Selecting and using information sources source preferences and

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VOL. 15 NO. 4, DECEMBER, 2010

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Selecting and using information sources: source preferences and information pathways of Israeli library and information science students

Jenny Bronstein Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan, 52900, Israel

Abstract Introduction. The study investigated the source preference criteria of library and information science students for their academic and personal information needs. Method. The empirical study was based on two methods of data collection. Eighteen participants wrote a personal diary for four months in which they recorded search episodes and answered an open-ended questionnaire. Analysis. First, data were collected concerning the participants' preferences for information sources and the types of issues that brought them to look for information. Secondly, data from participants' answers to the open ended questionnaire were analysed using the content analysis method. The third phase of the process identified the sequences or pathways of information sources used by participants. Results. The main preference criterion for networked sources was accessibility which was perceived as easiness of use, time saving, language and physical proximity. The main preference criterion for human sources was the quality and reliability of the information provided by the source. Conclusions. Diaries proved to be a valuable tool for getting a glimpse into the participants' thought processes and decision making, while the researchers with an overall view of source preferences. The concept of information pathways further clarified source preferences.



Wilson defines information seeking behaviour as, the purposive seeking for information as a consequence of a need to satisfy some goal. In the course of seeking, the individual may interact with manual information systems (such as a newspaper or a library), or with computer-based systems (such as the World Wide Web). (Wilson 2000: 49).

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The interactions users choose to make with information sources, or in other words, their preferences for some information sources over others available to them are of great significance to the understanding of users' information seeking behaviour; this understanding can result in the development and provision of information services that better serve users' information needs. The purpose of this study is to examine the different criteria by which users value and prioritize information sources and to identify how these criteria influence the sequences or pathways in which users choose to use information sources. The present study investigated the information seeking behaviour of library and information science students as recorded by them in a diary and in a subsequent open-ended questionnaire. This reflective method of investigation provides an innovative viewpoint to the users' own perception and evaluation of their use of the information sources both for personal and for academic purposes.

Literature review

The reasons users select a specific information source have become of great importance because of developments in the field of information in the past decades. Information source preferences of users have been affected by the development of computers and telecommunications technologies, the information explosion and the availability of a whole range of modern information technologies for the efficient use of information resources One consistent finding in the literature has been that, in most cases, when choosing among options available to them, users will base their decision upon the single criterion of least average rate of probable work (Allen 1977, Anderson et al. 2001, Culnan 1983, O'Reilly 1982). This theory was first proposed by Gertsberger and Allen (1968) and is based on Zipf's law of Least Effort (Zipf 1949). Allen (1977) found that in selecting information sources, engineers act in a manner that is intended not to maximize gain but rather to minimize loss. The loss to be minimized is the cost in terms of effort, either physical or psychological, which must be expended in order to gain access to an information source. Accessibility is intended as a measure of the perceived cost associated with the use of a source and is better related to the frequency of use than the quality of the information.

The notion of accessibility has been a central idea in the study of source preference in the literature and it has been defined in different ways over the years. Several studies have found that information sources that are easier to use are perceived as more accessible and will be used more frequently than less easy to use sources. This premise explains the users' preferences for easy to use and accessible sources such as informal communications and personal collections (Anderson et al. 2001; Green 2000; Leckie et al. 1996; Von Seggern 1995). Besides ease of use, time constraints appear to be an influential parameter in the accessibility of the source (Savolainen and Kari 2004).

In a study on accessibility Fidel and Green (2004) uncovered twelve different meanings of the concept of accessibility such as physical proximity, interactivity and previous knowledge of the source among others.

Although many of these studies have found that the perceived quality of the information in the source is unrelated to its use, a number of studies challenge this finding (see Bronstein and Baruchson 2008). Orr (1970) argued that the quality of the information is the most important consideration in selecting an information source when the information sources available to users are equivalent in their information-yielding potential. Concurring with this, Swanson (1987) asserted that when the ability of one source to substitute another is rather low, the quality of information becomes a decisive criterion of selection. Marton and Choo (2002) found a strong relationship between the perceived quality of information sources and their use. This relationship was attributed to the need of women in information technology professions to overcome information overload by using those information sources that could provide them with the most relevant information. Other studies claimed that as physical access to information becomes more widespread through networks it seems reasonable to expect users to distinguish between sources on the basis of quality rather than accessibility (Auster and Choo 1993; Klobas 1995).

Hertzum and colleagues established that 'the perceived quality of a source or piece of information is essentially a matter of establishing to what extent one is willing to place trust in it' (Hertzum et al. 2002: 2). They defined trust as an assumption of risk and depending on the nature of this risk; trustworthiness may mean discretion, reliability, competence, integrity or empathy. Furthermore, to the user, trust involves an assessment of whether the other person possesses the required level of knowledge and skills to fulfill the user's information need. The issue of trust was revealed as a major criterion for participants in this study particularly with regards to human information sources.

