Information access: Toward a more robust conceptualization



Information access is implicated in multiple research areas in library and information science (LIS). This paper argues that information access should receive more explicit attention from researchers. First, the two predominant conceptualizations of information access are examined and synthesized, noting the particular strengths and weaknesses of each. Next, the paper illustrates the centrality of information access by examining several LIS research areas; this explication demonstrates that information access is an important, though often implicit, concern of LIS researchers. Information access is studied across several research areas, but these typically remain isolated and unconnected. By integrating multiple analytical approaches to information access, this paper improves upon the current understanding of information access. The brief examination of information access suggests that a more refined framework, incorporating additional dimensions, would be fruitful, both to promote research into information access and to better integrate disparate research streams. This paper has three goals: to draw attention to the centrality of information access across LIS, to incorporate multiple research streams' perspectives on information access, and to suggest further refinements to the study of information access.


The ASIS&T 2009 Annual Meeting Call for Papers mentions “information transfer and access,” stating that these processes are the foundation for both global diversity and interconnections between countries, organizations, and individuals. As Jaeger (2007) argues, “without access to information, there can be no exchange, use, collection, or management of information” (p. 843). Despite this apparent centrality, the literature does not often explicitly discuss information access.11 Information access can be portrayed as the proverbial elephant investigated in the dark: though many research areas touch upon some aspect of information access, relatively few LIS scholars have focused solely and explicitly on “information access” as a stand-alone research area. Thus, our understanding of information access remains fragmented and incomplete.

This paper begins to rectify the relative lack of overt attention paid to information access.22 First, the two predominant conceptualizations of information access are examined and synthesized, noting the particular strengths and weaknesses of each. Next, the paper illustrates the centrality of information access by examining several LIS research areas; this explication demonstrates that information access is an important, though often implicit, concern of LIS researchers. Information access is studied across several research areas, but these typically remain isolated and unconnected. By integrating multiple analytical approaches to information access, this paper improves upon the current understanding of information access. The brief examination of information access suggests that a more refined framework, incorporating additional dimensions, would be fruitful, both to promote research into information access and to better integrate disparate research streams. This paper has three goals: to draw attention to the centrality of information access across LIS, to incorporate multiple research streams' perspectives on information access, and to suggest further refinements to the study of information access.

Conceptualizing Information Access

The conceptualizations of information access reviewed here are complex, with multiple understandings of information access. This is not surprising, as other researchers similarly note diverse perspectives of information access.33 For example, Dole, Hurych, and Koehler (2000) report that librarians throughout the world considered “access” to be a core value of librarianship, but found no standard, shared definition of that value. Demarcating information access as a concept is a first step toward creating that standard definition. The two approaches reviewed below offer different perspectives on conceptualizing information access.

Six Views of Information Access

McCreadie and Rice (1999a, 1999b) surveyed six research areas and found six different conceptualizations of access across these domains.44Table 1, taken from their article, summarizes McCreadie and Rice's findings (1999a, p. 50). As discipline-spanning conceptualizations, these were not defined in detail, but are sketched with examples and generalities. According to McCreadie and Rice, the first three understandings of access in the table below were the ones most frequently found in LIS literature, while the last three were less common.

The first conceptualization, “access to knowledge and its representations,” was the most common across disciplines; this includes messages sent and received, printed and audiovisual materials, digital data, analysis and advice, and education. In LIS, this conception of access typically includes books, documents, periodicals, citations, and databases. The emphasis, according to McCreadie and Rice, tends to be on the representations or artifacts of knowledge; there is an underlying assumption that if people have access to an artifact, then they have access to the knowledge contained therein. In individuals' personal and work lives, “access to knowledge” can affect their quality of life and decision-making abilities (McCreadie & Rice, 1999a, pp. 49-51).

Table 1. Conceptualizations of Access to Information
original image

The second common conceptualization is “access to technology,” which primarily focuses on connections or interactions with particular technological systems or types of media. This perspective, McCreadie and Rice note, frequently assumes that access to technology, or use of some system, is equivalent to access to information. However, a host of factors can intervene or complicate the relationship between access, information, and use. In addition, technology mediates individuals' access to information, either intensifying or compensating for individuals' abilities. Finally, McCreadie and Rice explain that “access to technology” can have a compounding effect: the more access one has, the easier and more effectively one can gain further access (pp. 51-53).

