Information Behavior within the Humanities: Searching or Browsing, Recall or Precision? Researching the Information Needs of Academics: the Case Study of the Faculty of History of the University of Warsa

Anna Mierzecka

Institute of Information Science and Book Studies 
University of Warsaw, Poland


Purpose/thesis: The aim of this research was to discover the characteristics of information behavior among the scholars whose academic focus lies within the field of humanities. Recognizing the importance of local conditions and their impact on information behavior, the researcher conducted her empirical study on a group of Polish academics, i.e. the employees of the Faculty of History at the University of Warsaw. Particular emphasis was put on establishing (1) how academics retrieve required literature, (2) what factors may influence the degree of satisfaction from the query, (3) how crucial was the level of results’ relevance and (4) whether academics assign greater importance to query recall or precision.

Approach/methods: Empirical research was preceded by the analysis of subject literature enabling the author of the paper to outline several internationally observed tendencies in information behavior of academics, and to formulate theses with regard to Polish academics. These were verified on the basis of 54 in-depth interviews with the employees of the Faculty of History at the University of Warsaw and their ordered queries of academic literature.

Results and conclusions:
Research results have indicated that humanities scholars prefer browsing document sets characterized by a high level of recall as a method of retrieving required subject literature. Due to the difficulty in formulating query instructions with sufficient precision, they less frequently choose the method of searching for document sets characterized by high precision factor. The need to browse through irrelevant titles was found to have no significant impact on the level of user satisfaction. Additional research has also indicated that academic texts databases are still insufficiently adjusted to the needs of humanities scholars.

The research has allowed to describe information behavior of humanities scholars with regard to the use of digital technologies in the research process, which so far has not taken place in the case of Polish academic community.


Humanists. Information Behavior. Information Needs. Information Precision. Information Query. Information Recall. Information Seeking. Relevance. Satisfaction of Information Users.

Received: 06.05.2015. Revised: 08.07.2015. Accepted: 09.07.2015.



The organization of academic communication has recently undergone major transformations. Many point to its increasingly global and networked character, resulting, among others, from the advancing digitalization, development of Science 2.0 initiatives, emergence of new tools for knowledge organization (Sosińska-Kalata, 2011) as well as the creation of informational infrastructure for science. Its integral part consists of special information retrieval systems whose aim should be to facilitate efficient access to academic literature and information sources in a manner corresponding to the specific character of the discipline represented by the researcher. Effective information flow, understood as retrieving relevant messages, that is, among others, pertinent academic publications, should also be supported by an appropriate system of services provided by informational specialists to the academic community. Preparation of such infrastructure must be based on the research of information needs.

Among the factors that significantly determine information needs of scholars is the academic field their research is located in. In the case of humanities, research process is largely based on working with texts: reading, analysis, synthesis and interpretation of materials that are usually made available through libraries and archives. Research results have confirmed that humanities scholars use libraries to a significantly larger degree than the representatives of other disciplines (Whitmire, 2002).


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