Findings in this study will show that both the accessibility of the information source and the quality of its information are relevant criteria when selecting information sources.

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The second aim of this study was to identify and understand the sequence or pathway in which participants used information sources. A pathway is a route someone follows in the pursuit of answers to questions (Johnson et al. 1996). The notion of information pathways was developed by Johnson on the idea of the information field which 'represents the typical arrangement of information stimuli to which an individual is daily exposed' (Johnson 2003: 750). While the notion of an information field describes a static situation, an information pathway represents the active choices of this individual regarding the information sources s/he prefers within this specific information field (Savolainen 2008).

For example: consulting a librariansearching Googlesearching an academic database.

Users can select different information paths for different information needs, but Savolainen claims that 'individuals may follow habitual pathways within a field' (Savolainen 2008: 278). This study investigated the information pathways described in the participants' diaries and attempted to uncover the criteria behind the construction of these pathways

The study

Research questions

This study addresses the following questions:

1. What kind of information sources participants used both for academic and for personal purposes? 2. According to which criteria do participants select the information sources they use when searching for information? 3. What kind of information pathways, that is sequences of sources, do participants use when searching for information? 4. Which criteria guide the creation of these sequences or pathways?

The collection and analysis of the data

The data were collected from eighteen diaries written by students from the Department of Information and Librarianship Studies at Beit Berl Academic College from November to February 2008 and from a semi-structured questionnaire that served to clarify some issues from the data collected from the diaries.

Diaries were chosen as a method of data collection for a number of reasons. First, they can be put to use beyond the collection of micro data and can equally be applied to the collection of data about a process (Lewis and Massey 2004). As Toms and Duff noted, 'the diary can encapsulate a lengthy, mostly non-observable process' (Toms and Duff 2002: 1236). That is, diaries can go beyond counting and collecting to enable the participant to describe and reflect on his or her behaviour and can represent a viable alternative to observation. Secondly, the use of diaries as data collection elements ensures the immediacy of data recording that prevents inaccuracy and enables the collection of a complete picture (Dillman 2000). The keeping of real-time diaries has been referred to as event sampling. Event sampling is 'designed to provide detailed descriptions of specific moments or events in a person's life' (Reis and Gable 2000: 190). Participants were asked to record data in their diaries whenever they searched for information in order to avoid distortions inherent in asking individuals to recall and summarize past events.

Writing a diary allowed participants to record their thoughts and reflections as well as their actions as they seek information. Different types of diaries have been adapted for used by different types of disciplines such as psychology, anthropology, and health care. Diaries have also been used in several studies in library and information science (Goodall 1994; Kulthau 1993; Mellon 1990; Toms and Duff 2002). The present study used the type of diary that records a purposeful and structured account of activities related to a specific area in the lives of participants. In order to avoid many of the disadvantages outlined in the literature regarding the quality of data obtainable the focus of the diaries was constrained to specific areas of information seeking behaviour (Johnson and Bytheway 2001; Toms and Duff 2002).

Participants were asked to record as fully as possible instances in which they describe two broad areas of their information seeking behaviour:

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types of information sought, and sources used to find information.

Diaries written in this study were used as a means of sequentially recording multiple types of content and were combined with the specific details of an open-ended questionnaire as a second data collection method, with the purpose of achieving the necessary triangulation. The purpose of using a triangulated approach was to mutually reinforce one research method with the other. This approach is consistent with the perspective enunciated by Denzin who commented on the desirability of 'combining multiple observers, theories, methods and data sources' with the aim of overcoming 'the intrinsic bias that comes from single-methods, single-observer, and single-theory studies' (1970: 313). The questionnaires, consisting of two open questions, which asked to participants to reflect on the following two issues, were distributed to participants after they completed their diaries:

the overall criteria that guided their preferences for information sources; and the reasons why they chose a specific source to begin an information search. Eighteen students participated in the study, seventeen

female and one male. The ages of the participants ranged from 29 to 55 averaging 34 years. Eight participants had university degrees and were studying for a Diploma in librarianship and ten were undergraduate students in the programme.

The data analysis process occurred in three phases: first, data were collected concerning the participants' preferences for information sources and the types of issues that brought participants to look for information; secondly, a qualitative content analysis of the data from participants' answers to the open ended questionnaire was performed, with the purpose of identifying the criteria guiding the source preference of participants; finally, the sequences or pathways of information sources used by participants were identified.

Limitations of the study

There are two main limitations to the study. First, the population sample was small and specific and in no way representative. Second, a shortcoming of using diaries as a data collection tool resides in their personal and uncontrolled nature. Participants recorded the information they perceived as relevant to the subject and their writing could have been influenced by the awareness that the diary was written for a third party.


