vol. 15 no. 3, September, 2010


Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference on Conceptions
of Library and Information Science—"Unity in diversity"

Diversity in the conceptions of information use

Jarkko Kari
University of Tampere, Department of Information Studies and Interactive Media, 33014 University of Tampere, Finland

Introduction. The task of this paper is to conceptualize the use of information: what does it really mean? The objective is to go through all the different notions of information use, and thereby lay bare their diversity.
Method. The analysis is mainly based on research literature in the field of information studies. The Library and Information Science Abstracts database was searched for publications by using certain keywords and quality as selection criteria.
Analysis. The conceptions of information use are categories which were inductively formed based on the written material.
Results. Seven major conceptions were discovered: information use as information practices, as information search, as information processing, as knowledge construction, as information production, as applying information, and as effects of information.
Conclusions. The paper demonstrates the diversity in the conceptions of information use. Fashioning a systematic and unifying model which could be utilized as a standard tool requires more work on the main categories and the whole that they form, which will be accomplished in the second part of the article.


The use of information is a phenomenon which appears everywhere in the contexts of everyday life - or, in fact, of all life (Savolainen 2009a). According to Cole (2008), the broadest possible matter for which we use information concerns the survival of our species. The use of information, knowledge and research is also more widely considered as a success criterion (Dunn 1986). Both information and knowledge are representations of reality, but information is located outside one's mind (e.g., text in a book), and knowledge is located inside one's mind (e.g., a memory of the aforementioned text). In other words, knowledge is what a person knows, whereas information can be either raw material for knowledge, or externalized knowledge. (Kari 1996.) Against this background, it is paradoxical that even though information use can be considered as the most essential research area in studying information seeking (Tuominen 1996), it seems to have become nearly stagnant. Indeed, Savolainen (2009a) states, justifiedly, that information scientists have paid inadequate attention to the use of information. Because of this, theoretical development in the research area has been very slow.

It is seemingly difficult to capture information use, as the concept is often vaguely defined even in research studies, or it is not defined at all (Larsen 1980, Savolainen 2009b) - like for example in the study of Harris et al. (2006). It is no wonder, then, that in the literature, much confusion has appeared about the exact meaning of using information (Bouazza 1989, Dunn 1986). How should we understand this description, for example: 'information use is that seeking behavior that leads to the use of information in order to meet an individual's needs' (Bouazza 1989: 146). In it, the use of information is not only two separate stages of the same process, but the latter one is not even defined. In cases like this, readers easily fall by the wayside', or they get the impression that the writer does not know what s/he is talking about.

Dunn (1986) and Larsen (1980) imply that empirical attempts to measure the ambiguous and poorly understood phenomenon exactly have led to incomparable and conflicting research results. Thus, the research area has lacked unity (Holzner and Fisher 1979). There is no single right definition for the use of information, but it can be understood in many different ways (Kirk 2002, Savolainen 2009c). Earlier, such ideas have been treated of by at least Kari (2007), Kirk (2002), Machlup (1980), Maybee (2006, 2007), Meyer (2003), Savolainen (2000, 2009a), and Ward (1983). In all of these sources, the examination has remained more or less limited, however, probably due to a narrow focus or the material used.

In the case of information use, terminological problems are also big, because kindred expressions such as knowledge use, information use, knowledge utilization, information utilization, and information processing are synonymously, and their meaning is often not clarified (e.g., Savolainen 2009a: Introduction, Todd 1997: 354). The widely varying language makes it difficult or impossible to compare the essential differences in the concepts, estimates Dunn (1983). However, we should not stay on the level of mere words in our examination, but should go beyond them and concentrate on the concept, in other words on what those words refer to. We must be careful in each case when choosing and defining the term. The article uses information use as a general term, but the next section will introduce more exact terms which reflect the different understandings of information use. Without this kind of a holistic language, the confusions and misunderstandings which afflict the study of information use would only continue (Larsen 1980).

Therefore, the task of this paper is to conceptualize the use of information: what does it really mean? The objective is to go through all the different notions of information use, and thereby lay bare their diversity. The analysis is mainly based on research literature in the field of information studies. The (Library and Information Science Abstracts database) was searched for publications by using certain keywords (information use and knowledge use') and quality (peer-reviewed articles and books from scientific publishers) as selection criteria. Someone might argue that the literature search was too narrow: what about other fields like reading research? While it is true that the search focused on the designated core area (as outlined above), following up references in the literature led to the discovery of additional sources in neighbouring areas. Cook and Brown (1999), for example, discuss information use in terms of epistemic work (see below). Such instances enrich our understanding of information use. The conceptions of information use covered in this article are categories which were inductively formed based on the written material.