The third conceptualization of access involves making sense of and using information. This includes comprehension, retention, and decision-making. Again, a compounding effect is evident: “communication competence is gained through access to and participation in communication practices,” so those who gain access to information are likely to benefit more and gain further access (McCreadie & Rice, 1999a, pp. 53-54). In other words, an initial level of access to information begets competence in accessing and utilizing further information. The last three conceptualizations listed in the table were found less frequently, in McCreadie and Rice's survey, in the LIS disciplines.

The pair of articles written by McCreadie and Rice (1999a, 1999b) was seminal because of the authors' detailed analysis of information access and their nuanced portrait of how access was conceptualized across six disciplines. Because their mapping of conceptualizations is grounded in the literature, McCreadie and Rice's (1999a, 1999b) work is particularly valuable; it reveals how information access was actually used and viewed by researchers.

In the 10 years since their articles, however, the distinctions between different conceptualizations of access have grown less clear (Lievrouw, 2000; Lor & Britz, 2007). For example, discussions about controlling information access inevitably involve concerns about citizens' abilities to participate socially, economically, and politically (Balkin, 2004; Lievrouw & Farb, 2002; Lor & Britz, 2007). Reddick (2004) notes that access inequalities “reflect the longstanding inequality of access to power and resources, as well as to social participation” (p. 13). In fact, “access as a means to participation” in politics and in the global information economy is mentioned in nearly all access-related research; participation has shifted from a minor focus to a more prominent position across the information access literature (Balkin, 2004; Burnett & Jaeger, 2008; Jaeger, 2007; Lievrouw & Farb, 2002). Lor and Britz (2007) directly link control to participation:

The denial of access to information is therefore no longer merely a denial of access to the ideas held by others or suppression of freedom of expression. It also marginalizes people's participation in the various economic, political and socio-cultural activities. It touches the very heart of the modern information era (p. 392).

Another distinction McCreadie and Rice suggested (1999a, 1999b), between “access as knowledge” and “access as communication,” seems somewhat artificial a decade later. LIS research, in particular, has shifted away from considering knowledge in isolation and has a stronger emphasis on knowledge that is usable, workable, and beneficial to individual users in specific social and organizational contexts (Gorman, 2000; O'Neil, 2002; Rubin, 2004; Thompson, 2008). Burden (2000) summarizes the connection between “access as knowledge” and “access as communication” by arguing that “information has value only if it is accessible, if it can be read and understood, or if the user can gain new knowledge from it” (p. 46). Recall that McCreadie and Rice's conception of “access as knowledge” focused on extracting knowledge from artifacts such as books or documents, and “access as communication” included making sense of and using information. Burden's argument, and much of contemporary LIS research, combines these two into a single understanding of access.

In addition to no longer accurately portraying information access research, McCreadie and Rice's (1999a, 1999b) articles suffer from a lack of synthesis. The authors do little more than describe these six conceptualizations, without providing a unifying framework or a way to compare these conceptualizations. They note that “with access underlying many different areas of everyday life and implicit in much research, we need to understand its dimensions in order to consider seriously its implications and to guide us in designing policies and systems” (1999b, p. 45). Describing and explaining the dimensions of information access could depict the current literature and provide a unifying framework with which to compare and evaluate different conceptualizations.

Three Dimensions of Information Access

Jaeger, Burnett, and colleagues have taken up this challenge by portraying three dimensions of information access (Burnett, Besant, & Chatman, 2001; Burnett & Bonnici, 2003; Burnett & Jaeger, 2008; Burnett, Jaeger & Thompson, 2008; Jaeger, 2007; Jaeger & Bowman, 2005; Jaeger & Burnett, 2005; Jaeger & Thompson, 2004). They begin by defining information access as “the presence of a robust system through which information is made available to citizens and others” (Jaeger & Burnett, 2005, p. 465). From the context of the article and subsequent publications, it is clear that “system” encompasses more than technology; rather, system entails the socially and politically contextualized complex means by which individuals obtain information.

