced by residents.The
Baltimore Study indicates the significance of investigating information need from the
perspective of the ordinary life and work experiences of respondents and of taking a problem
(rather than information) based approach. It was highly influential in the development of
survey instruments as part of Marcella and Baxter’s earlier work (Marcella & Baxter, 1999a,
1999b and 2000).
Research into barriers to information seeking has identified various factors that may impede the
initiation of information seeking. The present authors are very interested in the ways in which
particular groups may be affected by such hypothesised barriers. Their earlier research would
suggest that it is not only marginalised groups which face such barriers. Bettman and Pack
(1977) suggest that highly knowledgeable people may feel less need to seek information.
Radecki and Jaccard (1995) find that individuals are also influenced by their awareness of the
level of knowledge of others and the importance of the topic. Other studies have found that
information seeking decreases with age or is greater amongst women with children (Feick,
Herrmann and Warland, 1986). Wilson identifies personal, interpersonal and environmental or
social barriers to information seeking, while the Baltimore Study (Warner, Murray and Palmour,
1973) extends these to include psychological, intellectual, institutional and societal barriers.
Other barriers – such as cost, effort required, access, demographic and socio-economic factors
and the credibility of sources - might be hypothesised and the authors were keen to explore
these further in their own research.
In 1976, Dervin argued that ‘the clearest generalisation which emerges from this discussion is
that huge gaps exist in the knowledge base relating to average citizens and their information
needs’ (Dervin, 1976): such gaps exist today and the present authors hope that their work has
contributed and will continue to contribute to the attempt to build bridges. They believe, with
Dervin (1997) and Kuhlthau (1999) that context is a necessary source of meaning in studies of
information seeking, need and use. There are many contexts still be explored in sufficient depth
for us to achieve a thorough understanding of their significance and while we continue to
explore these specific contexts, we add to our knowledge holistically for as Dervin (1997)
argues, context helps us both to understand that which is situation specific and those aspects of
information seeking and use that represent general characteristics of behaviours.
Broadly the authors’ research has moved from a positivist to a phenomenological theoretical
perspective. Early work (Marcella and Baxter, 1999a, 1999b and 2000) focused largely upon
the use of quantitative and qualitative methodologies via large-scale surveys that underpinned
the desired research outcomes in order to achieve objective generalisations about human
behaviour in society. Through the collection of empirical data, it was hoped that rational
explanations of human behaviour would be uncovered and recommendations could be made.
However, latterly the research has moved increasingly towards a phenomenological view,
which seeks to interpret how people construe or make sense of the world in different ways and
which acknowledges that individual experience is of necessity subjective. Such an approach
constructs a vision of how people make sense of the world from their myriad individual vantage
points. This approach is typically used to construct theory, with an understanding of how
specific recommendations have different implications for different people. It is felt that this
epistemology is likely to be particularly fruitful in understanding exclusion from the social
world, although its value is by no means limited to that application. With this move towards
phenomenological research there has been a parallel increasing emphasis on genuinely open-
ended exploration and questioning of research subjects, where the results are not biased by the
researcher’s predetermined agenda.
Methodologically, information need research in the public domain has equally moved from an
early reliance on positivist surveys to the use of diverse methodologies in a mix of quantitative
and qualitative research tools, enabling a more holistic view to emerge from the researcher
getting ‘close to the data, thereby developing the analytical, conceptual and categorical
components of explanation from the data itself’ (Weingand, 1993). Weingand describes the
move towards the borrowing of tools from other research disciplines, such as the ethnographic
techniques of anthropology and the phenomenological influences of sociology which have been
particularly influential in information need research. Early studies by Line (1967) and Lipetz
(1970) review the methodological problems associated with the investigation of users’
information needs and use. Line (1971) argues that observation in conjunction with
questionnaire and interview are necessary in order to minimise the serious deficiencies
associated with each individually. The influential Baltimore study was based upon an interview
schedule, which was rigorously tested and applied (Warner, Murray and Palmour, 1973).
