Information Retrieval

Broadly speaking, Information Access and Retrieval is the search for, and eventual discovery, of requested or required information.  Information can be anything a user requires.   Often, if a user discovers a knowledge “gap” that places him or her in an “anomalous state of knowledge” (Dervin, 1992; Belkin et al 1982).  The anomalous state of knowledge, or ASK, hypothesis states that “an information need arises from a recognized anomaly in the user’s state of knowledge concerning some topic or situation and that, in general, the user is unable to specify precisely what is needed to resolve that anomaly” (Belkin et al 1982).  Users must bridge the knowledge gap through the process of “sensemaking,” which will eventually lead to a search for information (Dervin 1992).  If a user discovers that he or she is unable to find the required information, he or she will often seek assistance from an information professional.  This leads to the reference interview.  One of the most important aspects of Information Access in a professional setting such as a library is the reference interview.  The reference interview is defined as having three distinct phases, “establishing contact with the user, finding out the user’s need, and confirming that the answer provided is actually what was needed” (Ross et al. 2002, 5).  The reference interview is vital to especially in cases when a user’s initial query is vague, broad, or has missing information or components.  Effective interviewing should result in identifying the user’s “true” information need.   Cassell and Hiremath note that five parts are crucial to conducting a successful reference interview: “establishing rapport with the user, negotiation the question, developing a strategy for a successful search and communicating it to the user, locating the information and evaluating it, ensuring that the question is fully answered – the follow-up, and closing the interview” (Cassell et al. 2004, 17).  Once the information professional understands a user’s true information need, the outcome is retrieval of relevant sources that meet the need. While information access can be an area of knowledge by itself, it has a strong connection to information retrieval especially in today’s digital information environment. Historically, Ranganathan (1931) discussed five foundations for the library science field that focus on information access and retrieval concepts that are still valid today.

Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science.

Ranganathan’s first law, “books are for use”,  applies to the foundational philosophy of Information Access and Retrieval (Ranganathan 1931, 1).  This is because books, or other outlets of information, are meant to be used, and librarians should facilitate a user’s access to and retrieval of them. The second and third laws, “every reader his book” and “every book its reader”, respectively, (Ranganathan 1931, 74, 299) mean that each person (or user) should have access to the materials he or she needs.  All users are entitled to information, and it is imperative that they  find the information that meet their needs. The Fourth law is “Save the time of the reader,” (Ranganathan 1931, 336), which stresses  the importance of being knowledgeable and effective in meeting user needs efficiently.   A failed reference interview could lead to  wasted time for both the user and the information professional. Finally, the fifth law, “the library is a growing organism” reflects the need of the information professional to keep abreast of  the changes and growth in one’s library environment and the “information field” itself in order to provide effective library services including enriched experience to users (Ranganathan 1931, 382).

Information Access and Retrieval serves as one of the foundations for Library and Information Sciences because searching for information in today’s web environment has become the norm.  To this librarian, Information Access and Retrieval goes beyond Google.  One of the duties of circulation employees at the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library (CLPL) is to work at the information desk; since being employed at CLPL , the researcher has fielded reference questions on myriad subjects.  It is important to the researcher to always attempt to follow Ranganathan’s laws, and to keep the users’ knowledge gaps and anomalous states of knowledge in mind in order to provide the best information for patrons.  The researcher finds it gratifying to search for and find exactly what the patrons need.

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Application of Information Retrieval is found in almost any facet of life, especially given recently technology developments.  Part of Information Retrieval is learning about the search process and keeping in mind the user’s knowledge gap or anomalous state of knowledge.  As mentioned previously, this is important because many users may discover a gap in their knowledge and may not consult with information professionals before accessing information.  As searching for information can yield retrieval of results from any information system, assisting patrons in locating information on topics,  literature or medicine, for example, in a library setting is enjoyable, despite being frequently limited by things such as the library’s rules.  Often, patrons simply need help finding a book within our library, which is typically fairly simple, unless a book has been misshelved or is incorrectly labeled.  Occasionally, however, patrons request materials not held by CLPL, which is occasionally more difficult.  In these instances, it is important to follow Cassell and Hiremath’s five guidelines for the reference interview.  If a patron requests a specific book, then finding and requesting it is usually a pretty simple process.   One thing to do is narrow the search through brief questioning in order to determine the best way to search in the library’s computer system.  Once a general search topic has been found, the librarian can search for that in the system in order to narrow down the possibilities further.  Often, seeing what materials the library has under the broader topics is helpful, especially when under a time constraint.  Frequently, information a patron requests can possibly be found in more general books, or books without titles denoting each specific subject it contains.  Once books have been found under the topic, the librarian may try to narrow the search again, usually by asking if the information is for a school project, paper, etc. and by asking neutral questions such as “Tell me more about your project…”.   This may prompt the patron to give a little more detail about why they need whatever it is for which they are searching.  Different needs typically denote different directions in the searches performed.  Occasionally, the issue of limited time can impede the retrieval of the materials a user needs; however, if a time constraint does occur, users can be directed to the library’s Magnolia Databases to search for articles for their topics.  As necessary, conduct a reference interview with students to explore further their information needs so that they may be guided to search in the appropriate databases.  This researcher has found this method to be successful in ascertaining the user’s needs in a timely manner.

This product, the Reference Interview, is based on a test in INSC 530- Information Access and Retrieval; it demonstrates my initial understanding of Information Access and Retrieval and its application in a library setting.  The composition provides an example of a hypothetical reference question and the method through which the reference interview would be conducted.  The second portion of the piece is a description of what the student considered to be a “successful” reference interview.

This product, the Reference Evaluation, is a group project that focuses on the evaluation of various reference services.  As a group, the students chose two reference questions in order to evaluate various reference services.  The students were to search for answers or relevant information in online databases, through asking reference librarians (face-to-face), and also to send them to various online chat reference services.  The goal is to compare and evaluate the answers across these venues and provide recommendations for using them.

The following products, Artificial Intelligence Presentation and Artificial Intelligence Paper,  were completed for the Advanced Information Retrieval course.  They demonstrate my ability to access and retrieve quality information.  The product reflects the researcher’s understanding of Artificial Intelligence as based on information gathered through information retrieval.

Through the courses I have taken in Information Access and Retrieval, users are not alike and, therefore, a reference interview should be customized to each user based on his or her information need.   Even when searching for information for myself, I find that it useful to perform a reference interview with myself to find out what it is that I am really searching for.  I believe that practice will enhance my reference interviewing skills because these skills are one of the essential traits of a successful reference information professional.


Cassell, Kay Ann, and Uma Hiremath. Reference and Information Services in the 21st Century: an introduction. New York: Neal-Schuman, 2004.

Belkin, Nicholas J., Robert N. Oddy, and Helen M. Brooks. “ASK for information retrieval: Part I. Background and theory.” Journal of documentation 38, no. 2 (1982): 61-71.

Dervin, Brenda. “From the Mind’s Eye of the User: The Sense-making Qualitative-Quantitative Methodology.” Qualitative Research in Information Management. 61-84. 1992.

Kuhlthau, Carol C. Seeking Meaning: A Process Approach to Library and Information Services. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex Publishing Corp., 1993

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick, Kristi Nilsen, and Patricia Dewdney. Conducting the Reference Interview. New York: Neal-Schuman, 2002.

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