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Seeking Meaning at the Public Services Desk
by Rebecca Feind

A Review of Carol Collier Kuhlthau’s Seeking Meaning:  A Process Approach to Library and Information Services (Libraries Unlimited, 2004).  Rebecca uses this text in her training workshops with General Education faculty on assignment creation. --ed.

As a 10-year (but hopefully ungrizzled!) veteran of being a Reference Librarian, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to observe how people seek information.  Like most overzealous librarians, I have the ability to bury people in sources.  I try to reign in my enthusiasm for reference books and article databases by being sensitive to level of information the person in front of me needs, or seems to need, or specifically asks for.  There are times when the person I’m helping is not sure of how much information is needed, or is hesitant to keep exploring when several sources are available.  This is often the stage when I find myself walking the line between mediator and librarian.  Besides needing to confess to someone (“I just started this paper.”  “I’m terrified.”  “This is the last paper I have to write.”   “I’m almost done with the last chapter of my book.”), sometimes students and researchers just need to talk through the process.  It isn’t necessarily that they need a librarian, but they need a sounding board so they can think through their steps or take stock of where they are in their research. 

Until recently, I never knew how to explain this phenomenon.  I just knew that sometimes people needed to talk about where they were with their topic, and maybe they didn’t even really need more sources (although I still feel professionally obligated to send people away with at least one citation).  Carol Collier Kuhlthau’s book Seeking Meaning specifically addresses this phenomenon, describing library users’ need for mediation within a holistic framework of information seeking.

The first chapter provides a literature review of Anxiety and Uncertainty in Information Seeking, focusing on the need to consider the affective experience as well as the cognitive experience.  Kuhlthau calls for a view of how people use information that includes their affective states.  She cites studies of library anxiety and technology anxiety, noting that these studies attribute anxiety to a lack of experience with sources and technology.  Kulthau is not satisfied with this explanation, explaining that anxiety is “an integral part of the information-seeking process…Uncertainty is a necessary critical element in any process of construction”.

Kulhthau’s next chapter provides a concise discussion of the constructivist view of learning.  This chapter summarizing the constructive process provides discussions of educational theorists Dewey, Kelly, and Bruner.  In her overview of George Kelly’s psychological perspective of constructivist theory, she explains his Personal Construct Theory that “constructs are built out of a person’s experience to anticipate future events” and that they are the patterns we use to make sense of the world.  She quotes Kelly’s assertion that “almost everything new starts with confusion”.         

Kuhlthau advises that anxiety and uncertainty are easier to handle if they are anticipated.  What I take from her text, besides a richer understanding of how people’s personal constructs affect their approach to seeking and interpreting information, is the knowledge that sometimes it is okay to just let reference desk patrons talk about their topics rather than direct them to ever-more sources.  While topic development and selection often flower more successfully with lots of books or periodicals to browse, refining and understanding a topic does not require an entire new search strategy or rejection of the original topic.  Listening and detecting the real level of information needed in an inquiry is a skill I’ll keep working on for the next ten years. 

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