School of Information Management & Systems


Chapter 8 of Information and Information Systems, by Michael Buckland. (Westport, CT: Hardback: Greenwood Press; Paperback: Praeger; 1991. 1-800-225-5800)


In the previous chapter, we defined five examples, or types, of retrieval-based information service: archives, libraries, management information systems, museums, and records management. In this chapter, we look at the range of concerns or functions that need to be included by considering what is necessary for access to information.

Each individual information service has its own special focus with respect to mission, groups to be served, sorts of material to be collected, and techniques employed. Nevertheless access emerges as a recurrent theme.

The term access is frequently used in relation to quite different bits and pieces of information service. Indexes provide subject access to collections; censorship impedes access to materials; new telecommunications technologies permit remote access; fee-based information services are differentially accessible because not everyone can afford the cost; most library collections are open access, meaning that users can go directly to the shelves; most museum shelves are closed access in that only staff can get to and handle the collections; some services are inaccessible to the wheelchair-bound; and most books are effectively inaccessible to people with limited reading skills. Occasionally two or more different sorts of access are considered at the same time. For example, the Lacy Report covered several aspects of access including changes in information technology, libel, censorship, illiteracy, preservation, and the future of libraries (American Library Association 1986). Yet each of these senses of access is related. Each refers to one or more aspects of providing means of access to information, of enabling users to accede either to a source of information or, in a fuller sense, to knowledge, to understanding.

Access can be regarded as a unifying concept for the whole field and we shall use it in this way. In this chapter we start with the assumption that all of the provision and use of retrieval-based information services is concerned with access to information and we proceed to categorize, in top-down fashion, the different aspects of access.


We have defined "access" as the means to enable an inquirer to learn from -- to become informed by -- a source pertinent to an inquiry, to accede to the evidence that result in acquiring the knowledge desired.

It may not always be possible to provide access. No pertinent source may exist for some inquiries; with some obscure inquiries, the source may exist but understanding it might be beyond anybody's expertise, as with fragments of lost languages.

In simpler cases one or more suitable, intelligible, credible sources exist, and the problem of access reduces to bringing a source and the inquirer together. However, six types of barrier have to be overcome if access to information is to be achieved:

1. Identification. A suitable source needs to be identified. This indicative access is the realm of bibliography, documentation, classification, indexing, and of information retrieval. Commonly one thinks of this in terms of finding pertinent data or documents about the topic of the inquiry, but, more generally, the retrieval system may need to be responsive to requests for retrieval on any of several attributes, often, but not necessarily, what they are about. (This is usually at least a two-stage process: deciding where to look ("channel-selection") as well as identifying a specific book, record, or other source.)

2. Availability. The inquirer needs to be able to inspect the source or a copy of it. This physical access, or document delivery, is a matter of logistics and technology. If a source that has been identified cannot be located and made physically available in an acceptable fashion, then another source needs to be identified and made available.

3. Price to The User. We use price to denote what the would-be user must expend to use the service. The price may include, but is not restricted to, money. "The real price of everything, what everything really costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it" (Adam Smith 1976, Book 1, Chap. 5, para. 2). The "real price" includes time, effort, and discomfort ("I was too embarrassed to ask...") as well as money. In particular, price includes the effort of learning to use difficult, user-unfriendly systems (Culnan 1985). The price, as discussed in chapter 10: Demand, must be acceptable to the inquirer. To the extent to which it is not, price is a barrier to access.

4. Cost to The Provider. Not all expenditure of money and effort is borne by the inquirer, least of all in archive and library services which are traditionally free, in the sense that monetary charges are not usually made. In this context we use the term cost to denote what has to be expended by the providers of service. To the extent that the sponsors or providers of service may incur expenditure of effort, money, space, or inconvenience, the arrangement would have be acceptable to or, at least, not incompatible with their view of their role, mission, and values. Meeting the need may encroach on values of a social, cultural, or political nature. The detailed profile of any information service is largely defined by the allocation of resources and this allocation is based on the resources and social values of those who allocate.

Providing access to appropriate evidence might in some cases be regarded as an unacceptable challenge to these values: to national security, to private or corporate vested interest, or to social values as in the case of indecent or irreligious materials (Library Trends 1986, 3-183). These nonmonetary values have a long history of restricting access in a manner similar in nature to restrictions caused by financial shortages. "How strange it is that for most liberal thinkers -- academics as well as statesmen -- knowledge is almost always `good' and worthy of wide diffusion, although history is full of attempts by governors -- political, moral, and religious leaders, and well-meaning parents -- to discourage the spread of `dangerous' or `unwholesome' knowledge." (Machlup 1980, 12).

