Information Needs and Seeking of
Scholars and Artists in Relation
to Multimedia Materials

by Marcia J. Bates
Copyright 2001
by Marcia J. Bates
Dept. of Information Studies
University of California, Los Angeles, Ca

NOTE: The following material is extracted from a report submitted to the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, CA, in 1999.Web links have not been updated since 1999.

3.1.1. Review of Literature

Scholars' Information Seeking. The short answer to the question of what is known about scholars' use of multimedia is that virtually nothing is known about it. The review for this report, which also built on reviews of others, found almost nothing in the way of research directly addressed to the question of multimedia use by scholars. What little there is will be reviewed below. (For ease of consultation, bibliographic citations for the items discussed in this section will follow immediately at the end of this section.)

The availability of little research, however, is not quite as bleak a situation as it might at first appear. Prior research on scholars, both generally (Bakewell et al., 1988; Stam, 1984; Stone, 1984; Tibbo, 1993; Watson-Boone, 1994; Wiberley and Jones, 1989), and with respect to use of computer technology (Bates, 1994, 1996b; Loughridge, 1989; Lowry and Stuveras, 1987; Markey, 1984; Morton and Price, 1986; Tibbo, 1991; Wiberley and Jones, 1991, 1994), tells us some very important things about scholarly information use, which, in turn, have implications for multimedia use.

Information technology does not exist independently of human beings. Not only is it created by people, but people also shape that technology to their needs. The humanities scholar has a very highly developed sense of how to carry out and build on research in her or his field. The typical scholar has spent ten years in graduate school honing scholarly research skills. These skills are acquired from close work with an advisor, who is a mentor in both intellectual matters and research practices.

The scholar is a member of a research community that has both values and norms of behavior. Those norms include ideas of what constitutes quality research, what types of sources are and are not legitimate, how much research is enough on a question, what constitutes proper acknowledgment of others' work, and so on. These norms of research behavior, built up over many years of practice, are not going to change suddenly to adapt to a new medium. Instead, any new medium will be shaped by its users to meet their pre-existing practices.

All the above-referenced norms and values exist in the mind of the well-trained scholar. But that scholarship proceeds in a larger social environment as well. Scholars conduct research as a part of an academic or museum culture which dictates terms of employment. Scholars are expected to publish and/or to curate exhibits to maintain and advance their position. They work in an environment where others judge their productions by the same values and norms that scholars have taken on during their research apprenticeship. Thus this mutual judging and imposition of expectations among scholars in a discipline powerfully reinforces those very norms.

Developments in recent years with electronic journals illustrate the points being made. In the early days of electronic journals, enthusiasts exclaimed that we could now all ignore that tedious business of the refereeing process, and the free exchange of scholarship could proceed unhindered by tradition and concentrations of power. But, as scholars soon recognized, it is that very refereeing process that affords legitimacy and recognition to one's scholarship. Without it, not only will tenure not be forthcoming, but recognition of one's skill and quality of thought will be lacking--at least in any of the currently accepted forms of recognition.

So, efforts are now underway to introduce refereeing and the full scholarly apparatus to electronic journals. However, the social generally changes more slowly than the technical, and, as one of the interviewees for this project noted, for most scholars, new media productions still are not afforded the legitimacy that print-on-paper ones are.

Similarly, the Visiting Scholars interviewed for the Getty Information Institute's project on online database use by scholars tended to use those databases only in a supplemental way to their main forms of searching. To put it differently, the databases and their search language were designed on a scientific model that did not fit humanities practices well. (See summary in Bates, 1996b; the details of the study in Bates, 1994, 1996a; Bates, Wilde, and Siegfried, 1993, 1995; Siegfried, Bates, and Wilde, 1993.) The scholars thus tended to fit searching of the databases around pre-existing, and somewhat different, research practices than the databases were designed for. The characteristics of the available information technology--which was completely free to the scholars and included a day's training--did not override social practices; rather the reverse was true. In most cases, pre-established research practices drove the amount and character of the use of the information technology.

All this is by way of saying that a thorough understanding of the culture of scholarly research, and the norms, pressures, and expectations of the social environment can go a long way in enabling one to predict the character of use of any information medium. This is not to say that new media have no effect. Rather, they are eventually integrated into intellectual and social practices, but, where such deeply held practices as one's research mode is concerned, rather slowly.

