• If you are citizen of an European Union member nation, you may not use this service unless you are at least 16 years old.

  • Stop wasting time looking for files and revisions. Connect your Gmail, DriveDropbox, and Slack accounts and in less than 2 minutes, Dokkio will automatically organize all your file attachments. Learn more and claim your free account.



Page history last edited by FOLIO Team 11 years, 3 months ago



Facilitated Online Learning as an Interactive Opportunity





Planning and Conducting Information Needs Analysis (PACINA)


Briefing 1

 January 2005


An Introduction to Information Needs



What are Information Needs?

Definitions of ‘information need’ are criticized for being ‘too vague or highly complex in nature – clouding further some already muddy water’ (Nicholas, 1996). Line (1969) defined information needs as that ‘information that would further this job or this research and would be recognised as doing so by the recipient’. “Information needs arise when a person recognises a gap in his/her state of knowledge and wishes to resolve that anomaly…it is the information that individuals ought to have to…solve a problem satisfactorily” (Nicholas, 1996).

It soon becomes clear that when we talk about “information need” we often confuse four related but distinct concepts (Line, 1969):


  • NEED: What an individual ought to have, for his work, his research, his edification, his recreation, etc. The legitimization of information needs is inseparable from the values of society. In the past if you had an information need while at work to choose where to go on holiday you would either go to the travel agent on your lunchbreak or spend work time leafing through brochures. Nowadays there are a few brief clicks between using the Internet to satisfy your legitimate information needs to equip you for your work and using the same system to meet your unauthorised needs to choose your holiday.  
  • WANT: What an individual would like to have, whether or not the want is actually translated into a demand on the library. Individuals may need an item they do not want, or want an item they do not need (or even ought not to have – as with our example of seeking a holiday on work time). A want, like a need, is a potential demand.
  • DEMAND: What an individual asks for; more precisely, a request for an item of information believed to be wanted (when satisfied, the demand may prove not to be a want after all). Individuals may demand information they do not need, and need or want information they do not demand. Demand is partly dependent on expectations, which in turn depends partly on existing library provision. A demand is a potential use.
  • USE: What an individual actually uses. A use may be a satisfied demand, or it may result from browsing or conversation – information recognized as a need or a want when received, although not previously articulated into a demand. Individuals can only use what is available; use depends on both provision and availability of library services




Information needs may also be dormant (when people are unaware that they have information needs) or unexpressed (when people are ‘aware of their needs but do nothing about them, either because they cannot or because they will not’ (Booth, 2000)). Increasingly it is recognised that user information needs not only include the resources and technologies required to meet a need but also the skills and competencies required to utilize these. Several factors shape determination of users’ needs – the objectives of the organization as a whole, the resources available to meet identified needs, the relative priority attached to differing types of need, and the legitimization of needs by the organization. For consumers of health and social care a pragmatic definition of ‘information need’ is:


the lack of appropriate information on which to base choices which could lead to benefits or services which may improve a person’s well-being (Tester, 1992)”.




What are the main types of Information Need?

“Information needs” not only involve a knowledge deficit but also the accompanying uncertainty that such a deficit might occasion. By implication information needs might be addressed either by overcoming the knowledge deficit itself or by allaying the anxiety that this deficit evokes. Thus a junior house officer may be concerned about passing a professional examination. They may need current information in order to pass their exams but they may also want a certain number of revision books to reassure themselves that they are doing what they can to prepare for the exams. If such books are available from their library they may be satisfied with this aspect of the library service even though their ultimate perception of the library as a whole may only occur later in the light of their success or otherwise in the exams themselves.  

Wilson (1981) thus relates information need to human need as categorised by psychologists:

  • physiological needs, such as the need for food, water, shelter etc.;

  • affective needs (sometimes called psychological or emotional needs) such as the need for attainment, for domination etc.;

  • cognitive needs, such as the need to plan, to learn a skill etc.

While all three are interrelated it is clear that information needs are only affective or cognitive (with the memorable exception of the tramp on the park bench who covers himself with newspapers to avoid freezing to death! (Wilson, 1981)). Wilson and Walsh (1996) synthesise the literatures of psychology, health communications, decision making and information systems design to identify the following categories of need:

  • for new information;
  • to elucidate information held;
  • to confirm information held;
  • to elucidate beliefs and values held; and
  • to confirm beliefs and values held.




The need for information involves four steps (Taylor, 1968): the visceral need, the conscious need, the formalized need and the compromised need. The visceral need is an unexpressed need that becomes a conscious need as a person creates a mental description of the need. A person then formalizes the need into a rational statement and seeks to answer it by presenting it to an information system (compromised need).



Why are people’s Information Needs different?

