vol. 25 no. 4, December, 2020

Proceedings of ISIC: the information behaviour conference, Pretoria, South Africa, 28th September to 1st October, 2020.

Short paper

Diffusion of information behaviour theory into education for reference service

Amy VanScoy, Heidi Julien, and Alison Harding.

Introduction. This paper reports on part of a larger study, specifically on the information behaviour theories used in foundational reference and information services courses in North America.
Method. Content analysis of syllabi, reading lists and textbooks from foundational reference courses was conducted.
Analysis. Qualitative and quantitative analyses of documents was conducted to identify specific information behaviour theories.
Results. The most mentioned information behaviour theories in reference courses are similar to those most mentioned in studies of information behaviour research, including Kuhlthau’s information search process and Savolainen’s everyday life information seeking.
Conclusions. Students in courses that discuss information behaviour theories are being exposed to the most impactful information behaviour theories, but still only two-thirds of courses include them.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.47989/irisic2025


Information behaviour theories are foundational for effective reference services and yet they are not widely addressed in basic reference courses. This paper reports part of a larger study that explores how librarianship students are being educated in information behaviour theories, models and concepts. It explores the specific information behaviour theories that are discussed in reference courses to determine why these have been more successful. Diffusion of theory is little studied, especially in comparison with diffusion of ideas, and requires some different considerations (Van der Veer Martens and Goodrum, 2006).

Information behaviour is a critical research area for informing reference practice, which must be predicated on what is understood about how users think about, search for and use information. That understanding includes a complex mix of users’ cognition, affect and behaviours. Information behaviour theories are not, however, well-integrated into reference practice. In her study of library- related trade publications, Kingrey (2002) found that information seeking concepts were not present. In their study of professional associations’ reference-related competency standards, Hicks and VanScoy (2019) found that information behaviour was generally not treated as an area of expertise.

The lack of attention to information behaviour theories in reference practice may originate with the values and preferences of reference professional education. O’Connor (2011) found ‘information seeking behavior’ in only 43% of reference syllabi. This figure was a dramatic reduction from earlier studies that found the concept in 79% (Powell and Raber, 1994) and 77% (Broadway and Smith, 1989). Beyond the broad concern about the disconnect between theory and practice, it indicates that reference professionals will enter the workforce lacking a critical knowledge base that should inform their practice.

Several studies have examined the use of information behaviour theories. Pettigrew and McKechnie (2001) studied use of theory in six of the main information science journals. They identified ‘a unique theoretical core… developing within IS’ (p. 70), including Kuhlthau’s information search process (e.g., 2004), Bates’ berrypicking (1989), Belkin, et al.’s anomalous states of knowledge (e.g., 1982) and Harter’s psychological relevance (1992). McKechnie, et al. (2005) identified the most frequently cited information behaviour papers for theoretical content, which included Wilson’s revised model (1999), Kuhlthau’s information search process, Byström and Järvelin’s task complexity (1995) and Chatman’s information poverty (1996). McKechnie, et al. (2008) identified the most frequently cited theories among papers from the ISIC conference, which included Kuhlthau’s information search process, Dervin’s sense-making (1992) and Savolainen’s everyday life information seeking (1995). Lund (2019) determined the most impactful theories in information behaviour (as defined by highest number of citations of the original introduction of the theory) to be Kuhlthau’s information search process, Bates’ berrypicking and Taylor’s information needs (1968).

Research questions

The research questions addressed by the larger study are:

  1. To what extent are information behaviour theories, models and concepts integrated into syllabi and textbooks for basic reference courses in North America?
  2. To what extent do reference instructors consider information behaviour theories, models and concepts in preparing their basic reference courses? Are there common characteristics or perspectives of instructors who integrate them in their courses?
  3. What are characteristics of information behaviour theories, models and concepts that are well- integrated into reference professional education?

This paper focuses on the first and third research questions, aiming to identify the information behaviour theories used in reference courses and explore their characteristics.