Wiberley and Jones (1994) raise a more specific but very important question. "Humanists use information technology less than scientists and social scientists for communication (e-mail), bibliographic searching, and storage, transmittal, and analysis of primary evidence." (p. 503). Why should this be so? They hypothesize as follows:

...[I]t is useful to look at all scholarship as a continuum from the physical sciences to the quantitative social sciences to the qualitative social sciences to the humanities. Moving along this continuum..., one can say roughly that the scholar exercises decreasing control over the primary evidence that is analyzed. We suggest the proposition that the less control over primary evidence the scholar has, the harder it is to utilize information technology. (pp. 503-4)

Later, illustrating their thesis, they go on to say:

Comparison of the work of humanists with that of social scientists shows that fundamentally humanists use sources created by the subjects of their research, while social scientists initiate and, much more than humanists, participate in the creation of their sources.
(p. 504)

When social scientists conduct a survey, the responses of those surveyed are the evidence. But in the social sciences, no source exists until social scientists begin work.
(p. 504)

Because the subjects of humanistic research create the primary evidence of the humanities, these sources... are multifarious, often incongruous and diffuse, and harder to coordinate and manipulate than survey research data.
(p. 504)

Thus, the humanities researchers can less easily adapt their activities to the use of analytical computer software, the creation of databases, or other common advanced uses of information technology.

A good model to understand adoption of innovations, such as new information technologies, would be Everett Roger's diffusion of innovations theory (1983). Rogers' model holds that for every social innovation, a distribution of adopters can be seen that is, technically, a normal distribution, or bell-shaped curve (p. 243). That is, in the beginning, a few innovators first take up a new practice. Initially, adoption of the innovation is fairly slow. The innovators are frequently not in the mainstream of society--they are marginal in some way, a little too "far out."

Once the new practice gets a toehold through the initial innovators, however, a larger number of people then take it up. Members of this second group are often social leaders. Because these people have substantial social standing, the great majority of the population then takes up the new practice relatively quickly, accounting for the bulge in the bell-shaped curve. Finally, there are always a few laggards who bring up the rear, adopting the innovation very slowly and late, accounting for the tailing out of the distribution through time.

Research on innovations provided more information than just this characteristic pattern of uptake. An adoption curve can be spread out over a very long period of time or a short one. It has been said that it took 50 years for the innovation of kindergarten to be adopted by the U.S. school system, whereas the innovation of the World Wide Web is taking only a few years to be very widely adopted. What makes for the difference?

These two specific innovations will not be analyzed here, but, in general, according to Rogers, there are five key factors that determine the rate of adoption of innovations (chap. 6):

1. Relative advantage: The degree to which the innovation is perceived to be better than the idea it supersedes (p. 213).

2. Compatibility: The degree to which an innovation is perceived as consistent with the existing values, past experiences, and needs of potential adopters (p. 223).

3. Complexity: The degree to which an innovation is perceived as relatively difficult to understand and use (p. 230).

4. Trialability: The degree to which an innovation may be experimented with on a limited basis (p. 231).

5. Observability: The degree to which the results of an innovation are visible to others (p. 232).

It can be seen that, based on Wiberley and Jones' argument, there is considerably less relative advantage for the humanities scholar in adopting some kinds of information technology, because of the variability and diffuseness of humanities evidence. It just will not do them as much good as it does social and natural scientists--at least many current forms of information technology will not.

Keeping Rogers' factors in mind should be a help in estimating how rapidly the Getty Research Institute will be pressured to provide new media for Visiting Scholars.

Earlier, it was stated that what literature could be found on use of new media would be reviewed. Let us turn now to those studies. Lisa Covi's dissertation (1996), and a prior, related, study (Covi and Kling, 1996), provide some interesting insights. Covi's dissertation, "Material Mastery: How University Researchers Use Digital Libraries for Scholarly Communication," is, in fact, not limited to digital libraries, but covers the use of all manner of information resources. She emphasizes, quite rightly, I believe, the character of mastery that scholars must have to successfully prosecute their research careers. She then links this mastery to three information seeking behaviors, "comprehensive searching," "browsing," and "retrieving."

Covi studied researchers in four fields, molecular biology, sociology, computer science, and literary theory. Focussing here on the last of these, she states:

...[T]he mastery ideal in literary theory includes comprehensive knowledge of a particular subgenre of literature and the intellectual discourse about it. Literary theorists made little routine use of comprehensive searching and instead favored browsing online public access catalogs, topic-oriented bibliographies and World Wide Web collections to identify materials which they obtained through retrieving. (1996, Chap. 7 p. 1 of Web version)

Covi's findings parallel many of those described in Wiberley (Wiberley, 1991; Wiberley and Jones, 1994) and the Getty studies (Bates, 1996b). Specifically, the behavior and outlook of the scholars were found to be very similar between Covi's and the earlier studies; only the information technology has changed.

