Creative information-seeking: What I learned from my literature review

Image by Steve Johnson from Pixabay

I spent some time recently reviewing some of the literature on creative information-seeking from the library and information science field as part of my project on the role of research in fiction writing. I wanted to understand what our field already knew about how creative populations find and use information as part of the creative process so that I could use that knowledge to inform my own work.

At the end of the day, I learned a lot of interesting things but I also felt a lot of frustration with what I was finding. Sandra Cowan has a great article that captures her own frustrations with research on this topic, many of which echoed my own feelings.(1) If you’re able to access that article, I highly recommend taking the time to read it if you have any interest in research on creative information-seeking. In the meantime, here’s a summary of my own thoughts, which is maybe a little more rant-like than I intended. Oops.

When it comes to studying creative information-seeking, we are still saying hello: There’s a scene in the second Lord of the Rings movie where Merry and Pippin, who have spent almost the entire movie up to this point trying to convince the Ents to participate in the fight against Saruman, are waiting around while the Ents conduct a meeting to decide what to do. Hours have passed. Nighttime is fallen. The hobbits are getting impatient. When they press their friend Treebeard for information on what’s going on, Treebeard tells them that the Ents haven’t made a decision yet. In fact, “we’ve only just finished saying hello.”

I think of this scene every time I participate in a committee meeting where the discussion goes basically nowhere, but I thought of it again when conducting my lit review because for all that there are decades of research on various forms of creative information-seeking, it feels like those who study it are, in a way, still saying hello. Which is to say, most of the studies are preliminary in nature. They’re meant to serve as possible models or lay groundwork for future studies. Future studies that no one ever does because they are too busy trying to create their own models to lay the groundwork for others’ studies. There’s still useful information to be gleaned about the information habits of creative practitioners from these studies, but the subject pools and response rates tend to be so small that they’re not really all that generalizable (a fact which many of the researchers acknowledge). So while there are things we understand about the information habits of these populations thanks to what’s already been done, in the end most of the research focuses on how exactly to research these populations in the first place rather than coming to any widely applicable conclusions about what research they do or how they do it.

Choosing research subjects: Further interfering with the value of scholars’ findings is their tendency to choose their research subjects (aka the people in their study) based on convenience more than anything else. This means that scholars who aim to learn about the information habits of artists use art students, art faculty, and art librarians than practicing artists because practicing artists can be hard to identify and these are related populations that the researcher has easy access to. On one level, this choice makes sense because many art faculty and art students (and art librarians, I assume) are also practicing artists. But these are also people who tend to dwell on college campuses where they have access to resources and collections and librarian expertise that someone without an affiliation wouldn’t. So how much we can use what we know about their information habits to understand the information habits of artists more generally is limited because the behaviors of those who have that type of access are likely to be different from the behaviors of those who don’t. That matters. A lot.

The goals of LIS research: The literature on creative information-seeking tends to treat creative populations as problem patrons. Basically, there’s an assumption that they’re doing research wrong because they either aren’t using the library at all or they aren’t using the library the way it was intended to be used (i.e. browsing the shelves instead of subject-searching databases and catalogs). So a lot of the research questions in the literature on this topic are basically about how to fix this. In some cases, the questions are about how to “fix” the behaviors of the artists themselves so that use the library’s collections, services, and resources the “right” way. In others, it’s more about how we can instead “fix” those collections, services, and resources so that they better meet the needs and reflect the behaviors of these artists. Either way, the ultimate goal is help librarians understand what they need to do in order to get artists to use the library more.

Never mind whether the library is a necessary part of the creative research process.

This is actually something that’s bothered me about LIS scholarship for a while now: it seems like, in order to be published or valued by our profession, there has to be some practical application to what we study aimed at making the library better. As a scholar, I’m interested in understanding the role of research in the fiction writing process because I think the ways in which this type of research likely differs from our usual conceptions about research generally are both important and interesting. But pursuing that knowledge for its own sake isn’t going to get me published in a top journal in my field. Instead, I’ll likely need to shoehorn in some ideas about how to connect whatever I find out from the study I’m doing to some statements about this information can be used to improve the value of the library in some way.

Don’t get me wrong. I love libraries and I want to contribute to their perceived value in whatever way I can, even through my research. But I feel like our scholarship needs to be bigger than that. Because producing research that helps improve the value of libraries is valuable to libraries, but who else is it valuable to? Probably no one.

Of course, here I am gnashing my teeth at the work done by so many others when I’m only at the beginning of my own journey. It’s easy to have lofty goals at the start but who knows what will ultimately happen? The good news is I have a better idea now of where my contribution might eventually fit into the larger conversation. The bad news is I have a long way to go before I get there.


(1) Sandra Cowan. “Informing Visual Poetry: Information Needs and Sources of Artists.” Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America 23, no. 2 (October 1, 2004): 14–20

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