However, Price (1984) argues against the use of questionnaires and interviews because these
tools tend to reveal what the user thinks and not the actualities of behaviour: however,
observation can only be carried out with relatively small samples and it is often not possible to
produce generalisable and analysable results from observation alone.The INISS Project
(Wilson and Streatfield, 1977; Wilson, Streatfield and Mullings, 1979; Streatfield and Wilson,
1982), in a reaction against the ‘relative sterility of survey based research’, was conceived as a
qualitative programme using observation and in-depth qualitative interviewing coupled with a
participative research mode in the action phase, allowing triangulation of data. Sturges and
Chimseu (1996) also justify the use of qualitative methodologies, despite acknowledging the
fact that these tend to be complex, time consuming and aimed at generating theory. They
advocate a mix of quantitative and qualitative tools, steering a middle course between the
superficiality of questionnaires and the total immersion of the anthropologist in the society to be
studied. In their use of triangulation, they combine interdisciplinary approaches, attain
flexibility and use indigenous knowledge from the perspective of the community under
investigation, in examining the information chain between the providers of information,
intermediaries and the citizens that are the intended users of the information.
More recently rigorous work has been based upon both questionnaire (Horner and Thirlwall,
1989, and Hallmark, 1994) and on interviews (Bichtler and Ward, 1989; Palmer, 1991; and
Hernon and Metoyer-Duran, 1992). Palmer (1991), for example, uses semi-structured in-depth
interviews to probe personality, discipline and organisational structure as related to the
information seeking behaviour of scientists, using cluster analysis to identify cluster groups
amongst respondents. Ellis (1993) and Ellis, Cox and Hall (1993) seek to develop a method of
investigation that can be employed across a range of subject groups, building upon a well
established approach to theoretical model building in the social sciences which utilises the
personal interview to gather data. Eager and Oppenheim (1996) discuss a pilot using an
observational method of investigating user information needs, which does not rely upon the use
of explicit questions, arguing that this approach overcomes problems associated with identifying
less definable but still palpable needs, while proving a robust research tool.The authors
acknowledge that the method is less useful where a large group is to be investigated, where
there is little predicted similarity in the needs of the group and where need is less frequent.
Wilson (1999) has recently piloted a new methodology designed to blend a qualitative approach
with the collection of a great deal of quantitative data on various aspects of the information
seeking process, by employing a mix of interviewing, tape recordings of searcher/client
interactions, logs of online searches and follow up interviews in order to explore uncertainty and
its resolution via information seeking, retrieval and use.
Over the past twenty years research has developed into human-computer interaction in
information seeking, which encourages the use of a variety of new data collection instruments.
Transaction log analysis has been used by researchers such as Jansen, Spink and Saracevic
(2000) to develop a better understanding of searcher characteristics.A number of authors
(Blackshaw and Fischhoff, 1988; Ericsson and Simon, 1993; Nahl and Tenopir, 1996) discuss
the use of verbal protocols, or the analysis of ‘think-aloud’ techniques, to provide a record of
online search processes, recording respondents’ intentions and decisions in association with an
electronic log of actual search actions. Nicholas (1996) uses a complementary mix of
interviews, questionnaires and transaction log analyses. Hert and Marchionini (1997) have
explored the users of U.S. statistical websites via online interviews, focus groups, content
analysis of email information requests, impressionistic analysis of online comments, usability
tests and transaction log analyses.
