Young Adults’ Information Behavior: What We Know So Far and Where We Need to Go from Here

By Denise E. Agosto, Advisory Board Member, Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults

As the YALSA Research Agenda 2012—2016 reflects, an understanding of young adults’ information behavior (IB) is key to designing and delivering the best possible library services for young adults. IB research “focuses on people’s information needs; on how they seek, manage, give, and use information, both purposefully and passively.”1 Some IB researchers call this research “information practice” to highlight the roles that sociological and contextual factors play in humans’ use (and nonuse) of information.2 This essay provides an overview of what we’ve learned so far about young adults’ information behaviors and practices, and poses guiding questions for advancing this important line of research.

To date, most IB research has focused on adults or children, with limited attention to adolescents. Nonetheless, an increasing number of researchers are working in the area of young adult information behavior. It is difficult to identify the exact parameters of this research due to variance in definitions of “young adult.” IB researchers have studied youth as young as nine and as old as twenty-nine, all under the term “young adult.” Most commonly, IB researchers have studied teenagers as young adults, generally focusing their work on either early adolescents (roughly age eleven to age fourteen) or late adolescents (roughly age fifteen to eighteen).

Young adult IB research spans several disciplines, most notably library and information science, education, psychology, and communications. It can be divided into three general categories: 1) studies resulting in the identification of young adults’ information needs; 2) studies leading to the development of models of young adults’ information practices; and 3) studies resulting in descriptions of young adults’ digital information behavior.

Young Adults’ Information Needs

From Minudri’s work nearly forty years ago to Meyers, Fisher, and Marcoux’s more recent work and beyond, one common approach to the study of young adult information behavior involves the identification of categories of information needs.3 Across these studies, several categories of information needs recur, including information relating to:

  • peer, family, and other relationships
  • popular culture
  • emotional needs
  • physical health and safety
  • emerging sexuality
  • consumer needs
  • academics
  • leisure activities and interests
  • careers
  • college

Other studies have identified barriers that prevent young adults from successful information seeking and use.4 Common barriers identified across studies include:

  • lack of source knowledge
  • background and contextual knowledge deficiencies
  • negative perceptions of libraries and librarians
  • information avoidance
  • embarrassment and social unease
  • use restrictions by parents/guardians, schools, or libraries
  • access issues
  • information overload

Questions to Consider for Building on Our Current Understanding of Young Adults’ Information Needs

  1. How can librarians and other adult intermediaries help young adults to overcome these barriers to effective information seeking and use?
  2. Faced with most types of information needs, young adults generally turn first to other humans as information sources, viewing librarians and libraries as secondary choices.5 How can we make librarians and libraries more frequent and more valued information resources?
  3. In light of the rise of social media, what is the role of social searching (gathering information from peers via mediated channels) in young adults’ information seeking?

Models of Young Adults’ Information Practices

Several researchers have proposed young adult IB models. For example, Kuhlthau’s model of the Information Search Process (ISP) has served as a basis for much of the young adult IB research, particularly studies involving academic research.6 Her model identifies common behaviors, thoughts, and emotions that students often experience during the research process.

There has been less IB research in the public library arena, meaning that researchers know less about young adults’ information practices in public libraries. Agosto developed a model of the roles that public libraries can play in young adults’ lives.7 It shows that public libraries typically serve as: 1) information gateways; 2) social interaction and entertainment spaces; and 3) beneficial physical environments.

Other research has focused on young adults’ information behaviors outside of schools and libraries. Everyday life information practice research examines “socially and culturally established ways to identify, seek, use, and share the information available in various sources such as television, newspapers, and the Internet.”8 Agosto and Hughes-Hassell proposed a model which showed that everyday life information practices support young adults’ social, emotional, self-reflective, physical, creative, cognitive, and sexual development.9

Questions to Consider for Building on Our Current Understanding of Models of Young Adults’ Information Practices

  1. How do demographic factors such as socioeconomic status and cultural context affect these IB models?
  2. There is little research that compares information behaviors among age groups. How do teens’ and adults’ information practices differ? How do teens’ and children’s information practices differ?
  3. How do early adolescents’ and late adolescents’ information behaviors differ?

Young Adult’s Digital Information Practices

Much of the current young adult IB research focuses on digital information. Researchers have learned that young adults’ online information behaviors fulfill many of the same needs that offline information behaviors fulfill, including the need for: 1) social interaction and communication, 2) relationship building and maintenance, 3) emotional support, 4) identity exploration, 5) positive self-esteem building, and 6) academic and intellectual support. Researchers know that young adults are increasingly mixing their online and offline lives, seamlessly integrating a range of information technologies into their everyday information practices.