Information use can be conceptualized ...

By appealing to holism, Hughes (2006) proposes that as a multifaceted experience, the use of information covers the user's behaviour, connecting (to the information source), searching for information, information skills, utilizing information, information literacy, information needs, context, reactions and effects, as well as results (of learning). Hughes does not justify in more detail why the concept should be defined so broadly. Of course, the use of information is an informational phenomenon, but so are many others, too. Let us embark on studying what more limited and thus more realistic meanings have been ascribed to information use, and what features each class of information use exhibits (Larsen 1980).

... as information practices

In this general class, the use of information can be characterized as intellectual activity which is manifested through various thoughts and deeds (Limberg 1998). Correspondingly, by following ideas proposed by Cook and Brown, information use may be understood as epistemic (knowledge) work which is done as a natural part of action or practice, for example when estimating the relevance of work-related information that has been retrieved from the Web (Savolainen 2009a).

In Maybee's interview study, four different ways to understand the use of information were found. From one of them, one can get a fairly good, general idea of what kinds of function can belong to information use. In it, the participants experienced the use of information as building a knowledge base which can then be used for different purposes. The information uses contained decision-making and problem-solving, forming a personal point of view, sharing the information to others, and creating new knowledge. The properties described in the knowlegde base category were directed at the need to understand the viewpoint of the information provider. However, the primary focus of the consciousness structure was on how the information is utilized, and building one's knowledge base was secondary. (Maybee 2007.) Many others have also listed different forms of information practice which the use of information is considered to mean:

On the other hand, the use of information can also be understood as an informational process (cf. Maybee 2006), the stages of which the various informational operations are. For example in Kirk's interview study, one notion of information use was the packaging of information, which was experienced as three different stages. These were named as searching, manipulating and publishing information. The beginning of the information packaging process was marked by collecting information for a certain purpose, and the end was marked by presenting the packaged information to its intended audience or recipient. (Kirk 2002.) Similarly, Rich (1997) proposes that the process of information use is composed of the following events: 1) fetching information, 2) processing information, and 3) applying information.

Also in Maybee's study, some participants solely experienced information use as beginning and performing a process. The use of information contained steps or stages which typically began with noticing an information need. As a consequence, a search was made, and information was accumulated. This could be a repeated process. Eventually, the information was applied to satisfy demands and to resolve the need for information. The main attention of the interviewees' consciousness structure focused on the processes by which information was looked for. Even though information use was a part of the process described by the participants, the information had to be obtained before it could be used. (Maybee 2007.)

On the basis of the literature, the use of information would seem to be a really multiform phenomenon: almost any kind of human interaction with information will do as information use. However, Choo (2006) specifies that the use of information is an essential part of evaluating, adopting and applying new information. So, information practice is not necessarily the same thing as information use, after all, for it can also be composed of other things than just information use. In the following subsections, we will take a closer look at what kinds of informational activity information use can be understood as.

... as information search

When the use of information is considered as searching information, it covers the same processes as traditionally the terms information seeking and information retrieval. In one model, information use is positioned as a subconcept of information search (Spink and Cole 2006); different sources are naturally searched for information with the help of different tools. The instrument point of view is analysed at least in Maybee's study, in which one of the discourses was to experience the use of information as understanding technology and technological tools. It was seen that information sources are approached through technological tools. In this way to experience information use, an important component was to be able to use the technology well. In this category, the participant concentrated on finding information sources. The structure of consciousness reflected focusing on technology, showing the subsidiary nature of information sources. (Maybee 2007.)

However, it is more ordinary that the use of information is connected to looking for information sources. Wilson (1982) talks about use in the sense of acquiring a document, and in information studies, this is probably one of the most popular; even though, on the other hand, most implicit, ways of understanding information use. (However, this is just a minor point of Wilson's. He deals with the usefulness of a current awareness service and how social workers and their managers used the information they received through the associated photocopy service. Some of those uses relate to what I below term 'knowledge construction' (e.g., confirmation of what one already believed), and some to 'information production' (e.g., writing a report).

Likewise, when patrons encounter information packages in the library, this is often called use (Ford 1977). According to Rich (1983), in turn, use is loosely defined as the consideration of all the available information sources when weighing alternative ways of action. On the other hand, there is a tendency to use the expression information use as a comprehensive term which refers to the ways in which people choose and approach information sources (Savolainen 2009b).