The findings of this study will be presented in two main sections. The first section presents quantitative findings collected from the diaries relating to the source preferences for participants and qualitative findings of the content analysis of the data collected from the questionnaires regarding the criteria guiding those preferences. The second section will present the quantitative findings related to the sequence in which information sources were used and the qualitative findings resulted from content analysis of the participants' descriptions of these sequences.

Source preferences

The analysis of the data collected from the 18 diaries contained 193 entries of which 116 (60.1%) were for personal needs and 77 (39.9%) were for academic needs. The first stage of the analysis identified twenty different information sources. There were 308 mentions of information sources, that is an average of 1.59 sources per search and an average of 17.11 mentions per diary. To compare the findings of the study, the sources mentioned in the diary entries were classified in the following four types of information sources:

Networked sources: this category included all types of information sources in networked form such as Internet sites of all types, search engines (specifically Google), academic databases and networked reference materials.

Human sources: this category included people in the immediate circle of the participants, friends, family members, and colleagues. Printed sources: this category included all types of information sources in print form such as newspapers, books, magazines and

reference materials. Expert sources: this category included experts or professionals who have a clear area of expertise and a weak or previously non-

existent ties to the user such as doctors or social workers. Table 1 presents an overall view of the source preference of participants, the analysis of the data collected from the diaries that shows the distribution of the data by type of source.

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Table 1 presents an overall view of the source preference of participants, the analysis of the data collected from the diaries that shows the distribution of the data by type of source

Information source Networked sources Human resources Printed resources Expert resources

Percentage 63.96 18.50 14.94 2.60

Table 1: Distribution by source types (N=308)

As indicated in Table 1 the main source type used by participants were the networked sources followed by human sources. Printed and expert sources were the two categories least used.

The following stage in the analysis classified the searches described in the diaries into thematical groups; similar to other studies on information seeking behaviour (e.g., Chen & Harnon 1982; Savolainen 2008). The searches analysed were thematically diverse and are presented in Table 2.

Types of search Information on a specific subject related to an academic assignment Product or company searches Information on health issues Looking for a service Planning an event Information on a movie, play or concert Planning a trip Looking for a song Government information Genealogy search News information Other searches (such as information about cooking and political parties)



12.43 6.21 6.73 6.73 5.69 5.18 3.10 3.10 2.59 2.59


Table 2: Distribution of searches by theme

Table 2 shows the wide variety of themes described in the diaries entries. The main theme was subject searches of all kinds followed by searches for information about products or companies. Participants also searched for information on subjects such as health, genealogy and tourism among others. From the data presented in Table 2 can be seen that the searches described in the diaries comprised a wide range of information needs and are representative of the participants' information interests.

Criteria of source preferences

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The purpose of the questionnaire was to give participants the opportunity to explain their selection of information sources recorded in their diaries. The analysis of the data collected from the eighteen questionnaires was analysed by means of qualitative content analysis by constantly comparing the explanations participants gave about their preferences, and coded into the two main categories:

Availability and accessibility of information sources: this category included criteria such as physical proximity of the information source, full-text availability, time saved by using the source and easiness of use of the information source.

Content availability: this category related to the nature of the information found in the source and it includes criteria such as quality and reliability of information

The following section presents the findings of the qualitative analysis of the data from the questionnaires. Findings will be presented and discussed according to the type of criteria.

Availability and accessibility of information sources

The perceived accessibility of an information source is a concept that has been addressed in several studies in different ways over the years (Gerstberger and Allen 1968; Allen 1977; Culnan 1985; Green 2000; Fidel and Green 2004; Bronstein and Baruchson 2008;). In the present study the concept of accessibility appears as a central criterion and it received five different meanings: physical proximity, ease of use, fulltext availability and language and sources that save time.

Physical proximity.

The convenience of accessing information from home or office was revealed as a major criterion in the source preferences of participants. That is, they perceived as accessible those sources that were available to them from their personal computers; this is probably one of the reasons why percentage of use of networked sources was so high in this study:

Because I am usually really pressed for time, I will choose the easier path, that is, I will choose those sources that are easier and closer for me to use. Closer usually means sources available from my PC at home.

In some cases printed sources in personal collections physically close were perceived as more accessible:

I needed some information on oak trees but I did not want to spend too much time searching so I just looked at the encyclopedia I had at home and found what I needed.

Ease of use

Friendly and easy to use interfaces are major criteria in deciding what source to use. This criterion is at the basis of the users' preferences for Internet sources specially Google:

Many of my searches start with Google because it is really easy to use and it allows access to a wide range of information sources, sort of a starting point.

Saves time

Accessibility is intended as a measure of the perceived cost associated with the use of a source, therefore accessible sources are perceived to minimize the effort that the user has to invest in using the information source. In the present study the concept of effort was revealed as time spent accessing the information needed:

The main reason for choosing an information source is time. The choice of a source will be based on how much time I have to invest in getting the information I need.


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