An Introduction to the Information Behaviour of Arts and Humanities Students and Researchers for new Subject Librarians. An Annotated Bibliography.

Photograph of Temple Church, a round church.
Temple Church, City of London

This is a piece of work I put together for my MA in Library and Information Services Management course from November 2017. It is an annotated bibliography aimed at subject librarians taking on roles with arts and humanities faculties. It probably focuses more on humanities than arts to be honest.


Al-Shboul, M. K., & Abrizah, A. (2014). Information needs: Developing personas of humanities scholars. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 40(5), 500-509.

This article outlines research carried out in Jordan with humanities faculty that found they often engage in information seeking behaviour in response to an information need, usually triggered by an event such as a conference or recommendation from a colleague. Browsing and information encountering was identified as being important too, especially to establish research needs and topics. According to research, age played a part with older scholars preferring their own book collection built up over the years. However younger scholars mixed print and digital more freely, partly because of familiarity with technology but also because they had not built up their own collection.


Barrett, A. (2005). The information-seeking habits of graduate student researchers in the humanities. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 31(4), 324-331.

This article explores the information behaviour of a specific group of humanities scholars: graduate researchers. Graduate students were found to be more comfortable with technology than older studies about humanities scholars have suggested, and less reliant on their own collection of sources. Their information behaviour was typified by browsing, citation chaining and continuously reading in subject area, not always just seeking something specific. The author concludes that humanities graduate research students have certain things in common with faculty and other things in common with undergraduates, and that graduate school should be seen as a continuum between the two.


Bulger, M., Meyer, E., de la Flor, G., Terras, M., Wyatt, S., Jirotka, M., Madsen, C. (2011). Reinventing research? Information practice in the humanities. London: Research Information Network.

This report discusses the prevailing stereotype of humanities researchers as individuals who typically work alone with a limited range of items held by libraries and archives, rather than electronic resources. The report uses six case studies to outline how this is an outdated perception and cannot be attributed to the majority of humanities researchers. The case studies demonstrate that whilst humanities researchers still want to engage with print, they can move fluently between print and digital resources, seeking a wide range of formats including audio and images. The case studies do uncover the challenges humanities researchers face and what humanities researchers feel they need for the future from information tools and technologies.


Dougan, K. (2012). Information seeking behaviors of music students. Reference Services Review, 40(4), 558-573.

This article introduces a number of key challenges music students face when looking for information. Finding scores and recordings could be especially challenging, particularly those with different versions,  foreign language titles, general use terms like sonata, or unofficial but familiar names, or those works recorded in parts. The study also found that many music students in the study use iTunes and YouTube to find the titles of pieces of music, as well as Amazon, to check or find items. The students then use this information to find them directly in the library catalogue or database.


Falciani-White, N. (2017). Information behaviors of elite scholars in the context of academic practice. Journal of Documentation, 73(5), 953-973.

This paper examines the habits of elite scholars including skimming, scanning, reading, data collection and analysis, as well as searching. The paper concludes that elite scholars identified browsing book collections, online databases and the wider web as very important information behaviour. They also spoke of the significance of serendipity, alongside direct searching.


Hartsell-Gundy, A., Braunstein, L., Golomb, L., & Association of College and, Research Libraries. (2015). Digital humanities in the library: Challenges and opportunities for subject specialists. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries.

This edited collection of essays explores the growing movement of humanities practices towards the digital, and the information behaviour and needs of scholars engaging in the digital humanities. Emerging needs include how to use digital tools to create, curate and analyse stuff. Information architecture and information about information have become information needs in themselves, as humanities scholars increasingly need support with metadata, encoding text, accessibility, discoverability, preservation and managing the lifecycle of information. Subject Librarians need to support arts and humanities scholars with producing and creating new digital tools because they focus so much on documents and artefacts.


