In Brief As librarians, we claim to uphold the principles of open access, equitable and unbiased service, intellectual freedom, and lifelong learning. How can we better integrate these principles into our workplaces? This article is an exploration of information behaviors and structures in library workplaces, particularly the behaviors of withholding and sharing information, and the effect they have on service to patrons and overall quality of the work environment.
Introduction: Definitions and Questions
As librarians, we are familiar with information as the currency of our work. Information studies scholar Marcia Bates proposes that the word “information” covers “all instances where people interact with their environment in any such way that leaves some impression on them – that is, adds to or changes their knowledge store” (2010). Every day, we see information adding to or changing patrons’ knowledge stores as they discover a new author, narrow a database search, or use company information to prepare for a job interview. We may not think in the same way about the information that makes up our workplaces and workplace behaviors, whether that means cataloging a film, teaching a workshop, or creating a schedule. While we are aware that information is organized, used, and sought in the workplace, we do not always take the same care with it as we do with outward-facing collections of information.
Throughout this article, I will apply different theories of information behavior1 (both individual and organizational) to library workplaces, whether they are made up of 5 or 500 people. The outcomes of these behaviors are often at cross-purposes with a library’s mission, particularly when it comes to populations with more limited access to information, like new librarians and paraprofessionals. I will describe some models and approaches that actively promote information sharing and clarity that can be applied in library workplaces.
I’d like to start with Donald Case’s definition of information behavior (from an information science perspective) as not just active information seeking but also “the totality of unintentional or passive behaviors (such as glimpsing or encountering information), as well as purposive behaviors that do not involve seeking, such as actively avoiding information” (2002). The vast majority of information behavior studies, if they apply to libraries, have been done on users, not on library staff. But we, too, engage in information behaviors, both individual and institutional. The latter, at its most successful, is expressed by social anthropologist Jean Lave and educational theorist Wenger as a “community of practice.”
Marcia Bates points out that information scientists are interested not inherently in a social hierarchy (as sociologists are), but in the way that hierarchy “impedes or promotes the transfer of information” (2010). What are we doing in our library workplaces, among ourselves as staff, to facilitate the successful transfer of information? What are we doing to block it? A number of researchers in information sharing have concluded that information does not “‘speak for itself’ but requires negotiation concerning its meaning and context” (Talja and Hansen, 2006). What are a workplace and a workday, if not a set of negotiations of the meaning and context of information?
The information cultures of library workplaces do not always follow a principle we espouse as a profession: easy and democratic access to reliable, stable, and clear sources of information. It’s an ideal we strive for more with users than with each other. Like our users, we must derive meaning and purpose from a vast sea of information surrounding us. Some systematic filtering of information is necessary, of course, for us to be able to do our daily work. But surely that can exist within an environment where information is accessible to those who wish to gain access to it. (This may be more of a challenge in privately-funded libraries than in publicly-funded libraries, where more documentation is legally required.) Librarians Martha Mautino and Michael Lorenzen characterize communication and information as forms of power, equating restricted access to information to a “loss of status.” Whether it’s election-related information, consumer information, or the mechanics of database searching, one of the most gratifying aspects of librarianship is empowering users with information. Our colleagues deserve the same.
How information is constructed, documented, and disseminated is crucial to how functional a library workplace is. One way researchers define an environment where information behavior takes place is as an “information culture.” Chun Wei Choo, et al., in their case study of the use of information by employees at a Canadian law firm, define it this way: “By information culture we mean the socially transmitted patterns of behaviors and values about the significance and use of information in an organization” (2006). The key words in this definition are “socially transmitted.” Rules and resources may be organizationally articulated, or reside in unconscious social and other power structures. In her ethnographic studies of information-seeking behavior, Elfreda Chatman introduced the concept of the information “small world” where “insiders see their codes of behavior as normative, routine, and as fitting shared meanings, [but] outsiders to the group cannot relate, because they do not share the same social meanings” (Fulton, 2005). For example, it may be common for departments within a library to share the minutes of their meetings, or to keep them private. A technical services department may have no idea what a reference department’s priorities are, and vice versa, though their processes and priorities have direct effects on each other – because the social code of behavior is to keep information within the small world of the department.