There has, as we have seen, been a move away from quantitative towards qualitative research in
information use studies and towards the complementary use of a range of data collection
instruments. In the authors’ work there is demonstrated use of a variety of methodological tools
that help to build a holistic and informed view of information need and information seeking in a
range of communities. There has been a similar move in information behaviour research from a
subject and cognitive approach to the person-centred one described by Wilson (1994) and the
authors view their more recent work as lying in the latter domain. What much of the published
research described above fails to take on board is the communicative aspect of the role of the
information provider and this is an aspect which the present authors have sought to explore in
relation both to European information (Marcella, Baxter & Parker, 1997) and to information
provided by public sector bodies in the United Kingdom (Marcella & Baxter, 1998, 1999a,
1999b, 2000; Moore, 1998). Information need must be considered in terms not only of the user
and the systems, which exist to enable retrieval of information, but also in terms of the
objectives and vision of the information provider. This area is explored most fully in the
authors’ development of a model of government/public information interchange, which
considers the ways in which information is sought, passed and exchanged amongst both parties,
each of which may be concurrently a provider and a user of information (Marcella and Baxter,
The authors would describe their theoretical stance at present as pluralists, who prefer to adopt
an interpretive or phenomenological approach where that will support desired research
outcomes. They believe that there has been a good deal of relatively sterile debate as to the
respective merits of quantitative and qualitative data collection tools and that these, it should be
borne in mind, are merely tools that serve the theoretical stance of the researcher which may be
positivist or interpretive. Large-scale data collection tools can be designed that utilise both
quantitative and qualitative techniques in support of what is held to be an interpretive and
phenomenological research perspective.
The first stage of the authors’ present project, investigating the impact of technology on the
communication of parliamentary information to the general public, has consisted of a series of
interviews with representatives of the House of Commons and House of Lords Information
Offices, and the public information services of the Scottish Parliament, the National
Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly. These interviews have gathered
detailed data on the objectives and strategies of the services, and on the information access
and dissemination activities used and developed by each. They have also gathered
information on the number and type of enquiries being made by the general public, and on the
public's preferred methods of approaching the information services.
As the second stage of the project, the research team has developed an interactive,
electronically assisted interview approach to data collection which is being taken out across
the UK as part of a pilot ‘roadshow’ to societies, institutions and organisations, such as public
libraries, community centres, sheltered accommodation and universities, facilitating access to
a range of groups in the community. These groups include both those thought to be in danger
of social exclusion, such as older people, women, ethnic minority groups and people in rural
communities; and those thought likely to be in a position already to make fuller use of ICTs,
such as the academic and business communities.It should be noted, though, that due to the
less advanced development of the Northern Ireland Assembly public information service, as
well as the re-emergence of violent incidents in the area, roadshow events are not being
conducted in Northern Ireland.
The interactive, electronically assisted interview constitutes a new form of semi-structured
interview methodology and will be thoroughly evaluated as part of the research process. In
developing the methodology, the researchers have considered the previous studies of human-
computer interaction in information seeking outlined above. The researchers have developed
a tool that, it is anticipated, will provide more in-depth and meaningful data than that
produced by the traditional questionnaire survey. The methodology employed also moves
beyond that used in computer aided/assisted telephone interviewing (CATI) and computer
aided/assisted personal interviewing (CAPI), now common in market research.
The interview involves a structured examination of the UK Parliament, Scottish Parliament or
National Assembly for Wales website (the website being examined depends on the
geographic location of the roadshow), carried out in a one-to-one situation, with the
interviewer logging responses to a set of structured questions as the examination proceeds.
These include questions on the respondents' demographic characteristics (e.g. age,
occupational status, ethnic group, level of educational attainment, etc.), their past need for and
use of parliamentary and devolved assembly information, their voting patterns and levels of
political participation, and their previous experience in using computers.
Respondents are then allowed a free-form period of undirected information seeking, on the
relevant predetermined website, for information on a suggested topic (e.g. child care, hospital
waiting lists, public transport policy, student tuition fees) or on a topic of their own choice.
These free-form sessions utilise verbal protocol analysis, with the respondents being asked to
'think aloud' as they progress with their search. Finally, respondents are asked a further series
of structured questions designed to gauge their feelings on the user-friendliness of the
website, the relevance and comprehensibility of the information found, and the likelihood of
them revisiting the website in the future.
The interactive electronic interview schedules are being extensively piloted in the online
roadshow environment, where a minibus equipped with a laptop computer and mobile data
transmission equipment, together with paper-based parliamentary and devolved assembly
information resources in support, has ensured a novel outreach approach to members of the
Outputs consisting of a transaction log of online activity and audio records of responses to the
interview and think-aloud process will be analysed using quantitative and qualitative
techniques. Analysis of respondent demographics will determine the effectiveness of the
roadshow as a tool for generating a sample that might be deemed representative of at risk
groups. Comparisons will be made with other techniques such as random walk and
observational techniques in order to evaluate the roadshow approach in terms of the
generalisability and meaningfulness of the data collected.