Johnson, Z., & Walsh, A. (2013). Journeying without a map leads to… adventures or accidents? A study of drama academics’ approaches to discovering information. In A. Walsh, & E. Coonan (Eds.), Only connect: discovery pathways, library explorations, and the information adventure (pp. 71-86). Huddersfield: Innovative Libraries.

This paper outlines two types of information behaviour identified through interviewing drama lecturers, asking them to discuss both their own information seeking behaviour and what they encourage their students to do. The authors use the metaphor of a forest to describe the information universe. The key question for them, is how the drama lecturers navigate through that forest. The first approach identified was “Following the Paths” which was characterised by starting with prior experience and knowledge, and using these to fill any perceived gaps in knowledge. The second approach, “Exploring the landscape,” places less emphasis on planning a specific route through the forest. Serendipity, browsing and continual information encountering, were identified as key to this approach.


Kennedy, L., Cole, C., & Carter, S. (1999). The false focus in online searching: The particular case of undergraduates seeking information for course assignments in the humanities and social sciences. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 38(3), 267-273.

This paper focuses on the reference interview analysing it according to two types of information need: absolute and secondary. The authors argue that undergraduate humanities students are more likely to have a secondary type of need and that librarians must not push students into focusing their question to suit electronic database searching to avoid being overwhelmed. They argue students should become acquainted with the literature around a topic before focusing, rather than reaching a focus out of context. The article concludes that librarians should support students to do high-recall searches to demonstrate the scope of the topic and support topic selection. A useful scenario is worked through to illustrate this process.


Madden, R. (2014). Information behaviour of humanities PhDs on an information literacy course. Reference Services Review, 42(1), 90-107.

This article has a very good literature review, looking at the relevant existing literature. Using a mixture of questionnaires and interviews with PhD students who had completed an information literacy course, the paper draws on Carol Kuhlthau’s “Information Search Process.” The paper found that the early stages of searching and exploration are not well structured and a patchwork of different resources are used, not all library based. The paper concludes that PhD students in the humanities need support with scoping and narrowing their topics, resource discovery and using technology, as well as understanding the network of people who can help them (including librarians) in the different stages of research.


Reynolds, J. (1994). Reference services in the humanities. New York: Haworth Press.

This edited collection of essays highlights a range of enduring challenges for arts and humanities scholars in seeking information. There are detailed chapters on the challenges of searching for specific primary sources and artefacts, such as visual information, film, craft, music and artwork. This collection is far from current and the sections dealing with technology are slightly outdated in terms of detail but the general challenges remain surprisingly the same. The collection emphasises the need for humanities information and searching to be contextualised.


Robinson, L. (n.d.). Information behaviour [Blog post]. Retrieved from

This blogpost provides a good introduction to information behaviour generally and how technology has affected the adoption of electronic resources in different sectors. The author situates information behaviour in the broader field of information communication, whilst noting that work on information behaviour is conventionally concerned with its information seeking aspects. More recently, information behaviour is being treated in a more holistic manner to include creating, sharing and managing information as well. In terms of technology’s impact on information behaviour, the author makes the point that some disciplines have been seen as slow adopters of digital information tools. This has been the case in the humanities, the author argues, because of the difficulty of finding non-text based artefacts in electronic searches. The blog post concludes with a bibliography of the author’s work on the topic.


Wang, Y. K. (2006). Information behaviours in the digital environment: A case study of humanities and social sciences scholars (Unpublished master’s dissertation). University of Alberta, Alberta, USA. 

This dissertation researched the information behaviours of humanities and social sciences researchers at a Canadian university. It identifies shifting patterns of information seeking among respondents. Citation chaining and recommendations from colleagues were still seen as important but there was a growing emphasis on and preference for searching electronic and online resources. Respondents felt electronic searching is an easier and more efficient way of finding sources but also expressed a fondness for the physical version of a source, rather than digital versions, using electronic tools to find items but not necessarily to access them. The paper finds that confidence in information literacy skills affected an individual’s adoption of digital tools, rather than their age.

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