In her 2006 article, Heinström discusses an event called “incidental information acquisition.” We’ve all experienced it before: while looking for one piece of information, you come across another piece of information the you had unsuccessfully searched for in the past. For example, a while back I remember hearing a review of a book on the radio that caught my interest, but by the time I arrived at work, I’d forgotten the title. I searched unsuccessfully online. NPR hadn’t published its stories for the day on its website yet and so I forgot about it and moved on to other tasks. Until one day a few months later I was in a bookstore and saw the book on a display of new releases and I remembered having searched for book.

Heinström studied 3 groups of users: college students, older adults, and 6th-12th graders. Of those surveyed, 77% claimed they had had similar IIA experiences. Heinström wanted to know if there were any psychological characteristics that predisposed users to IIA. She determined that the following characteristics encourage IIA events:

  • the tendency to regularly and broadly scan information sources
  • having previous knowledge of the subject
  • intrinsic motivation
  • general feelings of confidence, certainty, and satisfaction

Roberts (1989) also looked for similar psychological characteristics and determined that attributes such as sagacity, awareness, curiosity, flexible thinking, and persistence increased the likelihood of IIA.

As librarians, how can we influence and encourage these characteristics to support serendipitous discovery of information? If we are lucky enough to teach semester-long courses or have specific students assigned to us (check out Drexel’s new program), perhaps we may have the opportunity. But between the ready reference questions and the one-off sessions, when do we ever have the chance to help students develop deep, psychological traits such as “curiosity” or “sagacity”?

Perhaps we should look elsewhere. Williamson (1998) examined information seeking, communication behaviors, and telecommunications uses and concluded that personal characteristics, socio-economic circumstances, values, lifestyles and physical environments influence IIA in some way: specifically, those aspects influence how often and effectively people monitor their world. Again, with the exception of physical environments, there seems to be little here librarians can work with to influence the particular factors that affect and increase the potential for IAA.

Nonetheless, librarians are trying and doing what they can given the time and resources they have to increase discoverability. As librarians, we are changing the way we use space and designing libraries that are not only aesthetically pleasing, but that offer a wide range of resources and tools (information commons, media labs, coffee shops, lounges, group study rooms, multi-media classrooms). We are reinterpreting our online catalogs using pre-indexing functions to improve search results and redesigning them to improve their look and feel. Librarians are reaching out to student groups and moving beyond the walls of the library, both physically and virtually, to increase their visibility and let students know that someone is always available to help, even at 4am in the morning. We are changing ourselves and striving to change our environments and transform the context in which users access and seek information.

But is it enough? Can friendly circulation staff inspire curiosity? Does redesigning a search interface build confidence? Can virtual chat reference change someone’s economic circumstances? Do RSS feeds in the OPAC promote critical thinking skills? Can a collection development policy inspire lifelong learning? Can a coffee shop increase the equitability of access? Can metadata teach users about confidentiality?

Forecasting aside (as delightful as that diversion is), there is still the issue of how librarians can encourage IIA when so many of factors that encourage it are out of our control. A recent article by Schroeder & Cahoy (2010) may provide an answer. In their analysis and discussion of the ACRL Information Literacy Standards and the AASL Standards for the 21st century Learner, they call upon librarians and educators to pay more attention to affective learning outcomes. In their definition, this includes “a person’s attitudes, emotions, interests, motivation, self-efficacy, and values”: the very same characteristics mentioned above that encourage serendipitous discovery of information! While they recognize the time constraints imposed on most librarian-student interactions, Schroeder & Cahoy provide a conceptual model for encouraging the traits that favor IIA and inspire “positive feelings” in students. Perhaps, we should start here.

What do you think? Is it the goal of an academic library to create an environment that fosters incidental information acquisition and helps students build personal traits that encourage it? If so, how? If not, why?


Heinström, J. (2006). Psychological factors behind incidental information acquisition. Library & Information Science Research, 28(4), 579-594.

Roberts, R.M. (1989) Serendipity: Accidental discoveries in science, New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Schroeder, R., & Cahoy, E. S. (2010). Valuing information literacy: affective learning and the ACRL standards. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 10(2), 127-146.

Williamson, K. (1998). Discovered by chance: the role of incidental information acquisition in an ecological model of information use. Library & Information Science Research, 20(1), 23-40.

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