The use of "Perseus," a hypermedia, Web-based database of Greek history and literature, has attracted considerable interest. Descriptions of the project (Crane, 1998) and research on its use (Yang, 1996, 1997) are widely available. Studies of scholars' use of Perseus were not found, however. Yang's description of types of searching behaviors used by undergraduates in the database are interesting:

  • Exploratory--typically used by students before they came up with a specific direction
  • Prescriptive--used to incorporate the assignment's requirements and constraints

  • Purposive--more directed searching

  • Associative--pro-active search for related and interconnected information to support arguments
  • Curious--pursuit of something that piqued interest
  • Tangential--clearly beyond the requirements of the assignment
  • Accidental--accidental actions or system glitches leading to unintended places (Yang, 1997, p. 668).

While Covi's and Yang's studies focus on searching methods, Janney and Sledge (1995; Sledge is at the Getty Information Institute), described the range of types of access points that users displayed in about 1500 questions asked of museums. These are not scholars' questions, but the extensive scope of the types of access points needed would very probably include many, if not most, of the types of access points needed by scholars: awards, bibliography, classification, collection, concept, event, history of ownership (provenance), mark, material, method, object, opus, occupation, people, place, resource, role, style and movement, subject, time-span (p. 2-9).

Bates, Wilde, and Siegfried (1993) also describe common types of subject elements that appear in scholars' queries of online databases--works or publications as subject, individuals as subject, geographical name, chronological term, discipline term, other proper term, other common term. All of these access points, except the last two, are more common--generally far more common--in humanities queries than in science queries. Case ((1991) shows how historians organize material in their own offices, and thus, by implication, could be expected to want similar organization of material in digital libraries. Tibbo's work (1993) also shows that several features, such as time, place, and key people, are central in the thinking of historians.

If it is assumed, as argued earlier, that well-established patterns of human behavior are most influential in the use of all media, new or old, then some of the most revealing information about scholarly research can be obtained by reviewing descriptions of research practices. Gould (1988), Orbach (1991); Bakewell et al. (1988); and Wiberley and Jones (1989) go some way in this regard, and papers presented at the conference " Humanists at Work" (1989) go into great detail about research experiences of scholars. In particular, Stephen Nissenbaum's chapter, "The Month Before 'The Night Before Christmas'" describes in detail the research he did in solving an historical problem (pp. 43-78).

Artists' Information Seeking. Research on artists' information seeking is yet quite scarce--practicing artists of all kinds are among the last groups to be studied for their information seeking and use behaviors. However, Cobbledick, in a 1996 article, reviews existing literature and describes in-depth interviews she did with four artists, a sculptor, painter, fiber artist, and metalsmith. Drawing on the 1995 Statistical Abstract of the United States, (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1995), she notes that there are more artists in the United States (921,000--p. 343) than natural scientists (535,000--p. 344)--and that figure does not include those who do their artistic work moonlighting around a different day job.

Drawing both on the research Cobbledick reviews (Dane, 1997; Layne, 1994a; Miller, 1993; Nilson, 1986; Opdahl, 1986; Pacey, 1982; Phillips, 1986; Stam, 1995; Toyne, 1975, 1977; Trepanier, 1986 ); and on her own interviews and conclusions (Cobbledick, 1996), the following things, at least, can be said about artists' information seeking, for their own work and as arts instructors:

  • They do a lot of browsing, particularly for images (and not just "art book" images), but often have quite specific verbal (non-image) information needs too. Thus both browsing and directed search are heavily used search strategies.
  • Their information needs are very wide-ranging and go well beyond arts information. One study found that only one quarter of art student information requests were satisfied by arts-related material. (Toyne, 1975)
  • The library and its print sources primarily serve the visual and inspirational needs of artists.
  • Personal subscriptions to fine arts and craft arts journals fulfill artists' needs for information about international, national, and regional developments in the arts.
  • Artists make substantial use of interpersonal sources to obtain technical information and information about developments in the local art scene.
  • "This research suggests that a library designed with artists in mind should be heavy on print materials whose verbal and visual content covers a wide array of topics without an undue emphasis on art. " (Cobbledick, 1996, p. 363)

  • Portability of materials from library to studio is desirable. High-quality photocopying should be available in the library. Even encyclopedias (perhaps earlier editions?) and other conventionally non-circulating material should be considered for circulation.

