Part 1: Start Your Research Process

6 Defining an Information Need

You’re in class and the teacher asks where the mitochondrial matrix is located. You’re at work and your boss wants to know if a new software update has any known glitches. You’re in a bar and a friend is arguing with you about the actual height of Jake Gyllenhaal. You might not have been in any of these exact situations, but you might recognize the feeling: there is a gap in your knowledge that requires new information to reduce uncertainty and improve your understanding. This is an information need.

Once you recognize you have an information need, you can start planning your approach for how to address this knowledge gap. You can think about what type of information you might need to fill the gap. For example, you’d need a structural diagram of mitochondria to answer your teacher, consumer reviews and technical specifications of the software update to respond to your boss, and a measurement to win the bet with your friend. Once you think about the type of information you’re looking for, you expand your plan to include where you would start searching to find that information, who you’d expect to create the information that addressed your need,  and how much information you actually need before you feel like your gap has been sufficiently closed.

Think of your information need like a map. When coming up with your information need you need to define your destination as well as the path you’re going to take. Your destination is the end point that helps you determine that all your questions have been answered and your knowledge gap is successfully closed. Your path helps you stay on track to your destination, making your search efficient because you know what sources you’re looking for to address your knowledge gap and you know what search tools to use based on where you might expect to find those sources.

Let’s look at some examples:

  1. The questions I need to address are: Where are libraries headed? What does the future look like for the library industry? To answer these questions, I first need industry research on current employment prospects, which I would expect to find in government sources. I also need percentages about how libraries are expected to grow, which I would expect to find in specialized search tools like IBISWorld and Business Source Premier.
  2. The gap in my knowledge is how to improve my classroom management skills in a preschool environment when students struggle with sharing toys. Because I’m a professional in the field, I need professional information, so I will look for scholarly articles that
    research behavioral interventions and strategies for dealing with shared toys in a similar environment to my preschool classroom. To find these articles, it will be necessary to search in specialized education search tools.
  3. With a family member recently diagnosed with asthma, I have a gap in my knowledge about treatment options, emergency care, and long-term symptom maintenance. Since this will impact my understanding of medical care, I want to make sure I have the best information possible, relying on the types of sources medical professionals might use like scholarly medical research found in peer-reviewed journals or summarized in comprehensive medical encyclopedias respected by doctors. These sources are primarily found in costly, specialized search tools.
  4. I have a need to create an annotated bibliography for a class that requires at least one peer-reviewed source for a total of four sources found in at least two search tools. The subject I’ll use to create the bibliography is how library usage impacts student success in college. To find the four sources, I’ll rely on peer-reviewed research for all four since I’ll require experimental evidence establishing a relationship between libraries and graduating from college. I will need to use specialized search tools focused on the subject of education.
  5. Due to the recent attention in Washington, D.C., on civil asset forfeiture, we need to better understand the rates at which property is seized, how these assets are used by the city, and how to best address this issue without hurting the city’s budget or its citizens. To ensure this issue is addressed with the best information available, this report will rely on sources from the city budget, police records, and evidence-based research found in peer-reviewed journals. Research for this report will rely on Washington, D.C. government sources as well as specialized criminal justice search tools.

And with that, you’ve started your research process, all kicked off with just a little information need! The simple act of defining the information need helps you reflect on what you’re looking for so that you can build a strategic approach to your research, be more efficient in your searching, and feel confident in the information you find.

Keep in mind that your information needs might change as you start researching. You might run into unexpected detours like the sources you chose aren’t providing the information to address your knowledge gap. Or you might take some back roads and decide to change your destination based on new information you found. That’s OK! Each journey is different. The important thing to remember is, if you get lost, make sure you stop and ask for directions—like asking for help from your instructor or a librarian!



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Introduction to Finding Information by Kirsten Hostetler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.