In Maybee's study, the participants who experienced the source conception of information use concentrated on information about information sources and on understanding their properties. One aspect of this was to determine the reliability of the information, based on the features of the source. The participants who perceived the use of information in this way focused on finding information from the sources. The structure of their consciousness reflected concentrating on the sources, showing the secondary nature of information use, which takes place after locating the information. (Maybee 2006, Maybee 2007.) It could be added here that the use of information typically includes selecting information (Choo 2006), too - in other words, its mere finding is not enough.

... as information processing

Searching and finding information are usually followed by processing it. This typically belongs to the use of information (Choo 2006), too. In a literature review by Meyer (2003), for example, one of the ways in which the people of rural communities used information was to process information when collecting, looking for, receiving and communicating it. The processing of information comprises how information is understood, analysed and modified (Limberg 1998). Havelock (1975: 88) also uses the words received and consumed, but here they belong to the same theme as Limberg's understanding. A scientific sample of modifying as information use was not found, and only one sample of analysing was found: use is more or less reflexively weighing the relevance of materials, and the quick bypassing of unessential portions thereof (Savolainen 1998). So in this case, the analysis meant evaluating information.

A more general concept than understanding would perhaps be incorporating. Spink and Cole (2006) write that the problem-solving definition of information use signifies the incorporation of the information that has been found in the users' existing knowledge base by thinking, by making notes, by somehow cognitively processing, or by adopting the information. The making of notes distinctly refers to the inclusion of information in the person's information base (one's collection of information), whereas the thinking, cognitive processing and adopting refer to understanding or internalizing information - in other words, to changing information into knowledge. Judging by the literature, internalization seems to be the most central process of information processing in information use.

Internalizing begins when the information has possibly been assessed on the face of it, and it is taken under closer scrutiny (Savolainen 1998). Using is said to take place when the problem solver swallows the contents of the information package (Ford 1977). The use of information comprises cognitions and behaviors in relation to adopting information; they lead to cognitive effects as a prelude to resolving an informational problem or need (Todd 1997). According to Savolainen, information use is usually conceived as the last stage of the process of being informed. Seen in this way, information use takes place when the information which was searched for and found in some source is internalized - by reading an article, for example. (Savolainen 2000: 35.) Machlup (1980) claims that the recipient only uses information by listening or reading, but in my opinion, at least watching and feeling (especially in the case of the blind) could be added to the list. However, we may more generally state that information use is the reception and understanding of information (Machlup 1979, Machlup 1980).

Early research identified use with the complete adoption of information in its original form, reveals Larsen (1980, 1983). Nowadays, we know that only a part of information is often used, and it is not internalized directly (cf. the mechanistic metaphor of information transfer) but through interpretation (Todd 1997). Sometimes, the use of information may indeed be referred to as how people interpret sense data or the informational features of things (Savolainen 2009a, Savolainen 2009c). Tuominen clarifies, suggesting that, in constructivist studies, the part of interpreting information is emphasized instead of the reception of fixed information packages. Information is not so much received, but the meaning of a certain document or message is only constructed in connection with the interpretation process(es). (Tuominen 1996.) Interpreting can be characterized so that in it, individuals relate information to their own ideas, and thus personal understandings of the matter in question are created (Savolainen 1998).

... as knowledge construction

In all probability, the processing of information usually leads (through understanding it) to the construction of knowledge. Tuominen and Savolainen (1997) regard this as the first stage of using information. In the cognitive-constructivist approach, the use of information is understood as a process in which constructs are shaped or designed to function as a basis for thinking (Savolainen 2009a). Researchers have written about these constructions with more concrete terms. Information use can, for example, be conceptualized as one of the ways in which meanings are made and unmade (Savolainen 2006). One metaphor asks us to imagine that the use of information is similar to the drawing and constant editing of mental images or maps (Dunn 1986).

In one of the categories discovered by Kirk, on the other hand, information use was experienced as a process of developing new knowledge and conceptions. The human being develops these understandings from information and from analysing and meditating on it. The evidence suggested that there are cognitive and affective sides in this sort of information use. When physical, perceptible activity was mentioned, it was related to withdrawing from a situation, so that space and time could be obtained for the appearance of new understandings and ideas. (Kirk 2002.) Also other researchers have paid particular attention to understanding. In a proposal by Savolainen (2006), the use of information may signify that all kinds of cognitive and affective elements which can help in the creation of a new understanding are utilized. In an interview study by Ross (2000), in turn, readers used texts in order to make sense of life in very different situations.