Choo, et al. use knowledge management research to identify two different organizational strategies: codification, in which knowledge is codified, stored, and disseminated through formal channels, and personalization, in which knowledge is shared through social networks, conversations, and other informal means (2006). I posit that in libraries, the first strategy is usually true for collections of outward-facing information, and the second for internal workplace knowledge, which may reside in silos so sturdily built that they resist even the most sensible demolishing. The distinction between outward- and inward-facing knowledge is, however, eroding a little more quickly, as open access, accountability, and social media engagement grow, which has forced some information cultures to become more open.
Paula Singer and Jeri Hurley (2005), writing to librarians in the context of professional advice, divide valuable knowledge into two categories: explicit and tacit. Explicit information is able to be “documented, archived, and codified” – though it is important to note that not all explicit information undergoes these processes. Tacit knowledge, on the other hand, is defined as “know-how contained in employees’ heads.” Tacit knowledge is more subjective. Take, for example, a librarian who finds a mistake on a library web page. Different librarians might approach this problem differently, depending upon their relationships with individual staff members, and their understandings of who wields power, who is in charge of what, and who has the knowledge to get something done. In some libraries, explicit knowledge has become tacit. What may seem like a codifiable piece of explicit knowledge is intimately wrapped up in social networks and relationships, as well as perceptions of others’ willingness to both share and accept information. Singer and Hurley acknowledge that the very value of knowledge may prevent individuals from sharing it: “in many cases employees are being asked to surrender their knowledge and experience – the very traits that make them valuable as individuals” (2005). The word surrender is emotionally charged. There is an element of surrender and trust that comes with transparency – we must trust that the others in our workplace are sharing what they know as well.
Parts and Sums
Much of the research combining information behavior and library or information science has focused on systems. In information scientist Pauline Atherton’s view, this inhibited understanding of “the more substantive and more difficult aspects of our world of information science, namely the human being who is processing information” (quoted in Garvey, 1979). There is some more recent research, however, about the factors (both systematic and individual) that influence individual information behavior. For example, Bates identified the frequently-demonstrated dominance of the “principle of least effort” in information seeking (2010).2 And Sanna Talja argues that researchers in most fields prefer informal sources and channels if available (2002). In many cases, the principle of least effort may cause people to avoid information seeking altogether, especially if the source of that information is closed off, hostile, or made inaccessible by other human or technological means. People may make do with what they have at hand, can Google, or find out from those they trust, rather than risk vulnerability or alienation with a source known to be difficult in one way or another. Emotion is inextricably linked to information behavior, and, more obviously, to social behavior. An array of information behaviors (seeking, withholding, sharing) are related to emotional behaviors such as stress and self-concept. Even the solo librarian is part of a professional network, and a larger organization, and must rely upon others and other sources of information in order to do her job.
Christina Courtright, writing about Thomas Wilson’s model of information behavior, refers to what he calls the “feedback loop” of “learning over time” (2007). This learning, according to Courtright, always takes place in relation to an individual’s perception of both risk and reward, and of self-efficacy. Imagine a library employee faced with a required task, a low sense of self-efficacy, and a high risk for information-seeking; for instance, a student employee at an academic library working at the desk late at night, with a supervisor who has in the past refused to answer this student’s questions because she thinks he should remember what she verbally told him during training a month ago. A patron comes to the desk wanting to extend a loan on a reserve item until morning; the student is unsure of the permissions and process. Were there adequate documentation (an online document, for example, of policies and procedures), or were the supervisor more willing to share information, the “risk” element would be taken out of the equation, as well as, perhaps, the student’s low sense of self-efficacy. The thinking and actions this student might go through in such a situation have been described by Elfreda Chatman as “self-protective behavior” (Hersberger, 2005). Chatman identified four characteristics of such behaviors: secrecy, deception, risk-taking, and situational relevance. In this example, the student employee must choose between the risk of asking his secrecy-wielding supervisor what to do, or deception of both supervisor and patron by bluffing and risking a solution which may be incorrect. Either choice ultimately has a negative effect both on service to patrons and on the student worker himself.