Burnett, Jaeger, and Thompson (2008) suggest that access has three components: physical, intellectual, and social. Physical access includes “the physical structures that contain information, the electronic structures that contain information, and the paths that are traveled to get to information” (p. 57). Geography, technology, and economics can all affect physical access. Intellectual access refers to understanding information in a document and traits such as physical or cognitive (dis)abilities, language competence, and technological literacy; whereas physical access is enhanced, constrained, or manipulated in the external environment, intellectual access is affected by an individual's internal characteristics. Finally, the concept of social access suggests that elements of one's social world, including social norms and worldviews, influence which information one accesses, and how and why particular information is sought (Burnett & Jaeger, 2008; Jaeger & Thompson, 2004).

Thus, neither physical nor intellectual access can be understood in isolation; both are mediated by the social milieu of individuals. Lor and Britz (2007) make a similar argument: “a well-developed and well maintained information infrastructure…alone is not enough. The information that is accessible should also be affordable, available, timely, relevant, readily assimilated, and in languages and contexts users can relate to and understand” (p. 390). The relationships between these different components of information access are explicitly problematized when Blakemore and Craglia (2006) wonder “whether physical access to information is being prioritized above that of social access” (p. 19). Other scholars have recognized, more or less explicitly, the physical, social, and intellectual components of information access explicated by Burnett, Jaeger, and Thompson.

Figure 1 below illustrates that the two schemes (by McCreadie & Rice and Burnett, Jaeger, and Thompson) do cover many of the same elements. This synthesis demonstrates the analytical power of Burnett, Jaeger, and Thompson's framework, illustrated through several examples in the following section.

Synthesizing the Two Approaches

The scheme offered by Burnett, Jaeger, and Thompson (2008) does not conform precisely to the six conceptualizations suggested by McCreadie & Rice (1999a), both because of the time span (nearly a decade) and because of the different purposes of the articles (reviewing extant literature and describing a framework for future research). Nonetheless, there are many similarities. Burnett, Jaeger, and Thompson provide a cohesive frame for McCreadie and Rice's conceptualizations.

For example, “access as technology” (from McCreadie & Rice, 1999a) is clearly analogous to physical access (as described by Burnett, Jaeger, & Thompson, 2008). Both perspectives study the physical and electronic tools individuals may use (or may not be able to use) to gain access. McCreadie and Rice explain that technology “serves as an information delivery system” (p. 51), analogous to Burnett, Jaeger, and Thompson's depiction of electronic pathways to information. Burnett, Jaeger, and Thompson's physical access also covers some of the same territory as McCreadie and Rice's “access as commodity” and “as control.” The conceptualization of “access as commodity” includes how access is distributed, subsidized, bought and sold (McCreadie & Rice, 1999a, p. 55). Although not as clearly congruent with physical access as “access as technology,” nonetheless “access as commodity” can be seen in “the questions of whether people can get into the location that houses the documents” (Burnett, Jaeger, & Thompson, p. 57), which conceptualizes access as a physical, spatial thing. Though the commoditization of information access sometimes involves intangible, abstract, or electronic information, this is still included in Burnett, Jaeger, and Thompson's conception of physical access.

Figure 1.

Synthesis of Two Conceptualizations of Information Access

“Access as control,” according to McCreadie and Rice (1999a) includes both control over technology, physical equipment, and resources, and control over “who gains access to what information to whose advantage” (p. 54). Thus, there are both physical and social aspects to “access as control.” Burnett, Jaeger, and Thompson (2008) note that “social norms may actively impact or limit information access” (p. 58). These limitations are a form of, or perhaps the result of, “access as control.”

McCreadie and Rice's (1999a) “access as participation” is also implicated in Burnett, Jaeger, and Thompson's (2008) social access, in which “different understandings of social attitudes, expectations, and norms directly influenced how—and whether—certain types of information were made available or were perceived as valuable” (p. 64). These attitudes, expectations, and norms can constrain or promote “access as participation.” Social access also includes, at least in part, “access as communication.” McCreadie and Rice note, “communication competence is required for participation in the social, economic, and political spheres of society” (p. 54).