Finally, Alstad and Turner draw attention to the unpredictability and variety of Web-specific art:

Categorizing the new genre of 'web specific' art is like trying to hit a moving target. The landscape changes at an alarming rate with the proliferation of new art sites that challenge the boundaries of art. (1998, p. 3)

Further, because of the rapidly proliferating technical means available to artists, Garvey points out the following:

Only a few years ago, a young artist or designer might anticipate the luxury of devoting a lifetime to the development of a style and mastering of selected medium. Today the artist/designer faces the daunting challenge to not only master a range of traditional media but to constantly upgrade software skills and knowledge while cultivating a plurality of styles. ... [W]e must revisit the question of what is the core set of skills and knowledge." (1997, p. 31)


3.1.2. Bibliographic References for Literature Review

Alstad, Michael, and Camille Turner. "Web-Specific Art: The Development of a New Genre."
ll.4 pp. , modified 3/14/98.

Bates, Marcia J. "The Design of Databases and Other Information Resources for Humanities Scholars: The Getty Online Searching Project Report No. 4." Online and CD-ROM Review 18 (December 1994): 331-340.

Bates, Marcia J. "Document Familiarity in Relation to Relevance, Information Retrieval Theory, and Bradford's Law: The Getty Online Searching Project Report No. 5." Information Processing & Management 32 (November 1996a): 697-707.

Bates, Marcia J. "The Getty End-User Online Searching Project in the Humanities: Report No. 6: Overview and Conclusions." College & Research Libraries 57 (November 1996b): 514-523.

Bates, Marcia J., Deborah N. Wilde, and Susan Siegfried. "An Analysis of Search Terminology Used by Humanities Scholars: The Getty Online Searching Project Report No. 1." Library Quarterly 63 (January 1993): 1-39.

Bates, Marcia J., Deborah N. Wilde, and Susan Siegfried. "Research Practices of Humanities Scholars in an Online Environment: The Getty Online Searching Project Report No. 3." Library and Information Science Research 17 (Winter 1995): 5-40.

Bakewell, Elizabeth, William O. Beeman, Carol McMichael Reese, and Marilyn Schmitt, Editors. Object, Image, Inquiry: The Art Historian at Work. Santa Monica, CA: J. Paul Getty Trust, 1988.

Brilliant, Richard. "How an Art Historian Connects Art Objects and Information. Library Trends 37 (Fall 1988): 120-129.

Case. Donald O. "Conceptual Organization and the Retrieval of Text by Historians: The Role of Memory and Metaphor." Journal of the American Society for Information Science 42 (1991): 657-668.

Cobbledick, Susie. "The Information-Seeking Behavior of Artists: Exploratory Interviews." Library Quarterly 66 (October 1996): 343-372.

Covi, Lisa. "Material Mastery: How University Researchers use Digital Libraries for Scholarly Communication." Ph.D. Dissertation. University of California at Irvine, 1996. Web:

Covi, Lisa, and Rob Kling. "Organizational Dimensions of Effective Digital Library Use: Closed Rational and Open Natural Systems Models." Journal of the American Society for Information Science 47 (September 1996): 672-689.

Crane, Gregory. " The Perseus Project and Beyond: How Building a Digital Library Challenges the Humanities and Technology." D-Lib Magazine (January 1998): 1-12. Available from:

Dane, William J. "Public Art Libraries and Artists and Designers: A Symbiotic Scheme for Success." Art Libraries Journal 12, no. 3 (1987): 29-33.

Garvey, Gregory P. "Retrofitting Fine Art and Design Education in the Age of Computer Technology." Computer Graphics 31 (August 1997): 29-32.

Gould, Constance. Information Needs in the Humanities: An Assessment. Stanford, CA: Program for Research Information Management of the Research Libraries Group, Inc., 1988. Humanists at Work: Disciplinary Perspectives and Personal Reflections. Chicago: University of Illinois at Chicago, 1989.

Janney, Kody, and Jane Sledge. "User Access Needs for Project CHIO." Draft manuscript. August 31, 1995. 20 pp.

Layne, Sara S. "Artists, Art Historians, and Visual Art Information." The Reference Librarian 47 (1994a): 23-36.