Thomas Davenport, in his book Information Ecology, discusses what happens when a system lets down individuals from the system’s very inception: if employees “don’t feel their interests have been adequately represented in deliberations over information, they’ll develop their own sources of information and subvert the…structure” (1997). When employees don’t trust their own system, they create workarounds, back doors, and “go-to” people they ask when they are afraid to approach those who may actually be more knowledgeable on the subject. Davenport found, in his studies of organizations, that the many reasons individuals engage in non-sharing behavior boil down to distrust: of either the individual’s own ability, or of what others would do with the information. Above all, Davenport found that information is often “hoarded to preserve the importance and unique contribution of its creator or current owner.” Individuals may perceive that their value to an organization is based solely on their knowledge, and if that knowledge is shared, there is no need to keep the individual around. People must trust that their value also resides in their abilities to grow and adapt, and to acquire new knowledge.
At many libraries, categories of information are associated with people rather than departments, locations, or workflows. This can be embodied when a person takes on, or is assigned, the role of gatekeeper of information. Take, for example, a library that has undergone an ILS migration, where some data about lost and overdue books did not migrate correctly. This data is maintained by the supervisor at the main branch in the form of printouts. The supervisor considers himself the only person who can consult and understand the information. Not only do the staff at the other branches have to call the main branch to resolve problems with patron accounts, but if the supervisor is not there, the patron must return when he is in. This supervisor displays distrust of the abilities of his colleagues. Perhaps he also feels that exclusive ownership of this knowledge and how to interpret it makes him a valuable employee. This person is acting as a gatekeeper. While there are of course advantages to funneling specialized requests or questions through one person, there are distinct disadvantages. When one person controls a cache of information – whether procedures, passwords, policies, or even the names of other gatekeepers – so much more rests upon the relationship between the gatekeeper and the information seeker. And that knowledge may be lost if the gatekeeper leaves. Elfreda Chatman found that such self-protective behavior ultimately results in a negative effect on individuals’ “access to useful or helpful information.”
One concept I’ve only glanced on is power, and how it fits into concepts of information behavior. Marcia Bates and many others point out that in most studies of information behavior, people prefer to get their information from other human beings if possible (2010). However, power structures can stymie this preference. Just as those with more social capital get ahead in the larger world, the same is true in the library workplace; they are, as articulated in sociologist Nan Lin’s theory of social capital, “more likely to be in a position to encounter useful information either directly or by proxy” (Johnson, 2005). In particular, the formation of in-groups in library workplaces that privilege or withhold information works against the free flow of information. (While in-groups and out-groups based on larger societal categories such as race and gender are critically important factors, that is a subject for a whole other article.)3 These groups may be demarcated by departmental divisions, the length of time employees have been working at a library, social groups formed around interests, or “professional” versus “paraprofessional.”
This last divide is a sore point at many libraries, and many have written and spoken about it.4 Some libraries have deliberately blurred these lines as they blend services across departments. It may seem a meaningless distinction what we call ourselves, particularly when patrons are generally unaware of titles, and just want help from the person at the desk or on the other end of the phone. But Chatman found that “[h]ow you are classified determines both your access to information and your ability to use it” (2000). This is not just true for those of us with clearance classifications in government jobs. The titles we give individual library staff members and their departments affect how information is shared and accessed. A special collections “paraprofessional” with an interest in the theory behind archival arrangement may not have the time or encouragement built into her job to learn and advance. Paraprofessionals are often not invited to meetings where policies that will affect them are crafted. The MLS and other advanced degrees are keys that unlock information. I am personally grateful for everything I learned in my master’s program, and I think professional library science education has value. I think, however, a more nuanced progression in professional development, a blend of on-the-job learning and formal education, would open conduits and allow practical and theoretical information to flow more freely in all directions. We can all learn from each other, but we must all be willing to teach and learn. Communication researcher J. David Johnson writes that individuals’ own perceptions of information politics can affect their behavior: “For many individuals it does not make much sense to learn more about things over which they have no control, so the powerless tend not to seek information” (2009). Active information sharing by those with power can counteract this tendency.