“Access as communication” also comes under Burnett, Jaeger, and Thompson's (2008) intellectual access. McCreadie and Rice (1999a) explain that “access as communication” includes “access to content, to comprehension, or to retention…this broader understanding of relevance includes factors that make it possible for the individual to make use of information” (p. 53). It is this individualized aspect of intellectual capacity that is part of intellectual access as depicted by Burnett, Jaeger, and Thompson. Finally, intellectual access to information also incorporates McCreadie and Rice's “access as knowledge,” the sending, receiving, and interpreting of messages and individual understanding of information.

As the preceding discussion makes clear, the six conceptualizations of access suggested by McCreadie and Rice (1999a, 1999b) do not map neatly onto the three components of information access articulated by Burnett, Jaeger, and Thompson (2008). Yet there are overlaps and similarities, facilitating a synthesis between these two approaches. The most significant ideas from McCreadie and Rice can be incorporated into Burnett, Jaeger, and Thompson's approach. This is beneficial because McCreadie & Rice are the founders of information access research, and their broad, multi-disciplinary survey remains important, but physical, intellectual, and social access are more conceptually distinct (in literature by Burnett, Jaeger, and colleagues) than McCreadie and Rice's six conceptualizations (as illustrated in the above discussion). Although McCreadie and Rice provide valuable groundwork, Burnett and Jaeger provide a more robust foundation for current and subsequent research.

Information access may not seem overly complicated, but Lievrouw (2000) describes a different scenario in her discussion of universal service, detailing several stages of access. Lievrouw notes that information must be generally available before an individual becomes personally aware of that availability. Yet mere availability is not sufficient for access; individual capacity (such as literacy and social intelligence) then converts this personal (awareness of) availability into accessibility. Finally, access occurs through individual action. She further notes, “access can be ensured only if members of a community have also developed sufficient individual capacity to convert availability to accessibility, and subsequently to obtain access” (p. 157). Lievrouw's model illuminates the micro-stages of information access.

Technical reports published by various agencies of the U.S. federal government55 illustrate the distinctions between existence, availability and access. For over 50 years, federal agencies researched and prepared technical reports covering a wide variety of topics. Unlike other federal publications, these have not been collected in a central location, published by a central authority, or controlled with standard bibliographic information (McClure, 1988; Nickum, 2006; Shill, 1996). Though the National Technical Information Service (NTIS) was “created to act as a clearinghouse” for research and development information, it has not received funding since 1987, severely hindering its ability to collect, organize, and disseminate technical literature (Nickum, 2006, pp. 35-36; see also McClure, 1988). Shill estimated that NTIS had collected no more than one-third of all federally funded reports by the early 1990s (p. 289). Thus, technical reports existed: they were produced, voluminously, by many federal agencies. These reports were also, in principle, available. However, Nickum (2006) and McClure (1988) note that identifying the relevant agency is difficult for all information seekers, especially novices; furthermore, since information dissemination is not part of the fundamental mission of most agencies, they often did not share their technical reports. Despite their existence and availability, therefore, technical reports were not accessible to other scientists, information professionals, and researchers, let alone average citizens.

With the advent of internet publishing, these technical reports have become more accessible,66 as Nickum (2006) details. For example, the Office of Science and Technical Information in the Department of Energy has collaborated with federal depository libraries and research communities to create several websites providing access to either bibliographic information about reports or the full reports. The Energy Citations Database, perhaps the pinnacle of access to technical reports, contains bibliographic information for over 2.3 million documents from 1948 through the present, as well as over 175,000 electronic documents (Nickum, 2006; Electronic Citations Database, 2008). With features like search engines, standard metadata, and bibliographic control, this database makes technical reports and other documents truly accessible to the public.

The Centrality of Information Access: Brief Examples

To further ground this discussion of information access, we turn now to some examples which illustrate the usefulness of Burnett, Jaeger, and Thompson's (2008) three-part framework by illuminating the common characteristics of information access across several research areas; Table 2 depicts typical research questions in each of these areas. At the same time, some weaknesses of Burnett, Jaeger, and Thompson's framework emerge as it is employed. Although information access is a component of many LIS research areas, including human-computer interaction, cataloging and bibliographic referencing, library reference, indexing, knowledge representation, information retrieval, and so on, only brief sketches of a few areas can be provided here, to illustrate the centrality of information access to multiple research areas.