Contrary to the popular narrative surrounding young adults’ digital information behaviors, many IB researchers are finding that not all young adults are technologically advanced.10 This has led to growing opposition to the concept “digital natives,” and to its portrayal of all youth as technological enthusiasts and experts. Indeed, “[t]he picture beginning to emerge from research on young people’s relationships with technology is much more complex than the digital native characterization suggests. While technology is embedded in their lives, young people’s use and skills are not uniform.”11 Moreover, even though most young adults use multiple technologies for communication and interaction with peers, family members, and others, face-to-face communication is still the most popular form of communication among youth peer groups.12

Questions to Consider for Building on Our Current Understanding of Young Adult’s Digital Information Practices

  1. Again, few studies have compared behavioral differences by age group. How do young adults’ digital information behaviors differ from adults’ behaviors?
  2. To what extent are age-based differences due to chronological age, and to what extent are they due to varying levels of experience with digital information, digital information resources, and digital information systems?
  3. In view of the fact that young adults’ digital information proficiency levels vary radically, how can public and school libraries mitigate these differences?


To move young adult IB research forward, we must build on existing research with additional youth-centered, data-driven studies. Above all, we must work to learn from young adults about their information behaviors and practices, as opposed to prescribing our own adult views of ideal information behaviors and practices onto youth. It is only through a deeper understanding of young adults’ information needs, perceptions, and preferences that we can make young adult library services truly youth-centered and designed to meet youths’ ever-evolving information needs.

References and Notes

  1. Karen Fisher and Heidi Julien, “Information Behavior,” Annual Review of Information Science and Technology 43 (2009): 317.
  2. Reijo Savolainen, Everyday Information Practices: A Social Phenomenological Perspective (Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2008).
  3. Regina Minudri, “Library and Information Services for Young Adults and Students,” Library and Information Service Needs of the Nation: Proceedings of a Conference on the Needs of Occupational, Ethnic, and Other Groups in the United States, ed. Carlos A. Cuadra and Marcia J. Bates (Washington, DC: GPO, 1974), 155-161; Eric M. Meyers, Karen E. Fisher, and Elizabeth Marcoux, “Making Sense of an Information World: The Everyday Life Information Behavior of Preteens” Library Quarterly 79 (2009): 301—341.
  4. For example: Heidi Julien, “Barriers to Adolescents’ Information Seeking for Career Decision Making,” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 50 (1999): 38-48; Andrew Shenton, “Causes of Information-Seeking Failure: Some Insights from an English Research Project,” Youth Information Seeking Behaviors: Context, Theories, Models, and Issues (Vol. 2), eds. Mary K. Chelton and Colleen Cool (Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow, 2007), 257-277.
  5. For example: Denise E. Agosto and Sandra Hughes-Hassell, “People, Places, and Questions: An Investigation of the Everyday Life Information-Seeking Behaviors of Urban Young Adults,” Library & Information Science Research 27 (2005): 141-163; Barbara Poston-Anderson and Susan Edwards, “The Role of Information in Helping Adolescent Girls with their Life Concerns,” School Library Media Quarterly 22 (1993): 25-30; Andrew Shenton and Pat Dixon,’ “Youngsters’ Use of Other People as an Information-Seeking Method” Journal of Librarianship and Information Science 35 (2003): 219-233.
  6. Carol C. Kuhlthau, “Inside the Search Process: Information Seeking from the User’s Perspective,” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 42 (1991): 361-371.
  7. Denise E. Agosto, “Why Do Teens Use Libraries? Results of a Public Library Use Survey,” Public Libraries 46 (2007): 55-62.
  8. Savolainen, 2-3.
  9. Denise E. Agosto and Sandra Hughes-Hassell, “Toward a Model of the Everyday Life Information Needs of Urban Teenagers, Part 1: Theoretical Model,” Journal of the American Society for Information Science & Technology 57 (2006): 1394-1403; Denise E. Agosto and Sandra Hughes-Hassell, “Toward a Model of the Everyday Life Information Needs of Urban Teenagers, Part 2: Empirical Model,” Journal of the American Society for Information Science & Technology 57 (2006): 1418-1426.
  10. For example: Denise E. Agosto and June Abbas, “High School Seniors’ Social Network and Other ICT Use Preferences and Concerns,” (presented at Proceedings of the 2010 American Society for Information Science & Technology Annual Meeting (ASIS&T), in Pittsburgh, PA, October 22-27, 2010),; Ellen Helsper and Rebecca Eynon, “Digital Natives: Where is the Evidence?” British Educational Research Journal (2009): 1-18, ‘; Gregor Kennedy, Terry Judd, Barney Dalgarno, and Jenny Waycott, “Beyond Natives and Immigrants: Exploring Types of Net Generation Students,” Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 26 (2010): 332-343.
  11. Sue Bennett, Karl Maton, and Lisa Kervin, “The ‘Digital Natives’ Debate: A Critical Review of the Evidence,” British Journal of Educational Technology 39 (2008): 783.
  12. Katrien Van Cleemput, “‘I’ll See You on IM, Text, or Call You:’ A Social Network Approach of Adolescents’ Use of Communication Media,” Bulletin of Science, Technology, & Society 30 (2010): 75-85.

Denise E. Agosto, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the College of Information Science and Technology at Drexel University, with research and teaching interests in youths’ social media practices, children’s and teens’ digital information behaviors, and public library services. Dr. Agosto is widely published in these areas and has won numerous teaching and research awards and research grants for her work.

This entry was posted in Volume 2 Number 1: November 2011, Volume 2 of the Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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