Davenport, writing from a corporate perspective, identifies three types of information behaviors that improve an information environment: “sharing, handling overload, and dealing with multiple meanings” (1997). The first of these behaviors, sharing, is part of what information scientists Madhu Reddy and B.J. Jansen describe as “collaborative information behavior,” or CIB (2008). People are more likely to move from individual information behavior (including withholding, selectively disseminating, or using secrecy or deception) to CIB when certain triggers occur. These include fragmented information resources, lack of domain expertise, and complexity of information need. In other words, when the situation is pressing enough, people will share rather than hoard. In theory, for example, enough database problems during a weekend or vacation will force an systems librarian who has kept problem-solving processes to herself to share them with other employees.
While that is an example of an individual, one-time behavior conducted under duress, in an ideal world, similar situations would trigger the creation of more open, transparent, and flexible information environments. Lisa Lister, writing specifically about library workplaces, notes that “workplace structure itself can foster collegiality or its antithesis, competition and turf guarding” (2003). She observes that library workplaces, in theory, should lend themselves to collegiality and open sharing of information, because of the profession’s more “circular and participatory” and less “pyramidal and autocratic” nature. Libraries tend to have, and are trending toward, flat structures. It is more crucial than ever to use these structures to create more transparent, open, and flexible information environments. Such models not only improve the flow of information, but also embody the principles and values of the library profession.
Open Access Means Both
We don’t have to look far for models of more open information environments. The impact of the open access movement on the library universe – its implications for publishing, copyright, and access – is well-documented. Many librarians have enthusiastically embraced the principles of open access when it comes to collections decisions, or working with faculty on publishing agreements. How many of us, however, have applied these principles to our own workplaces? The Budapest Open Access Initiative includes this key principle of open access: “Removing access barriers to this literature will accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, make this literature as useful as it can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge” (2002). Replace “rich” and “poor” with “information rich” and “information poor,” and “humanity” with “library staff,” and this sounds to me like an ideal directive for information sharing in the library workplace.
Library and information science scholar Kevin Rioux describes a set of behaviors he refers to as “information acquiring-and-sharing,” which focuses not on information seeking but on how available an individual makes his or her own information base to others with information needs – a concept directly in line with the principles of open access (2005). When undertaking information acquiring-and-sharing, an individual actively stores and recalls others’ existing and potential information needs, makes associations with information she has acquired, and shares the information. In other words, she removes barriers to access. In order to be successful at both seeking and sharing information, individuals must be aware of other people’s information needs and sharing behaviors. This crucial act of sharing can happen in either direction. Librarians Maria Anna Jankowska and Linnea Marshall (2003) suggest sharing information via joint meetings between departments whose information behaviors might clash. In a very specific example, Lisa Lister suggests that what she calls “fugitive” information useful to public services librarians (e.g., phone numbers for referrals) be clearly documented, rather than relying on individual librarians’ memory or informal sharing (2003), which privileges particular librarians and their social networks.
In Choo et al.’s study of a Canadian law firm (2006), employees were surveyed about the information environment in their workplace. Some of the statements with which employees were asked to indicate their agreement were:
- Knowledge and information in my organization is available and organized to make it easy to find what I need.
- Information about good work practices, lessons learned, and knowledgeable persons is easy to find in my organization.
- My organization makes use of information technology to facilitate knowledge and information sharing.
These are all statements on which librarians might easily agree if we were launching an online, open-access journal, but perhaps not on library workplaces’ own internal organization of information. This applies particularly to the last statement. How many of us are using paper files or outdated computer programs to store information about instruction strategies, acquisition processes, or community contacts? Libraries should take advantage of more inexpensive, open technologies and invest in training existing and new employees (where, of course, they are able to do so under staffing and financial constraints).