5. Cognitive Access. Once physical access to a suitable source has been achieved, another condition for successful access is that the inquirer has sufficient expertise to understand it. If not, then some combination of two remedies are possible: Explanation and education. Explanation would involve additional interpretation of the source -- translation, perhaps, if the existing source is in a foreign language or an explanation by someone with more expertise, either on an informal basis or by the creation of a new summary that is easier to understand. Education is another solution in that the inquirer may be able to acquire more expertise, for example, by consulting a dictionary, an encyclopedia, or someone who has the requisite expertise, and may then be able to understand the book.

There is one further aspect involved in "acceding to knowledge", which has not traditionally been thought of as having to do with access yet plays the same kind of role in practice as the other aspects and so can reasonably be included in the discussion of access: acceptability.

6. Acceptability. Acceptability denotes two related issues: First, inquirers may be reluctant to accept a particular source as credible, regarding it with suspicion as having inadequate "cognitive authority" (Wilson 1983). Second, the inquirer may be unwilling to accept the evidence of the source because it is unwelcome in what it signifies and conflicts with other beliefs, a matter of cognitive dissonance (Festinger 1957; Greenwald and Ronis 1978).

Including credibility as a criterion for becoming informed can be questioned. Arguably you are informed of something that you might regard as unbelievable, as, at best, a curious error. Your beliefs are, in a sense, added to rather than changed. You "know of" something, rather than "knowing that" something is the case. You may understand something but if you do not accept its validity, you are hardly informed by it. Everyone will agree that some sources should be denied credibility. The problem is in deciding which.


There is an ambiguity of in the meaning of information system that can be clarified in terms of these six aspects of access. In a common, and limited, sense, the phrase information system is used to denote systems that retrieve potentially informative things: data, documents, objects, information-as-thing. We could make this usage clearer by using the phrase information-supplying system and for this limited sort of information system, the notions of identification, availability, price to the user, and cost to the provider constitute a useful categorization of the conditions that must be met for success.

Alternatively, we may wish to adopt a broader view of information systems whereby we are explicitly concerned with becoming informed, to information-as-knowledge, not merely access to information-as-thing. We could use the phrase systems that inform for this more ambitious sense of information system (Shaw and Culkin 1987). For this more extended task, the additional requirements for cognitive access and acceptability constitute a necessary expansion of the conditions for success. Each one of these six dimensions constitutes a type of barrier to access; each one must be satisfied if access is to be effected.


The variety of ways in which the term access has been used is symptomatic of the complexity of retrieval-based information services. The notion of access can provide a helpful unifying concept for the field as a whole so long as "access" is viewed in a broad, multidimensional way.

The very diverse nature of the different aspects of access means that quite different sorts of actions are needed to remedy difficulties on each. For example, the remedy may be technical (better retrieval systems for identification, better delivery for availability); additional time, effort, or money (price); an increase in resources or a change in social and political values (cost); instructional (remedying inadequate expertise for identifying materials or for understanding them when they are made available); or altered attitudes (acceptability).


American Library Association. Committee on Freedom and Equality of Access to Information. 1986. Freedom and Equality of Access to Information. ("Lacy" Report"). Chicago: American Library Association

Culnan, M. J. 1984. The dimensions of perceived accessibility to information. Journal of the American Society for Information 36: 302-308.

Festinger, L. 1957. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Greenwald, A. G. & D. L. Ronis. 1978. Twenty Years of Cognitive Dissonance: Case Study of the Evolution of a Theory. Psychological Review 85:53-57.

Library Trends. 1986. Issue on Privacy, Secrecy, and National Information Policy. 35, no. 1: 3-183.

Machlup, Fritz. 1980. Knowledge and Knowledge Production. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Shaw, W. & P. B. Culkin. 1987. Systems that Inform: Emerging Trends in Library Automation and Network Development. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology 22: 265-92

Smith, Adam. 1976. An Inquiry into the Wealth of Nations. Oxford: Clarendon Pr.

Wilson, Patrick G. 1983. Second-hand Knowledge: An Inquiry into Cognitive Authority. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Go to Michael Buckland's Home page or Design of library services.