“Information need” is not a homogeneous concept. Differences may be observed between professions or within a professional group, e.g. comparing senior house officers with consultants. Even the same individual may exhibit variations according to whether they are seeking information for keeping up to date, acquiring new ideas, developing competence in the field or supporting research work in progress. Psychological factors also determine information needs as users may differ according to their personal characteristics (e.g. Pavlenko and Weinberg, 1990). Nicholas (1996) itemizes eleven characteristics of information need: subject, function, nature, level, viewpoint, quantity, quality, date, speed of delivery, origin, and processing and packaging (Nicholas, 1996). Such a framework is useful when reviewing the needs of a particular group.


Recent years have seen a shift in emphasis away from a concentration on information systems themselves towards the needs of the people who may need to use them. Thus Wilson claims that information needs 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)”.


Kuhlthau (1991) emphasises the importance of exploring the feelings, thoughts and actions associated with the information search process from the user’s perspective. Many concepts are intrinsically subjective and personal (Kuhlthau, 1999):


  • ``uncertainty’’, one person may feel that they have sufficient information to make a decision whereas someone else with the same information might feel differently.
  • ``complexity’’, one person may feel that a problem or need is complex whereas another may feel that it is straightforward.
  • ``the concept of enough’’, individuals may differ in their satiability even when provided with the same quantities of information.





Why are Information Needs important?

We need to understand “information needs” if we are going to design information systems (or indeed a library service) to meet those needs. We also need to understand information needs to evaluate effectively whether or not they have been met. In this sense, at least, it corresponds to “diagnosis”; just as you cannot evaluate the success of a treatment unless you have a diagnosis and a desired outcome against which to measure it, you cannot plan an information service or system unless you have identified information needs and desired outcomes. Similarly, just as it is risky to embark upon treatment without diagnosis, it is unhelpful to design an information system without a detailed picture of the information needs of the users.



What are the potential challenges?

Nicholas (1996) identifies five main "obstacles to meeting information needs":

  • personality,

  • time,

  • access to information sources,

  • the availability of information resources, and

  • information overload.



Where can I find examples?

  • Bryant, Sue Lacey (2004) The information needs and information seeking behaviour of family doctors. Health Information and Libraries Journal 21 (2), 84-93.

  • Cogdill KW. (2003) Information needs and information seeking in primary care: a study of nurse practitioners. J Med Libr Assoc. 91(2):203-15. http://www.pubmedcentral.gov/articlerender.fcgi?tool=pmcentrez&artid=153161

  • Forsetlund L & Bjorndal A (2001) The potential for research-based information in public health: identifying unrecognised information needs. BMC Public Health 1(1):1. Epub 2001 Jan 30. http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2458/1/1

  • Guillaume, LR. & Bath, PA (2004). The Impact of Health Scares on Parents' Information Needs and Preferred Information Sources: A Case Study of the MMR Vaccine Scare. Health Informatics Journal 10: 5-22

  • Harrison, J, Hepworth, M, de Chazal, P (2004). NHS and Social Care Interface: a Study of Social Workers' Library and Information Needs. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science 36: 27-35.

  • Lee P, Giuse NB, Sathe NA (2003). Benchmarking information needs and use in the Tennessee public health community. J Med Libr Assoc. 91(3):322-36. http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=164395&rendertype=abstract




  1. Booth, A. (2000). Identifying users' needs. In: Booth, A & Walton G (Eds). Managing knowledge in health services. (pp. 101-111). London: Library Association. (2000) http://www.shef.ac.uk/scharr/mkhs/chapters/chap07.rtf

  2. Kuhlthau, C.C. (1991) Inside the search process: information seeking from the user's perspective. Journal of the American Society for Information Science 42(5), 361-371.

  3. Kuhlthau, C.C. (1999) The role of experience in the information search process of an early career information worker: perception of uncertainty, complex, construct, and sources. Journal of the American Society for Information Science 50(5), 399-412.

  4. Line, M B (1969) Information requirements in the social sciences: some considerations, Journal of Librarianship, 1 (1), 1–19.

  5. Nicholas, D (1996) Assessing information needs: tools and techniques, London: Aslib.

  6. Pavlenko, R L and Weinberg, M A (1990) Some psychological aspects of the professional reading of medical specialists, Health Information and Libraries, 1 (4), 32–6.

  7. Taylor, R S (1968) Question-negotiation and information seeking in libraries. College and research libraries 29(3):178-94

  8. Tester, S (1992) Common knowledge: a coordinated approach to information-giving. London: Centre for Policy on Ageing.

  9. Wilson, T. D. (1981). On user studies and information needs. Journal of Documentation, 37(1), 3-15.

  10. Wilson, T. D., & Walsh, C. (1996). Information behaviour: an inter-disciplinary perspective. London: British Library Research and Innovation Centre. (BLRIC Report 10). Retrieved 28th December 2004 from http://informationr.net/tdw/publ/infbehav/prelims.html   





Comments (0)

You don't have permission to comment on this page.