One of the goals of open access is to make research and other scholarly work more accessible in pre-publication stages, in order to benefit from the collaborative nature of the Internet. A number of barriers exist to implementing this approach in library workplaces. Communication researcher William Garvey identified that scientists participate in a public culture of communication, but a private culture of research (1979). While the scientific research environment may have changed, libraries have been slow to break down the “private culture” of our own workplaces, instead privileging information to make ourselves as individuals seem more valuable. Cross-functionality and collaboration can begin to clear the logjam of what sociologists Marc Smith and Howard T. Welser call the “collective action dilemma” – when “actors seek a collective outcome, yet each actor’s narrow self-interest rewards her or him for not contributing to that group goal” (2005). For example, working alone, a reference librarian’s knowledge of an arcane trick to produce good catalog results is an asset to him. Working in a cross-functional catalog team with a technical services librarian could force the librarian to explain how he uses the catalog and spur improvements to the system. Though it may rob the reference librarian of some “special” knowledge, the user has been served better through the pressure of others on a cross-functional team.5
Open access thrives on the idea of the community of practice, a model enacted in some library organizations, but certainly not all. In true communities of practice, people share goals, interests, and a common language; they work with the same information, tools, and technologies. While the latter half of that description may be a tall order for specialized library functions and libraries with shrinking budgets, the former should be feasible in library workplaces. Goals, interests, and a common language: all of these can be summarized in a mission and accomplished by attendant goals, directives, and processes. How can we get disparate groups within library workplaces to agree upon a common language and to share information using it? Martha Mautino and Michael Lorenzen, quoting business professor Phillip Clampitt, offer concrete suggestions, both structural — writing interdepartmental agreements, tracking organizational processes, creating cross-functional teams — and behavioral – inclusive brainstorming sessions, show and tell at all-staff meetings (2003). All of these efforts can go a long way toward increasing access to information at all stages of creation and implementation, and to creating a common language and goals among library staff. It’s already happening to some extent – sharing among libraries is strong at conferences and on social media – but robust, open-access-style repositories of knowledge in library workplaces would be powerful.
The New Librarian and the Principles of the Profession
In a study of janitors with information needs, Elfreda Chatman found that they “believed that, if their supervisors or even neighbours or friends knew some problems that they were having, they would take advantage of them by using this information against them” (2000). In other studies, people did not want to be viewed as less capable than others and therefore did not seek information. This can be a particularly prevalent problem for new librarians in their first professional positions. They may be expected to jump in and learn as they go along —and without a supportive or clear structure of both human and documented information sources, they may revert to self-protective behavior.
Those new to the profession or to a particular workplace are singularly positioned to benefit the most from an open and well-structured information environment, or to improve a closed and poorly structured one. Library literature abounds with advice to new librarians (whether to the profession or a workplace). Both Julie Todaro (2007) and Natalie Baur (2012), writing separately in the ALA-APA newsletter Library Worklife, suggest responsibilities for the new employee, including: learning the library’s hierarchy, culture, and expectations, seeking out materials and documents, and introducing oneself to everyone (not just to those who may seem strategically advantageous). Rebecca K. Miller brings the responsibilities of both sides together: “Through accurate job descriptions and well-developed communications, a library organization can…communicate realistic expectations, making sure that new librarians come into an organization with a clear idea of what the organization expects and how the new librarian can work to meet those expectations” (2013).
A new person coming into a library workplace may have ideas about workplace information culture from a previous position or from library school, but she must also learn the ways information is socially transmitted in her new workplace. If those ways are unnecessarily complicated (whether intentionally or unintentionally), it is more difficult for the new person to do her job. Perhaps members of a department have “always” taken vacation on a seniority basis, and when a new person is granted vacation on a first-come, first-served basis, there may be unspoken resentment. The new person is unaware of both the custom and the senior employees’ resentment; the senior employees and manager have not shared their custom with the new person. Down the line, when that new person needs information, that resentment may affect the senior employees’ willingness to share it. And no one will know why because it has not been communicated. Had the policy been documented in the first place, it would have been less of a problem. Todaro places responsibility equally on the new person and the organization to seek out and to provide information, respectively. As she points out, however, “much ‘common knowledge’ is known to all but new employees” (2007). This common knowledge includes methods of communication, and the accepted processes of retrieving and using content from common sources of information.