Research methods

The dataset are syllabi and textbooks for the foundational reference courses in North American masters-level programs taught in 2019. These programs provide the credential needed for most North American library and information centers. Fifty-six syllabi and reading lists were collected through web searches and direct email to instructors of the courses. For the purposes of this study, theory was defined loosely and inclusively, considering any theory used in information behaviour research as ‘information behaviour theory’.

Content analysis of the syllabi identifies references to information behaviour and specific information behaviour theories. Coding was conducted by three coders, who analysed a small subset of syllabi and compared findings in order to come to consensus on analytic coding. That consensus was achieved to 85% (Connaway and Radford, 2016), so the remainder of the syllabi were divided into three, and each coder analysed that set. Individual articles on reading lists and from textbooks were examined to identify information behaviour theories. A list of information behaviour theories included in syllabi and textbooks was compiled, and names of theories were reconciled where necessary. The number of times each theory was included in a unique syllabus or textbook was recorded.


Two-thirds of the syllabi (68%, n=38) and six of the ten textbooks mentioned information behaviour theory. The most-referenced information behaviour theory was Kuhlthau’s information search process model (e.g., Kuhlthau, 2004), in 16 syllabi and their associated reading lists, and in three textbooks.

Table 1 lists the theories that appear most frequently, providing the number of times they are used in syllabi/reading lists and in textbooks. The mentions of Simon’s bounded rationality (1955) and Chatman’s gratification theory (1991) appear in the dataset due to one heavily used paper (Connaway, et al., 2011). Case and Given’s (2016) text also had a large influence on the dataset due to the frequent inclusion of chapters five and seven on reading lists.

Table 1: Most frequently mentioned theories
Kuhlthau’s information search process (e.g., 2004)19163
Savolainen’s everyday life information seeking (1995)1495
Taylor’s information needs (1968)1266
Dervin’s sense-making (1992)1156
Belkin’s anomalous states of knowledge (1982)1082
Chatman’s information poverty (1996)972
Simon’s bounded rationality (1955)853
Chatman’s gratification theory (1991)853
Wilson’s model (1981)862
Wilson’s revised model (1999)871
Bates’ berrypicking (1989)770
Ellis’ model (1989)752


A limitation to the analysis is that the context of the use of theories was not examined in depth. In an earlier phase of the study, the team examined whether information behaviour was in general well- integrated into the reference courses or merely mentioned. Typically, textbook treatments of these theories were reasonable – the concepts were discussed and related to reference practice. Sometimes, however, a paper using information behaviour theory was listed in a Further Reading section. It is unknown whether students do this further reading or whether instructors discuss it. In addition, it is impossible to tell from a course reading list or syllabus how deeply an information behaviour concept is treated. Therefore, the larger project will include surveys and interviews with instructors to probe these questions.

The similarity between the results for this study and previous studies suggests that the theories that are most important in information behaviour research are also most important for educating future reference librarians. Kuhlthau’s information search process (e.g., 2004) appears at the top of all the lists. Harter’s psychological relevance (1992), which was high on Pettigrew and McKechnie’s (2001) study did not appear in this study’s dataset. All other top information behaviour theories in previous studies appeared several times in this study’s dataset, although they may not appear in Table 1. This comparison suggests that the same theories that are popular in information behaviour research are also popular in reference professional education.

Differences between the studies that look at diffusion of theories into the literature and this study which looks at diffusion of theories into professional education may be due to the different purposes of theory. Van der Veer Martens and Goodrum (2006) identified functions of theory based on the context in which they are cited and how they are viewed by theorists and editors. Some functions, such as accessibility (how easy a theory is to understand, how important it is and how well communicated) will be more important in helping the theory diffuse into professional education than other aspects of theory, such as generativity (how likely it is to generate new theory).

The research team was interested in why certain theories were represented in reference courses more than others. Some theories may be more relevant to reference practice, but all information behaviour theories are potentially relevant. The planned interviews and survey with reference instructors will provide more insight into this question. The results of this study do provide some possible factors, beyond relevance, which may account for the use of these particular theories in reference courses.

