Cole, Charles Information need: a theory connecting information search to knowledge formation. Medford, NJ: Information Today, Inc., 2012. xiii, 224, [2] p. ISBN 978-1-57387-429-8. $59.50

Information need is an under-researched concept and I have to acknowledge some responsibility for this situation, because, in 1981 I published a paper which suggested, among other things, that, because need is a mental state, associated with fundamental human needs, it was difficult to research and that, consequently, we ought to focus on what could be observed, that is, how people behave when they seek information. As a result, the exploration of information seeking behaviour became the 'orthodox' direction of research in the field. Charles Cole (a former PhD student of mine) has tackled the problem of information need in an original fashion and, in doing so, has produced a theoretical monograph that will certainly be required reading for anyone studying information behaviour, at any level, for years to come.

The author bases his study, in part, on current developments in evolutionary psychology, which:

seeks to find out, for example, why and how modern humans survived while our Neanderthal cousins did not. This field is trying to get at, among other things, why and how modern humans needed, sought, and used information that was different from the Neanderthals. Could we then utilize these fundamental aspects of information need, why and how it works, to build into intuitive working information systems? (p. x)

Another building block, as the last sentence of the previous quotation suggests, is his dissatisfaction with the present design principles of information retrieval systems, which, as he says, are based on the proposition that people need facts or answers. The counter to this position is the third building block: that information need must be related to knowledge formation, which, as he notes, has been proposed as part of information science at least since Manfred Kochen's 1969 paper on Stability and the growth of knowledge (when JASIST was still called American Documentation).

The book has four parts: Part I is concerned with the nature of information need, taking as its starting point, Taylor's four-level model of needs, which the author uses to distinguish between the computer science and information perceptions of the notion of information need. Essentially, the argument is that computer science deals with what Taylor called the compromised need, the need statement presented to the information system in the language the user anticipates will be needed by that system. The information science perception, on the other hand, has always had a richer content, as a consequence, the author suggests (and I would agree), of it predating the emergence of computer-based information retrieval. The very notion of the reference interview, for example, presumes that the query statement from the user will be incomplete and ill-formulated at best and, possibly, fundamentally flawed in the user's understanding of the issue that concerns them. Drawing upon Bruner's three-step cycle of perception and Minsky's frame theory, Cole's argument proceeds to the point of defining information need as:

part of an adaptive mechanism that enables humans to react to changes in a person's physical (or social) environment. (p. 51)

from which he proceeds, via an exposition of Donald's evolutionary psychology perspective, to state a theory of information need based upon six propositions. I shall not attempt to present these here, as they are not simple statements, but rather complex sets of ideas. Suffice to say that Taylor's ideas, coupled with evolutionary psychology, and the concept of social framing constitute the basis of theory. The theory is linked to information searching and Cole identifies three phases of searching (which readers will recognize as being based on Kuhlthau's information search process): pre-focus, in which a diverse set of resources is explored; focusing, during which the search is narrowed and intensified; and post-focus, which involves more precise search statements 'to obtain evidentiary or support information for idea or focus statement or thesis'.

In his development of the theory, the only point at which I find myself at odds with Cole is in his identification of information seeking, information searching and information use as information behaviours. I would consider these not to be separate behaviours (the plural form was dragged back into English, from the deserved obscurity into which it had fallen, by psychologists in the 1950s) but the activities that constitute information behaviour. This may seem to be a rather trivial linguistic argument, but use of the plural form only serves to confuse. To analyse behaviour effectively we must see it as holistic, constituted of separate activities, like all human behaviour, that are capable of individual analysis.

Part 2 of the work illustrates how information needs are created in the pre-focus and focusing stages of the search process. This section is illustrated by examples from the author's work, at Sheffield, on the search behaviour of PhD students in the field of history, but, before those illustrations are presented, there is considerable development of the theoretical concepts. Thus, both the pre-focus and focusing stages are elaborated further: in the pre-focus stage, Cole identifies the associative function as critical, noting that the person's associations will keep changing during this phase as different information is found that has a bearing on the search topic. Cole's PhD thesis proves to be a very rich source of data supporting the 'five circle' model of information need that constitutes part of the theory, and those data are used very effectively to support the theoretical propositions. Additional data comes from supporting studies that were carried out later, based on a quasi-experimental study of students undertaking search in support of writing a social science essay.

Part 3 consists of two chapters, one of which provides a story board presentation of an information system designed through the application of the information need theory. The information system is termed the Astrolabe (a metaphorical connection to the device used to determine position at sea before the invention of the sextant). As presented here, the Astrolabe is an interactive search system which aims to enable the student to: understand the essay task; how to produce the core idea of the essay; asking the student to identify their needs for information in support of writing the essay; and 'Facilitating the instantiation of the user's deepest Q1 level of information need.'

This last step requires further explanation: the Q1 level is Taylor's unconscious, visceral level of information need, and the theory's proposition is that this level must surface, if the information system is to be fully effective in meeting the user's need. Or, as the author says in his concluding chapter:

the central thesis of this book is that the underlying information need in fact does not instantiate fully until the user achieves focus. (p .194)

Charles Cole has produced a truly original piece of work in this small volume (minus the references and index it extends to only 195 pages), but the theory expounded here is likely to have a very significant impact on future research in information behaviour and information searching.

Professor Tom Wilson
May, 2012