One common source of information, as I previously discussed, is an established mission. Maria Anna Jankowska and Linnea Marshall describe an organization without a mission this way: “beliefs may be promulgated among the members through their own personal communications among themselves….The quantity, quality, and inclusiveness of these personal communications contribute to, or detract from, a unified organizational vision” (2003). A poorly conceived or written mission statement is, of course, just as harmful as no mission at all. But constructed carefully from both top down (larger institutional mission) and bottom up (employees’ tasks and services), they can inform everything in a workplace, including procedures and policies governing information behavior. Clearly-written missions and goals can address three important, positive types of information behavior identified by Davenport: sharing information, handling information overload, and dealing with multiple meanings. A collaboratively written and agreed-upon set of goals and directions for a library makes information public (sharing), distills it (overload), and asks everyone to agree on a common language (multiple meanings). This may all sound obvious, but there are plenty of libraries that do not address these three behaviors, that do not have unified goals or even a mission statement. And in those libraries, as Jankowska and Marshall point out, lateral communications – which often occur in the context of social relationships and not in an open community of practice – govern the day-to-day tasks and, ultimately, long-term direction of that library.
As Lisa Lister writes, “Our library culture and organizational structure can either foster or hinder the participatory ideals that contribute to our collegiality.” The ALA’s Code of Ethics (2008) provides principles to accomplish the former – to foster information sharing and clear, open channels of communication, through library organizational and information culture. Three of the eight principles under the code of ethics are:
- We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.
- We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.
- We strive for excellence in the profession by maintaining and enhancing our own knowledge and skills, by encouraging the professional development of co-workers, and by fostering the aspirations of potential members of the profession.
All three of these principles can be applied when interacting with fellow library staff as well as when serving users; employees should have equitable access to accurate information that affects their jobs. Reddy and Jansen argue that collaborative information behavior can only take place where there is “trust, awareness, and coordination” (2008). All three of these factors are reflected in the ALA’s Code of Ethics: we must trust that personal beliefs will not hinder coworkers from sharing information, maintain awareness of our own knowledge, and employ coordination through actively sharing information to foster others’ professional development. When information is shared among all individuals in a library workplace – especially from those with power to those with less power – we ultimately provide better service, and the principles of our profession are enacted.
Many thanks to Ellie Collier as my In the Library with the Lead Pipe editor for excellent help in shaping this article, and to Caro Pinto as both external editor and stellar colleague. Thanks are also due to Katy Aronoff, Macee Damon, Hope Houston, and Matt van Sleet, for thought-provoking conversations and for encouraging me to write.
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You might also be interested in:
- Our Librarian Bodies. Our Librarian Selves.
- “That’s how we do things around here”: Organizational culture (and change) in libraries
- Why Diversity Matters: A Roundtable Discussion on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in Librarianship
- Zen and the Art of Constructive Criticism
- Running the Library Race
- Unless noted, researchers come from an information studies or information science background. [↩]
- This concept will sound familiar in terms of students to anyone who has kept up with Project Information Literacy (http://projectinfolit.org). [↩]
- See, for instance, in Further Reading: Chen et al. 2013, Richards and Busch 2013, and Karsten 2006. [↩]
- See, for example, Rachel Applegate’s 2010 article in Library Trends, “Clarifying Jurisdiction in the Library Workforce” – http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/library_trends/v059/59.1-2.applegate.html [↩]
- Many librarians have written articles on cross-training staff at, or combining, various public services desks (reference, circulation, technology help, writing help); Bethany Sewell and Theresa Alarid’s 2013 article in Journal of Access Services is a recent example. [↩]