Layne, Sara Shatford. "Some Issues in the Indexing of Images." Journal of the American Society for Information Science 45 (September 1994b): 583-588.

Loughridge, Brendan. "Information Technology, the Humanities and the Library." Journal of Information Science 15, no. 4-5 (1989): 277-286.

Lowry, Anita, and Junko Stuveras, comps. Scholarship in the Electronic Age: A Selected Bibliography on Research and Communication in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Washington, DC: Council on Library Resources, Feb. 1987.

Markey Karen. "Access to Iconographical Research Collections." Library Trends 37 (Fall 1988): 154-174.

Markey, Karen. "Visual Arts Resources and Computers." Annual Review of Information Science and Technology 19 (1984): 271-309.

Miller, Paul S. "Information and the Studio Arts: Discovering the Information Needs of Studio Art Instructors." M.L.S. thesis, University of Texas at Austin, 1993.

Morton, Herbert C., and Anne Jamieson Price. "The ACLS Survey: Views on Publications, Computers, Libraries." Scholarly Communication 5 (Summer 1986): 1-16.

Nilsen, Micheline. "Client-Centered Services in a Branch Library." Art Documentation 5 (Winter 1986): 151-53.

Opdahl, Ornulf. "Artists on Libraries 3." Art Libraries Journal 11, no. 3 (1986): 13.

Orbach, Barbara C. "The View from the Researcher's Desk: Historians' Perceptions of Research and Repositories." American Archivist 54 (Winter 1991): 28-43.

Pacey, Philip. "How Art Students Use Libraries--If They Do." Art Libraries Journal 7 (Spring 1982): 33-38.

Phillips, Tom. "Artists on Libraries 1." Art Libraries Journal 11, no. 3 (1986): 9-10.

Rogers, Everett M. Diffusion of Innovations. 3rd ed. New York: Free Press, 1983.

Siegfried, Susan, Marcia J. Bates, and Deborah N. Wilde. "A Profile of End-User Searching Behavior by Humanities Scholars: The Getty Online Searching Project Report No. 2." Journal of the American Society for Information Science 44 (June 1993): 273-291.

Stam, Dierdre. "Artists and Art Libraries." Art Libraries Journal 20, no. 2 (1995): 21-24.

Stam, Dierdre. "How Art Historians Look for Information." Art Documentation 3 (Winter 1984): 117-119.

Stone, Sue. "Humanities Scholars: Information Needs and Uses." Journal of Documentation 38 (December 1982): 292-312.

Tibbo, Helen R. Abstracting, Information Retrieval and the Humanities: Providing Access to Historical Literature. Chicago: American Library Association, 1993.

Tibbo, Helen R. "Information Systems, Services, and Technology for the Humanities." Annual Review of Information Science and Technology 26 (1991): 287-346.

Toyne, Derek. "Requests at Falmouth School of Art." ARLIS Newsletter 24 (September 1975): 7-9.

Toyne, Derek. "A Philosophy for Falmouth." Art Libraries Journal 2 (Winter 1977): 24-30.

Trepanier, Peter. "Artists on Libraries 2." Art Libraries Journal 11, no. 3 (1986): 11-12. U.S. Bureau of the Census.Statistical Abatract of the United States. 115th ed. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1995.

Walker, Geraldene and Steven D. Atkinson. "Information Access in the Humanities: Perils and Pitfalls." Library Hi Tech 9 (1991): 23-34.

Watson-Boone, Rebecca. "The Information Needs and Habits of humanities Scholars." RQ 34 (Winter 1994): 203-216.

Wiberley, Stephen E., Jr. Habits of Humanists: Scholarly Behavior and New Information Technologies." Library Hi Tech 9 (1991): 17-21.

Wiberley, Stephen E., Jr., and Jones, William G. "Humanists Revisited: A Longitudinal Look at the Adoption of Information Technology." College & Research Libraries 55 (November 1994): 499-509.

Wiberley, Stephen E., Jr., and Jones, William G. "Patterns of Information Seeking in the Humanities." College & Research Libraries 50 (November 1989): 638-645.

Yang, Shu Ching. "A Dynamic Reading-Linking-to-Writing Model for Problem Solving Wthin a Constructive Hypermedia Learning Environment." Journal of Educational Media and Hypermedia 5, no. 3/4 (1996): 283-302.

Yang, Shu Ching. "Qualitative Exploration of Learners' Information-Seeking Processes Using Perseus Hypermedia System." Journal of the American Society for Information Science 48 (July 1997): 667-669.