Humanities: Information Seekers

Where can I find a translation of …?
What digital collage techniques are being used in children’s picture books?
Where can I find historical images from the 15th century that will inspire my costume designs?
What’s the origin of our school song?

theatreHumanities information seekers come to the library with a wide range of needs and interests. Before providing assistance, it's essential to know the characteristics of library users and the implications for providing information sources and services.

While novice researchers tend to rely on secondary sources, experts progress toward the use of primary sources, tracing bibliographies, and consulting discipline specific resources.

The humanities has two distinct types of library users. Scholars are noticeable to librarians because they ask questions and seek assistance using secondary research tools. On the other hand, those involved with creative works use the library in a different way. They may be seeking inspiration, new techniques, or business ideas related to their artistic field (Keeran, 2014a).

In the area of performing arts, researchers may be searching for “inspiration, professional development (including technical expertise), and opportunities” (Keeran, 37, 2014b).

Catalano (2013) found that in some specialized areas of the humanities, electronic resources are not yet available. For these areas, it's important that print materials are still available.

Read Wiberley, Stephen E. (2009). Humanities literatures and their users. Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences, 3rd Edition. Taylor and Francis.

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Much of the research on information seeking comes from the academic library setting leading to questions about whether the findings can be generalized to other library settings.

Read Hemmig, William S. (2008). The information-seeking behavior of visual artists: a literature review. Journal of Documentation, 64(3), 343-362. Note the results of their study and their concerns about generalizing to the visual arts community. What are your thoughts on the differences among these library settings and the sub-disciplines within the humanities?

Information Seekers

artistFrom a sculptor seeking information about a new technique to a theology student seeking an ancient manuscript, the audience for humanities information is vast and varied. The audience includes professionals, educators, students, hobbyists, and the general public. Each of these user groups has different information needs and distinct approaches to information seeking.

Users are looking for specific works, technical how-tos, inspiration for their own work, current techniques and approaches. They may also be looking to connect with business to learn about how to turn art into a business.

In order to help individuals find the information they need, librarians need to understand humanities information seekers and their behavior.

Read Zach, Lisl (2009). Arts literatures and their users. Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences, 3rd Edition. Taylor and Francis.


Humanities is at the foundation of many professions. While some professionals need up-to-date information, others rely on ancient texts and other primary sources for their work.

For instance, art professional might include artists, art educators, architects, art historians, curators, or critics.

Read two of the following articles.

Robinson, Shannon Marie (Spring 2014). From hieroglyphs to hashtags: the information-seeking behaviors of contemporary Egyptian artists. Art Documentation, 33(1), 107-118.

Collins, Ellen & Jubb, Michael (January 2012). How do researchers in the humanities use information resources? Liber Quarterly, 21(2), 176-187.

Penner, Katherina (June 2009). Information Behaviour of Theologians: a Literature Review. Theological Librarianship: an Online Journal of the American Theological Library Association, 2(1), 67-82.

Makri, Stephann & Warwick, Claire (2010). Information for Inspiration: Understanding Architects' Information Seeking and Use Behaviors to Inform Design. Journal of the American Society for Information Science & Technology, 61(9), 1745-1770.


Educators and Students

Students and educators are heavy users of humanities information.

Faculty use information for both course development and scholarly research activities.

Read Kachaluba, Sarah Buck, Brady, Jessica Evans & Critten, Jessica (January 2014). Developing humanities collections in the digital age: exploring humanities faculty engagement with electronic and print resources. College & Research Libraries, 75(1), 91-108. Available: http://crl.acrl.org/content/75/1/91.full.pdf+html

Depending on the discipline or sub-discipline, humanities students use information in very different ways.

Read two of the following articles based on your interest area.

Clark, Joe C. (2013). Format preferences of performing arts students. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 39, 297-307.

Dougan, Kirstin (2012). Information seeking behaviors of music students. Reference Services Review, 40(4), 558-574.

Dougan, Kirstin (2015). Finding the right notes: an observational study of score and recording seeking behaviors of music students. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 41, 61-67.

Penner, Katherina (2009), Information Needs and Behaviours of Theology Students at the International Baptist Theological Seminary. Theological Librarianship: an online journal of the American Theological Library Association, 2(2), 51-80.

Larkin, Catherine (2010). Looking to the future while learning from the past: information seeking in the visual arts. Art Documentation, 29(1), 49-60.

Miller, Olivia (Spring 2014). Collecting library resources for video game design students: an information behavior study. Art Documentation, 33(1), 129-146.


Hobbyists represent a wide range of interests and skill levels from beginners to accomplished information users.