Most of all, however, construing seems to be connected to knowledge. The use of information can be defined as the interpretation and coding of environmental stimuli, whereby the human organism creates new and adapted knowledge structures (Cole 2008). Other researchers only mention one knowledge totality in the human mind. For example, in the fundamental equation of Brookes, information use is seen as the connecting of small parts' or information to one's existing knowledge structure (Savolainen 2000). In Maybee's study, some participants considered the use of information as building one's personal knowlegde base for different purposes (Maybee 2006). According to Wilson, in turn, information use behaviour consists of physical and mental actions when information that has been found is connected to the person's existing knowlegde base. It may thus include physical acts such as marking text passages to help notice their importance or significance, as well as mental acts to which belongs, for example, comparing new information with one's existing knowledge. (Wilson 2000: 50.)

The construction of knowledge has also been examined in relation to the need for information. In that case, the use of information is characterized by resolving an unstable state of knowledge, such as a question (Giannini 1998). Correspondingly, Savolainen interprets Dervin's Sense-Making theory as approaching information use metaphorically in terms of gap-bridging: the actor designs and creates a bridge over a knowledge gap by pulling together cognitive and affective elements. By walking along the bridge, the individual reaches the other edge of the gap; the project is over and a new meaning has been created. (Savolainen 2000.) In this way, constructing knowledge responds to the information need.

... as information production

As the counterbalance of internalizing, it is also naturally possible to externalize human knowledge. When producing information, the actor creates an expression of knowledge which others can also observe - at least in principle. At its simplest, it is a question of sharing information, in which case information is mainly forwarded. This is examplified by the information flow conception which surfaced in Kirk's study: Information use was experienced as making it possible for information to flow. The information flow concentrated on the sharing of information with people. It differed from the information packaging conception in that sending or exchanging information was dependent on interaction with others, and it was not as clearly defined as the three stages of packaging information. The information flow conception most distinctly resonates with the last stage of packaging information, in other words with publishing. (Kirk 2002.) In another empiric case, the use of information was determined to be the way in which development organizations apply information in order to present the contents of development projects to their target groups in the rural communities of a developing country (Meyer 2003). This can be considered as information sharing, even though it was probably preceded by the editing of the information to suit the recipients.

Information is also used by justifying a matter to others with it. Thus people appeal to an external authority, so that their message would get more credibility. This can be called discursive use. When examining information use as discursive action, it is important to keep in mind that an attempt is made to render a version of the state of affairs or of events authentic, particularly in situations in which this version has somehow become controversial (Tuominen and Savolainen 1997).

Furthermore, it is possible to produce information by combining information. According to Ward (1983), one kind of information use takes place in the process of developing a synthesis product - in other words, when written and spoken forms of information are amalgamated. Also other kinds of information or knowledge can be combined. So for example, this paper is a result of information/knowledge use, because I (the writer) combined my own knowledge and information received from others in order to produce it.

... as applying information

When the use of information is conceptualized as applying information, information is not seen as intrinsically valuable, but above all as a tool (Kari 2009): the role of information is to function as a resource in some process. A slight taster of this was already obtained with discursive use (in previous subsection). The application of information has been talked about with different expressions. Some people use the term applying (see section ... as information practices), whereas others favour the term utilizing. An example of the latter can be found in Niemelä's (2006) doctoral thesis in which information use is defined as the utilization of the information contents of different channels. In Dervin's Sense-Making theory, the word uses' in turn signifies ways in which cognitive bridges, or answers to questions, are put to work (Savolainen 1992). Also implementation has been considered as information use (Larsen 1980).

Generally speaking, information - particularly internalized information, or knowledge - is thought of as something which is used or utilized in certain action (e.g., Cook and Brown 1999, Larsen 1980, Savolainen 2009a, Tuominen and Savolainen 1997). The use of information is thus constructive and functional, because it is oriented to action (ibid.). Orlikowski's findings suggest that information use is always anchored to concrete repertoires of activity which form practices (Savolainen 2009a). She holds that knowledge is something which is carried out, every day and over time, in people's practices. This kind of knowing-in-practice always takes place at a certain moment: in other words, it is not an abstract process. (Orlikowski 2002: 250, 252.)