As the project is a pilot, rigorous post execution evaluation is planned in order to test the
validity of the data collection tools employed and the generalisibility of results emerging,
leading to recommendations for future application of the methodology. It is felt that the
project will lead to the establishment, refinement and application of a valid and flexible data
collection tool which could be used in a wide range of information and communication
research contexts and with a wide variety of target respondents groups.While the data
collected would not be deemed significant for and representative of the population as a whole,
it will provide a sound basis for further development of theories and formulation of
hypotheses that may underpin future research in this area
The project will investigate the robust and effective use of technologies in real human
situations and the organisational and social context within which the technology is used. The
research will also examine participation and engagement at all levels and in all social groups
in the community, particularly in relation to access to ICTs and their use for
citizen/government interaction. It will contribute to the understanding of the changing nature
of governance in the UK, with particular emphasis being placed on recent devolutionary
developments and the new decentralised legislatures’ information and communication
policies, while seeking to understand how and why knowledge is acquired, shared,
communicated, and used, with the aim of fostering a society in which people can contribute
and participate fully in its culture, technology and economy.
The research is driven by a desire to find out more about people’s behaviour within the context
of their everyday lives in the retrieval of, use and application of information and to evaluate the
effectiveness of the systems and services that have evolved to meet that need. While seeking
specifically to explore the impact of technology upon the communication of parliamentary
information, the authors will at all times be conscious of the ultimate user in line with Saracevic
(1999) who argues convincingly that ‘information science has a strong social and human
dimension, above and beyond the technological’.The authors’ research also mirrors, in
microcosm, the developments that have taken place in research amongst the wider research
community into these areas, both in moving from a systems, service and subject-centred
approach to one that is user-centred and problem-based, focusing on the life context of the user,
and in moving from a potentially superficial quantitative approach to one that is predominantly,
although not exclusively, in-depth and qualitative. In particular, the authors believe that the
phenomenological study of the individual life situation of the information user and the context
of their information behaviour is a very significant area for further exploration. There is also an
emphasis on genuinely open-ended exploration and questioning of research subjects.
A number of theories, emerging from the authors’ research to date, will be explored as part of
the project. These are briefly outlined below:
That information research should recognise the importance of the concept of information
interchange and the different roles of the information ‘actor’ in holding, providing,
withholding, accessing and using information. This model would view the information
user as interacting with a number of other actors, where all parties are affected by their
context or agenda.
That there is a varying degree of activity and passivity manifest by individuals in
differing information behaviour contexts and that each individual may take on different
roles and manifest different levels of activity in varying life contexts (in line with the
theories of Wilson and Walsh, 1996, and Shutz, 1946).
That while information seeking and use is most commonly reactive rather than proactive,
users tend not to distinguish between the two forms.
That the motivators for and factors affecting initiation and patterns of information seeking
behaviour are complex and relate to variables such as status and social class, gender, age,
disability, ethnicity and educational achievement and that, although some of these may
appear to be self-evident, the requisite evidence has often not been assembled and results
can also be unpredictable and unexpected. Further research is essential into the
characteristics that impact upon information seeking behaviour.
That there is a tendency amongst individuals to exaggerate or idealise both past and, to an
even greater extent, future information actions. While it is recognised that attitudes are a
very poor predictor of behaviour, the authors’ research would suggest that any form of
self-reporting may be equally unreliable.
That people have knowingly suffered disadvantage as a result of inability to access useful
information and that they may, additionally and as significantly, have suffered
unconscious disadvantage as a result of lack of awareness of the value of information or
lack of knowledge of the information resources that exist.
That young people tend to be less aware of the value that information may have for them
personally and that this lack of awareness may stem from their limited range of life
That people find it difficult (and are variable in their ability) to assess their own
informedness on a subject
That it is those that are most ‘informed’ that are most likely to be aware of both barriers
to information and of personal disadvantage due to lack of information.
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