Choose one of the following articles to read depending on your interests.

Kostagiolas, Petros A., Lavranos, Chariloas, Korfiatis, Nikolaos, Papadatos, Joseph, & Papavlaspoulos, Sozon (2015). Music, musicians, and information seeking behaviour: A case study on a community concert band. Journal of Documentation, 71(1), 3-24.

Detterbeck, Kimberly, LaMoreaux, Nicole, & Sciangula, Marie (Fall 2014). Off the cuff: How fashion bloggers find and use information, Art Documentation, 33(2), 345-358.

General Public

From children to senior citizens, people of all ages and backgrounds seek humanities information.

In the arts, the general public might include art collectors and museum goers.

Read Westbrook, Lynn (January 2015). “I’m not a social worker”: An information service model for working with patrons in crisis. The Library Quarterly, 85(1), 6-25.

Personas in the Humanities

It's useful to think about the characteristics of information seekers and develop persona to represent these potential users.

Read Al-Shboul, Mohammad Khaled & Abraizah, A. (Sept 2014). Information needs: developing personas of humanities scholars. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 40(5), 500-509.

Information Seekers by Library Type

Different library types are likely to see different types of information seekers.

girlAcademic Libraries

At the community college and university levels, information seekers include students and faculty. While students are likely to be seeking resources related to class assignments, they may also be conducting research related to potential internships, their personal interests, or projects related to their current or future career aspirations.

Faculty may be interested in information related to both course development as well as their research agenda. As researchers, they are often interested in the most up-to-date information on a topic and need a level of depth much deeper than student scholars.

While most institutions of higher education house their discipline collections in the main academic library, some universities have a separate library building.

School Libraries

While a majority of school libraries will be faced with questions from students about classroom assignments, they may also address the after-school needs of youth.

Classroom teachers are also users of the school library. While they may be working on course development activities, many educators also use the library for professional development activities.

Public Libraries

Because the public library caters to a general audience, librarians are faced with a wide range of discipline-specific questions and problems.

Special Libraries

Large corporations such as auction houses have have their own libraries. These libraries often specialize in information sources directly related to the needs of the professionals working within the organization.

Art, music, and church libraries are other specialty libraries with specific information seekers.

Read one article in the library type of your professional interest.

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

Goodwin, Cathy (October 1, 2010). Information-seeking in the humanities: costume design and historical research, portal: Libraries and the Academy, 30(1/2), 19-25.
Yi, Yong Jeong (January 2015). Consumer health information behavior in public libraries: a qualitative study. The Library Quarterly, 85(1), 45-63.

Read Spiegelman, Barbara & Carlson, Nancy Flury (2009). Corporate information centers. Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences, 3rd Edition. Taylor and Francis.

Embedding Librarians

Increasingly, information professionals are moving outside their libraries to meet their clients where they work and play. According to Carlson and Kneale (2011, 167),

"embedded librarianship takes a librarian out of the context of the traditional library and places him or her in an “on-site” setting or situation that enables close coordination and collaboration with researchers or teaching faculty.

The idea behind the embedded librarianship model is to enable librarians to demonstrate their expertise as information specialists and to apply this expertise in ways that will have a direct and deep impact on the research, teaching, or other work being done. Through embedded librarianship, librarians move from a supporting role into partnerships with their clientele, enabling librarians to develop stronger connections and relationships with those they serve."


Blazek, Ron & Aversa, Elizabeth Smith (2000). The Humanities: A Selective guide to Information Sources. Fifth Edition. Libraries Unlimited. Available through IUPUI.

Carlson, Jake & Kneale, Ruth (March 2011). Embedded librarianship in the research context: navigating new waters. College & Research Libraries News, 72(3), 167-170. Available: http://crln.acrl.org/content/72/3/167.full

Etches, Amanda (Fall 2013). Know thy users: user research techniques to build empathy and improve decision-making. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 53(1), 13-17.

Keeran, Peggy (2014a). Research in the humanities. In P. Keeran & M. Levine-Clark, Research within the Disciplines: Foundations for Reference and Library Instruction. Rowman & Littlefield.

Keeran, Peggy (2014b). Creative and Performing Arts Research. In P. Keeran & M. Levine-Clark, Research within the Disciplines: Foundations for Reference and Library Instruction. Rowman & Littlefield.

Lidwell, William; Holden, Kritina; & Butler, Jill (2010), Universal Principles of Design. Rockport Publishers.

Image 1: "Harlekin Columbine Tivoli Denmark" by Malene Thyssen - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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