Table 2. 
original image

Freedom of Information Act

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) creates a legal right for individuals to access U.S. government information; one need not be a citizen, explain why one wants the information, know where or how it is kept, or even know if it exists (Feinberg, 2004; Mart, 2006; Oltmann, Hara, & Rosenbaum, 2006). Organizations and individuals work together to search for and request information from the federal government, and, if necessary, to pursue judicial mediation. The released information can create unusual partnerships; for example, non-profit groups, state agencies, and the media all requested information from and about the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. By pooling the information they had, these diverse organizations were able to expose managerial indifference, incompetence, and even fraud.

The literature on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) includes key questions about physical access such as whether certain records exist and how to determine this (Gordon-Murnane, 1999). Intellectual access factors include the amount and readability of information provided, as well as potential connections between documents. Knowing how to request records and how to pursue adjudication are also components of intellectual access. Social access issues play a role, as well. Some researchers, for instance, may think it is inappropriate to request records related to homeland security, while others may advocate just such requests (Feinberg, 2004; Mart, 2006). The social component of information access can also include an agency's philosophy and practice about FOIA requests (Oltmann, Hara, & Rosenbaum, 2006). Legal issues are not explicitly incorporated into Burnett, Jaeger, and Thompson's (2008) framework, but they are fundamental to FOIA research. Laws, amendments, interpretations, and adjudication all affect the implementation and effectiveness of FOIA.

Web Content Management

Several LIS scholars have recently investigated the processes by which web content is managed for the websites of state and federal government agencies (Eschenfelder, 2004a, 2004b; Feinberg, 2004; Mahler & Regan, 2007). They studied how decisions about website content were made, affecting citizens' access to government information. Eschenfelder (2004b) found that decisions about posting information and making it available necessitated agency approval, which involved “extensive review of content to determine factual correctness, compliance with agency standards, the degree to which it supported division or agency priorities, and likelihood of attracting negative public attention (therefore requiring even higher level review)” (p. 474).

In web content management research, physical access concerns include where on the website information is posted. Features such as a site map, search box, and navigation bars can affect information access as well. Physical access describes the path by which people can access the information. Intellectual access might examine patterns in posting or restricting information. Decisions about including certain content on a government website are included in social access. Research questions might include: who approves posting information? How is posting sensitive information framed? Burnett, Jaeger, and Thompson's (2008) framework describes the various research questions that have been addressed in this area. In particular, they draw attention to the social norms that may affect which information is posted or is hidden. Similarly, research on web content management has emphasized that such decisions are idiosyncratic and vary according to manager, department, and government leaders.

Open Access

The history, development, and motivation behind the open access movement are fairly well established at this point (see Drott, 2006; Norris, Oppenheim, & Rowland, 2008; Oppenheim, & Rowland, 2008; Suber, 2008). Essentially, proponents of open access academic literature advocate ending the traditional publication model of academic journals, in which libraries and other institutions pay large fees for print and/or electronic access to the journals. Instead, payments from either authors and/or institutions with publishing authors subsidize the cost of establishing and distributing an open access journal; in addition, most open access journals are online-only, further reducing publication costs. This model has gradually become established in the natural sciences, and is now making inroads in social sciences and humanities. There are some unanswered questions and challenges to this model. For example, advocates frequently assume long-term sustainability, but it may be difficult without the financial resources and longevity of some print publishers. Scholars seeking tenure or advancement may question the reputation of open access journals, despite the fact that many open access journals are peer-reviewed and have high editorial standards. The open access movement is a clear example of how access to information can facilitate linkages and cultural diversity. One of the (often explicit) goals of the open access movement is to make the publishing world more amenable to scholars from less-developed countries. Thus, these scholars may have their “author fees” waived. This results in publication of articles originating from less-developed countries, increasing their voice and visibility. Diversity of thought, research interests, methodologies, and interpretations enhances the academic world. In addition, since one's home institution does not have to pay for access (unlike traditional journals), more scholars can access relevant literature. This can lead to innovative linkages, as scholars are newly able to collaborate, to cite one another, and to draw connections between otherwise disparate research areas.