Information behaviour theories that are more well-known may be more likely to be used in reference courses. The similarity between the findings of this study and those of Lund (2019) suggest that instructors may be using these theories because they are impactful. Impactfulness may indicate

importance and usefulness, but may also simply reflect how well-known these theories are. Instructors’ choices may depend on more familiarity than importance if they feel that such theories are part of a canon.

Older information behaviour theories may be more likely to be used in reference courses. In his study of impactful information behaviour theories, Lund (2019) acknowledged that the age of a theory affects its impactfulness. When he adjusted for time, some more current theories increased in impactfulness, including Ingwersen and Järvelin’s integrative framework (2005) and Csíkszentmihályi’s flow theory (1990). The similarity in findings of the studies suggests that it is likely that age also affects the theories that are useful in reference syllabi and textbooks. Instructors may be more likely to teach concepts included in their own professional education. Van der Veer Martens and Goodrum (2006) found that theorists tended to work with theories that they learned in their doctoral programs, so perhaps instructors find their theoretical inspiration in their own coursework.

Instructors’ affiliation may affect the information behaviour theories used. Instructors in the dataset represented a range of positions, including faculty with information behaviour expertise and practicing librarians. Instructors therefore may have different levels of awareness of, interest in and value for information behaviour theory. However, the more important factor is the affiliation of the course designer, who created the learning objectives, chose the textbook and readings and wrote the lectures and course activities. Given Julien and O’Brien’s (2014) finding that researchers tend to do theoretically framed work more than practitioners, it could be that researchers are more likely to theoretically ground their courses or their textbook chapters than practitioners. Future phases of this study will look at the relationship between instructor affiliation and use of information behaviour theory in courses and will probe who makes decisions about the integration of information behaviour theory into courses.

The efforts of the information behaviour theorist may affect whether their theory is used in reference courses. This study’s finding that Kuhlthau’s information search process (e.g., 2004) is the most frequently used theory supports this suggestion. Kuhlthau’s dedication to providing practitioners with clear advice about how to incorporate the information search process model into practice may be the reason that it is included in so many reference courses. McKechnie, et al. (2008) found that information behaviour scholars do a poor job of writing up their research for practitioner access, but they can facilitate integration of their findings into reference professional education by deliberately making connections to practice, collaborating with practitioners and instructors to communicate their relevance and disseminating their work through practitioner-oriented channels.


The low rate of incorporation of information behaviour theory into reference courses in North America is troubling. However, when reference courses include information behaviour theory, students are being exposed to the theories important to information behaviour scholars. More study is needed to understand whether those theories are the most relevant for reference or simply the oldest or most familiar to instructors. More work is also needed to understand how extensively these theories are treated and how well they are applied to reference practice. The research team will probe these questions with course instructors in future phases of the study.

About the authors

Alison Harding is a Masters student in the Department of Information Science at University at Buffalo in Buffalo, NY. She can be reached at ahall5@buffalo.edu.
Heidi Julien, Ph.D. is a Professor in the Department of Information Science at the University at Buffalo. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Western Ontario (Canada). Her research focuses on information behaviour and digital literacy. She can be reached at heidijul@buffalo.edu.
Amy VanScoy is an Associate Professor in the Department of Information Science at the University at Buffalo. She holds a PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research explores how information professionals’ values, attitudes, and beliefs affect their professional practice. She can be reached at vanscoy@buffalo.edu.


How to cite this paper

VanScoy, A., Julien, H., & Harding, A. (2020). Diffusion of information behaviour theory into education for reference service. In Proceedings of ISIC, the Information Behaviour Conference, Pretoria, South Africa, 30 September - 1 October, 2020. Information Research, 25(4), paper isic2025. Retrieved from http://InformationR.net/ir/25-4/isic2020/isic2025.html (Archived by the Internet Archive at https://bit.ly/2JXr1oR) https://doi.org/10.47989/irisic2025

Check for citations, using Google Scholar