In his flow model, Al-Fedaghi (2008) proposes that the use of information is a gateway from the informational sphere to the non-informational sphere. However, the matter is not this simple, because applying information can be informational instead of or in addition to practical (e.g., Kari 2008). The following list illustrates the issue:

... as effects of information

Sometimes, information use has been perceived as the effects which information has on individuals or processes. In these cases, the actor is not active in regard to the information, but the other way around: s/he is the object of changes brought about by the information (cf. Kari 2007). It has usually been a question of individual effects, or, in Robert Taylor's (1991) terms, of what the information does to the person and his/her problem or situation. Let us look at the matter a little more closely. Studies of information use at the micro level often try to identify the changes which the adopted information causes to the individual's cognitive or knowledge structures (e.g., Savolainen 2008, Savolainen 2009c). In Zaltman's (1983) view, we could define information use as a change in the confidence which the person has towards a certain information object. According to Al-Fedaghi (2008), in turn, the uses of information are represented by changes which take place in the person's non-informational spheres. Also Dervin's Sense-Making theory suggests tha dt the effects of information reflect information use. Its element useoes not refer as much to the use of meanings as to what positive or negative follows from making meaning to the individual's situation. These consequences are called helps and hurts (e.g., Dervin et al. 1982: 818, Savolainen 2000: 43).

Processual effects are also mentioned in the literature treating of information use. In Machlup's (1980) opinion, for example, use must refer to the activities directed or affected by the received information. In a general sense, the use of information can mean messages as a part of education process in which the new information and knowledge form a part of the foundation influencing future decisions and actions (Taylor 1986). In an empirical article by Rich, use, a little similarly, refers to information being included in policymaking process. The potential to affect a decision is a critical part of his definition of use. If information is used, it impacts on policy decisions. (Rich 1977.)


This paper set out to examine how the concept of information use has been defined in scholarly literature. It soon became evident that different researchers understand the use of information differently. Seven major conceptions thereof were discovered: information use as

At a more concrete level, the spectrum of competing ideas seems endless (Dunn 1983), or at least really wide. It is difficult to find even two sources in which the use of information would be defined in the same way. Not only are different phenomena referred to with the same term, but its scope also varies. Sometimes, information use is considered as nearly an all-embracing concept - for example as almost any kind of informational phenomenon (Hughes 2006); whereas, at the other extreme, information use is seen very narrowly: for example, as building cognitive bridges (Savolainen 2006). Sometimes in the latter case, though, it may be that one wants to limit the examination to a certain part of information use. What other reasons can there be for the variety of conceptions? At least the researchers' theoretical background commitments: their pre-understanding leads them to define the use of information in a certain way, and they are not necessarily able to see or accept other points of view. Information use can also mean different things depending on the context (Taylor 1986). For example, when Cook and Brown as well as Orlikowski approach the phenomenon of information use in the context of practice - understood as a set of situational actions (Savolainen 2009a) - it is natural to understand information use specifically as the application of information.

Owing to the relative comprehensivess of the source literature, it is assumed that the main categories constructed in this paper cover the whole domain of information use. It is thus very unlikely that there are major types of information use which would have somehow escaped the analysis here. It is to be noted, however, that the findings that have been presented here do not represent the eternal truth, but only scholars' contemporary notions of information use. Our understanding will grow with new research. Indeed, the paper at hand has merely demonstrated the diversity in the conceptions of information use. While the results may be useful as such in research and even practice, fashioning a systematic and unifying model which could be utilized as a standard tool requires more work on the main categories and the whole that they form. Also, not all notions of information use are equally fruitful. The question then becomes, how to differentiate between the more and less useful conceptions. These objectives will be accomplished in the sequel to this paper.


I would like to thank the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters for funding this research. The University of Washington (in Seattle, WA, USA) also deserves my gratitude for infrastructural support. This article was written when I was a Visiting Scholar at its Information School. Furthermore, I appreciate the comments offered by the anonymous referees and some participants of the CoLIS 2010. An earlier version of the article was presented at the 7th International Conference on Conceptions of Library and Information Science, on 21-24 June 2010, in London, UK.

About the author

Jarkko Kari is an Adjunct Professor at the Department of Information Studies and Interactive Media, University of Tampere, Finland. This is the institution where he also received his master's and doctoral degree. He can be contacted at: jarkko.kari@uta.fi.

How to cite this paper

Kari, J. (2010). "Diversity in the conceptions of information use" Information Research, 15(3) colis709 [Available at http://InformationR.net/ir/15-13/colis7/colis709.html]
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