Open access as a research area is closely associated with information access. For example, questions of physical access revolve around the technological factors affecting open access, such as gaining permissions, finding websites, and locating specific resources within an open access repository or journal (Suber, 2008). The intellectual access components of open access include evaluating the quality of available resources; for example, are articles published in open access journals as reputable as articles published in traditional, paper-based journals? Intellectual aspects also include, therefore, determining how to evaluate articles and rank sources (Norris, Oppenheim, & Rowland, 2008). Finally, social values and norms are also part of the open access research domain. For example, open access advocates may question and even disparage standard recruiting, tenure, and promotion procedures, traditionally based on publication in traditional journals (Drott, 2006; Oppenheim, 2008). These are social practices, governed by social norms; if one's norms indicate that traditional journals are more prestigious, one may denigrate, or at least disdain publishing in, open access journals. As this brief discussion illustrates, the three components of Burnett, Jaeger, and Thompson's (2008) framework illuminate how information access underscores key research questions in open access literature.

However, a potential gap in their framework also becomes apparent: the relative lack of emphasis on economics, on the costs and profits in creating, buying, selling, restricting, and opening access to information. Though Burnett, Jaeger, and Thompson (2008) place economic factors within the physical component, economics receives little attention. But economic concerns are one of the principal concerns behind the open access movement (Drott, 2006) and an important research area. Economic factors ought to be more explicitly incorporated into a framework for investigating information access.


As the above sketches illustrate, information access is a multi-faceted, complex concept. Burnett, Jaeger, and Thompson (2008) suggest that access has physical, intellectual, and social components; this formulation may help us better understand the dynamics of information access. These examples have also pointed to some weaknesses in the three-part framework. The impact of both legal and economic considerations upon information access cannot be minimized. While it may be possible to incorporate these two additional components into the three-part framework (by placing economics within physical access and legal within social access), this may not focus sufficient attention upon these aspects. Further work is needed to test, evaluate, and strengthen Burnett, Jaeger, and Thompson's three-part conceptualization. Doing so would yield at least two benefits: first, an improved framework would improve information access research. Second, a refined framework could better illuminate the connections between different isolated research areas, generating greater synthesis and shared knowledge. The examples discussed here—FOIA, web content management, and open access—demonstrate the centrality of information access to LIS research, even if it is sometimes implicit, rather than explicit.


  1. 1

    1 The author thanks the anonymous reviewers for detailed comments that helped sharpen and clarify the central points of this paper. Thank you also to Dr. France Bouthillier, who helped edit this paper, and Dr. Howard Rosenbaum, who helped refine some of the arguments.

  2. 2

    2 This paper focuses on information access within the United States, though much of the discussion is likely applicable to other nations and regions. It is hoped that future work on information access can be more explicitly international.

  3. 3

    3 One important clarification: information access is not equivalent to, or a subcategory of, information needs, seeking, and use (INSU) research. INSU research considers “how people need, seek, give, and use information in different contexts, including the workplace and everyday living” (Pettigrew, Fidel, & Bruce, 2001, p. 44). Yet before one can seek out or make sense of particular information, it must be accessible; in fact, “access stands at the center of information behaviors” (Jaeger, 2007, p. 843). If access to information is restricted, or the information is censored, then no amount of seeking will bring it forth.

  4. 4

    4 McCreadie and Rice, not the author, make the distinctions between these domains and describe the conceptualizations in Table 1 below.

  5. 5

    5 Copyright laws (unlike copyright in other nations) do not protect information produced by the U.S. federal government. In addition, the U.S. federal government was a global leader in instituting Freedom of Information (FOI) laws, making the vast majority of government-produced information available to any individual. Most other nations have since enacted similar laws; the extent to which the laws are followed and information is made available varies considerably (both in the U.S. and internationally).

  6. 6

    6 Of course, technical reports have only become more accessible for those with access to and ability to use the internet and search features. People on the “wrong side” of the digital divide, with handicaps, or who live in rural areas, for example, may all have substantively less access to much government information, if it is exclusively on the internet.