Identify: Understanding Your Information Need

Up until this point, you have been researching trends in your field to get a sense of what others are talking about and what is current. You have looked through websites belonging to professional organizations and browsed social media platforms related to your field of study. Now you are going to tailor your exploration of your field to a topic or topics that matter to you. In this last stage of information gathering, you’ll be looking for information resources that are relevant to you, your stage of your academic career, and what your future goals or interests are. Information resources is essentially an umbrella term that describes a variety of sources. It’s your job to tailor your search to find sources that matter to you.In this chapter, you will learn about the first pillar of information literacy. While the pillars are normally presented in a certain order, it is important to remember that they are not intended to be a step-by-step guide to be followed in a strict order. In most research projects, you will find that you move back and forth between the different pillars as you discover more information and come up with more questions about your topic. In this chapter you will learn how to identify your information need so that you can begin your research, but it is likely that you will also revisit some of the ideas in this chapter to make sure you are actually meeting that need with your research findings.

A person proficient in the Identify pillar is expected to be able to identify a personal need for information. They understand

  • That new information and data is constantly being produced and that there is always more to learn
  • That being information literate involves developing a learning habit so new information is being actively sought all the time
  • That ideas and opportunities are created by investigating/seeking information
  • The scale of the world of published and unpublished information and data

They are able to

  • Identify a lack of knowledge in a subject area
  • Identify a search topic/question and define it using simple terminology
  • Articulate current knowledge on a topic
  • Recognize a need for information and data to achieve a specific end and define limits to the information need
  • Use background information to underpin the search
  • Take personal responsibility for an information search
  • Manage time effectively to complete a search
Visualization of the previously stated proficiencies in the Identify pillar, separating information the student should know from skills a student must master.
Proficiencies in the Identify pillar


Norm Allknow was having trouble. He had been using computers since he was five years old and thought he knew all there was to know about them. So, when he was given an assignment to write about the impact of the Internet on society, he thought it would be a breeze. He would just write what he knew, and in no time the paper would be finished. In fact, Norm thought the paper would probably be much longer than the required ten pages. He spent a few minutes imagining how impressed his teacher was going to be, and then sat down to start writing.

He wrote about how the Internet had helped him to play online games with his friends, and to keep in touch with distant relatives, and even to do some homework once in a while. Soon he leaned back in his chair and looked over what he had written. It was just half a page long and he was out of ideas.

Identifying a Personal Need for Information

One of the first things you need to do when beginning any information-based project is to identify your personal need for information. This may seem obvious, but it is something many of us take for granted. We may mistakenly assume, as Norm did in the above example, that we already know enough to proceed. Such an assumption can lead us to waste valuable time working with incomplete or outdated information. Information literacy addresses a number of abilities and concepts that can help us to determine exactly what our information needs are in various circumstances. These are discussed below, and are followed by exercises to help develop your fluency in this area.

Understanding the Context of an Information Need

When you realize that you have an information need it may be because you thought you knew more than you actually do, or it may be that there is simply new information you were not aware of. One of the most important things you can do when starting to research a topic is to scan the existing information landscape to find out what is already out there. We’ll get into more specific strategies for accessing different types of information later in the book, particularly in the Gather chapter, but for now it pays to think more broadly about the information environment in which you are operating.

For instance, any topic you need information about is constantly evolving as new information is added to what is known about the topic. Trained experts, informed amateurs, and opinionated laypeople are publishing in traditional and emerging formats; there is always something new to find out. The scale of information available varies according to topic, but in general it’s safe to say that there is more information accessible now than ever before.

Due to the extensive amount of information available, part of becoming more information literate is developing habits of mind and of practice that enable you to continually seek new information and to adapt your understanding of topics according to what you find. Because of the widely varying quality of new information, evaluation is also a key element of information literacy, and will be addressed in the Evaluate chapter of this book.

Finally, while you are busy searching for information on your current topic, be sure to keep your mind open for new avenues or angles of research that you haven’t yet considered. Often the information you found for your initial need will turn out to be the pathway to a rich vein of information that can serve as raw material for many subsequent projects.

When you understand the information environment where your information need is situated, you can begin to define the topic more clearly and you can begin to understand where your research fits in with related work that precedes it. Your information literacy skills will develop against this changing background as you use the same underlying principles to do research on a variety of topics.

A Wider View

While the identification of an information need is presented in this chapter as the first step in the research process, many times the information need you initially identified will change as you discover new information and connections. Other chapters in this book deal with finding, evaluating, and managing information in a variety of ways and formats. As you become more skilled in using different information resources, you will likely find that the line between the various information literacy skills becomes increasingly blurred, and that you will revisit your initial ideas about your topic in response to both the information you’re finding and what you’re doing with what that information.

Continually think about your relationship to the information you find. Why are you doing things the way you are? Is it really the best way for your current situation? What other options are there? Keeping an open mind about your use of information will help you to ensure that you take responsibility for the results of that use, and will help you to be more successful in any information-intensive endeavor.

Information resources is a broad term encompassing a variety of different sources.  Typically, in an academic setting you would be asked to use peer-reviewed journal articles, data sets, or other printed primary or secondary sources.  In this course, you will need to determine on your own what types of sources you need to learn more about trends in your field.

Completing the Information Resources Section of your Annotated Bibliography

Begin your exploration of information resources for the study and practice of your chosen field. Determine what information is most important for you in learning about trends in your field.  By the end of your review, you should be able to answer this question:

  • What are the primary types of information resources used for the study and practice of my chosen field?

These information resources might end up being websites, peer-reviewed journals, government or corporate releases, data sets, statistics, blogs, or a number of other methods of communicating information. You will need to determine what is most important for you.

Expand your exploration by locating four representative examples of information resources used in the study and practice of your field. The location of these will be based on the type of information resources they are (scholarly journals, trade publications, websites, etc.). The best place to look for journals and other publications is in the CPS Discovery Center:

1. To access the CPS Discovery service, start at the CPS Library Home Page.

2. Type in search terms into the Discovery Service text box, or click on Advanced Search to narrow your search terms.

3. Select Publications from the library navigation menu:

4. Follow the instructions in the EBSCO Publications Finder Tutorial to locate appropriate publications for your field:

Complete your exploration by digging into the content of the four representative resources you found. The goal of your search will be to answer the following question:

  • What current trends related to the focus area for my critical inquiry question can I identify in a representative sample of the information resources used for the study and practice of my chosen field?

If you’re unable to find enough information on the focus area for your critical inquiry question in the four resources you initially identified, feel free to expand your search to additional resources.

If you need additional help with your searches, please contact the CPS librarian.

* parts of this chapter have been adapted from: The Information Literacy User’s Guide: An Open, Online Textbook by Deborah Bernnard, Greg Bobish, Jenna Hecker, Irina Holden, Allison Hosier,


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