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Information Search Process & Guided Inquiry

What is the Information Search Process?

The Information Search Process (ISP) is a six stage model of the users’ holistic experience in the process of information seeking.  The ISP model, based on two decades of empirical research, identifies three realms of experience: the affective (feelings), the cognitive (thoughts) and the physical (actions) common to each stage.  Central to the ISP is the notion that uncertainty, both affective and cognitive, increases and decreases in the process of information seeking.  A principle of uncertainty for information seeking is proposed that states that information commonly increases uncertainty in the early stages of the search process. Increased uncertainty indicates a zone of intervention for intermediaries and system designers.  

from a PowerPoint presentation on the ISP by Carol Collier Kuhlthau

Model of the Information Search Process


Kuhlthau, C. C. ( 2004). Seeking meaning: A process approach to library and information services. 2nd edition, Westport CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Stages of the ISP

The information on each of the Stages of the ISP are taken directly from a PowerPoint presentation on the ISP by Carol Collier Kuhlthau

In the first stage, initiation, a person becomes aware of a gap in knowledge or a lack of understanding, where feelings of uncertainty and apprehension are common. At this point, the task is merely to recognize a need for information.  Thoughts center on contemplating the problem, comprehending the task, and relating the problem to prior experience and personal knowledge. Actions frequently involve discussing possible avenues of approach or topics to pursue. 

In the second stage, selection, the task is to identify and select the general topic to be investigated and the approach to be pursued.  Feelings of uncertainty often give way to optimism after the selection as been made and there is a readiness to begin the search.  Thoughts center on weighing prospective topics against the criteria of task requirements, time allotted, personal interest, and information available.  The outcome of the possible choices is predicted, and the topic or approach judged to have the greatest potential for success is selected.  Typical actions are to confer with others or to make a preliminary search of information available and then to skim and scan for an overview of alternative topics.  When, for whatever reason, selection is delayed or postponed, feelings of anxiety are likely to intensify until the choice is made.

The third stage is exploration characterized by feelings of confusion, uncertainty, and doubt which frequently increase during this time. The task is to investigate information on the general topic in order to extend personal understanding.  Thoughts center on becoming oriented and sufficiently informed about the topic to form a focus or a personal point of view.  At this stage in the ISP, an inability to express precisely what information is needed can make communication between the user and the system awkward.  Actions involve locating information about the general topic, reading to become informed, and relating new information to what is already known. In this stage the information encountered rarely fits smoothly with previously-held constructs, and information from different sources frequently seems inconsistent and incompatible. People may find the situation quite discouraging and even threatening, causing a sense of personal inadequacy as well as frustration with the system.  Some actually may be inclined to abandon the search altogether at this stage. Exploration is considered the most difficult stage in the ISP when the information encountered can increase uncertainty prompting a dip in confidence.

The fourth stage in the ISP, formulation, is the turning point of the ISP, when feelings of uncertainty diminish and confidence increases.  The task is to form a focus from the information encountered.  Thoughts involve identifying and selecting ideas in the information from which to form a focused perspective of the topic.  A focus in the search process is comparable to a hypothesis in the process of construction.  The topic becomes more personalized at this stage if construction is taking place.  While a focus may be formed in a sudden moment of insight, it is more likely to emerge gradually as constructs become clearer.  During this time, a change in feelings is commonly noted, with indications of increased confidence and a sense of clarity. People often express an awareness of being involved in finding meaning such as purposefully engaging in “focusing and narrowing,” in seeking “a thread,” “a story,” “answers to all my questions,” “a central theme” or “a guiding idea.”  The four criteria used to select a topic may be again employed to choose a focus: Task; What am I trying to accomplish? Time; How much time do I have? Interest; What do I find personally interesting? Availability; What information is available to me?

Collection is the fifth stage in the ISP when interaction between the user and the information system functions most effectively and efficiently. At this point, the task is to gather information related to the focused topic.  Thoughts center on defining, extending, and supporting the focus.  Actions involve selecting information relevant to the focused perspective of the topic and making detailed notes on that which pertains specifically to the focus.  General information on the topic is no longer relevant after formulation.  The person, with a clearer sense of direction, can specify the need for pertinent, focused information to intermediaries and to systems, thereby facilitating a comprehensive search of available resources.  Feelings of confidence continue to increase as uncertainty subsides, with interest in the project deepening. 

In presentation, the sixth stage, feelings of relief are common with a sense of satisfaction if the search has gone well or disappointment if it has not.  The task is to complete the search and to prepare to present or otherwise use the findings.  Thoughts concentrate on culminating the search with a personalized synthesis of the topic or problem.  Actions involve a summary search in which decreasing relevance and increasing redundancy are noted in the information encountered.

Carol Collier Kuhlthau

Carol Collier Kuhlthau is Professor Emerita of Library and Information Science at Rutgers University where she directed the graduate program in school librarianship that has been rated number one in the country by U.S. News.  She achieved the rank of Professor II, a special rank at Rutgers requiring additional review beyond that for full professor. She also chaired the Department of Library and Information Science and was the founding director of the Center for International Scholarship in School Libraries (CISSL). She is internationally known for her groundbreaking research on the Information Search Process and for the ISP model of affective, cognitive and physical aspects in six stages of information seeking and use.