Fall 1991 // Volume 29 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA5

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Where Field Staff Get Information

Results of this study underscore the continuing importance of a strong internal support system for field staff, including close linkages with subject-matter specialists. The top three information sources were Extension publications, Extension specialists, and personnel files. As advisers gained experience and contacts, they tended to use oral information sources increasingly often and continued to use written sources extensively.

Win-Yuan Shih
Coordinator of the Agricultural Communications Documentation Center
University of Illinois-Champaign/Urbana

James F. Evans
Head of the Office of Agricultural Communications and Education
University of Illinois-Champaign/Urbana

The generation, analysis, and dissemination of agricultural information has much in common with other kinds of information. Nevertheless, some special problems make the information- gathering work of agricultural Extension field staff unusually challenging and complicated: the greater diversity of subject coverage, the wide scatter and ephemeral nature of the literature, and the broad range of treatment and presentation.1

Current agricultural information services fall short of meeting the needs of the Extension field staff. Bernardo points out that most agricultural libraries were created, supported, and located at agricultural colleges and research centers to serve educators and researchers at those sites.2 Although field staff workers are academic members of their universities, traditional library services seldom fulfill their needs. Extension staff members in the field must be self-styled information gatherers and managers.

Our study examined the process by which agricultural Extension field staff members process and use information to help them achieve their educational goals during a period of rapidly changing information technologies.

Sources Used by Field Staff

Results of previous studies about the information-seeking behavior of local Extension professionals suggest the following points:3

  1. Varied communications channels. Field staff members use various communications channels to acquire information. Written information isn't enough; oral communications and personal contact provide opportunities for discussion, clarification, and interaction.

  2. Major use of Extension sources. Extension specialists and researchers are the most important oral sources for field staff, while publications from the members' own Extension organizations are the most-used written sources. Field staff members prefer brief, summarized, easy-to-read, and easy-to-file forms, so they can find and use the material quickly. Research summaries, fact sheets, and pamphlets help field staff update their knowledge through the "Extension information delivery system."4 They consider scholarly journals or research reports less practical for their needs.

  3. Little use of external information sources. Among field staff, external information sources, such as libraries, are secondary and less preferred than internal sources. For example, field staff generally consider the library an unimportant information source, inaccessible, and lacking in information to meet their needs.

The Study

Do these generalizations apply today when Extension personnel have access to electronic information services, networked databases, CD-ROMs, microforms, and other resources not available in earlier years? Do they apply when field staff now have higher education levels and greater experience in both conducting and interpreting agricultural research studies? This study examined the current agricultural information-seeking behavior of field staff in Illinois (called Extension advisers) and their attitudes toward various information sources.

A self-administered mail questionnaire was given all Illinois agriculture and horticulture Extension advisers. The 28- item questionnaire included critical incident, attitude scaling, direct response, and open-ended questions. The critical incident method asked respondents to recall the most recent incident that motivated them to search beyond their memory for information.

The questionnaire was pilot-tested, then sent to all 118 Illinois agriculture and horticulture advisers-most operating from county offices. Results were based on valid responses from 109 advisers (92%).


Hypotheses for the study were:

H1 Illinois Extension publications are the most frequently used written information sources for advisers.

H2 Extension specialists are the most frequently used oral information sources for local advisers.

H3 Libraries aren't used frequently by advisers when compared with other information sources.

H4 A significant positive relationship exists between advisers' ability to use electronic information sources and the frequency of use of such sources.

H5 A significant relationship exists between the types of information sources used and advisers' experience, age, meeting attendance, and organizational participation.


Most Recent Search

When advisers were asked to recall the most recent incident that motivated them to search beyond their memory for information, most (64.2%) recalled cases that had occurred that day.

Reasons for Searches

Eighty-six percent of the searches arose from client inquiries. Other major reasons included report preparation (4.6%), preparation of a teaching program (1.8%), and search for information about prices of farm products (1.8%).

Topics Involved

Client inquiries led advisers to seek information about 32 topics, headed by pest control (13.2%), horticulture (7.5%), livestock feeding (6.6%), farm management (5.7%), and leasing arrangements (5.7%).

Number of Sources Used

In total, advisers reported they consulted an average of 2.06 sources for each inquiry.

Types of Sources Used

The 235 reported information sources were categorized into three types: oral, written, and electronic. Written-only sources accounted for the largest single share (45.9%), followed closely by written and oral combination (43%). Less than three percent used electronic information sources.

Written Sources Used

Table 1 summarizes the types of written sources used. Results supported Hypothesis 1, as Extension publications accounted for more than 40% of all written materials used. Non- Extension books and personal notes ranked second and third. Most of these written materials were located in the adviser's personal file (47.1%) or office file (44.1%). This finding confirms the least-effort principle described by Zipf5 and Kremer.6

Libraries other than personal and office libraries weren't mentioned by respondents as sources used for these searches. These results support Hypothesis 3.

Table 1. Types of written sources used.

Written sources Frequency Percentage Cumulative percentage
Extension publication 71 43.3% 43.3%
Non-Extension publications 32 19.5 62.8
Personal notes 19 11.6 74.4
Journal article 10 6.1 80.5
USDA publication 9 5.5 86.0
Trade literature 7 4.3 90.3
Office records 6 3.7 94.0
Letter from specialists 3 1.8 95.8
Conf. proceeding/paper 2 1.2 97.0
News release 2 1.2 98.2
Survey data 1 .6 98.8
Sample document 1 .6 99.4
Phone book 1 .6 100.0
Total 164 100.0%

Oral Sources Used

Table 2 summarizes the types of oral information sources advisers used. Extension specialists were clearly the most-used sources, accounting for 70.1% of total uses. These findings supported Hypothesis 2.

Table 2. Types of oral information sources used.

Oral sources Frequency Percentage Cumulative percentage
Extension specialist 40 70.1% 70.1%
Colleague-my office 6 10.5 80.6
tr>Colleague-another office 2 3.5 91.1
Commercial representative 2 3.5 94.6
UI professor 1 1.8 96.4
Adviser-local college 1 1.8 98.2
Agricultural consultant 1 1.8 100.0
Total 57 100.0%
*Government agencies including: specialist in U.S. Department of
Agriculture and personnel in Illinois Department of Agriculture,
Department of Public Health.

Use of Electronic Media

Only three advisers reported using electronic media when searching for information. Two advisers consulted IDEA (Illinois Dial-Up Extension Access), a computer network of the Illinois Cooperative Extension Service. One checked computer files in his office.

Experience, Age, and Organizational Participation

Hypothesis 5 was partially supported. Results showed no significant relationship at the .05 level between advisers' use of written information sources and their work experience, age, conference attendance, or organizational participation.

However, advisers' use of oral information sources was significantly and positively related to their work experience, age, and organizational participation. Use of oral information sources wasn't significantly related to the advisers' attendance at professional conferences.

Adviser's Ability to Use Electronic Media

Hypothesis 4 stated a significant positive relationship exists between the frequency of use of electronic information sources and advisers' ability to use these sources. The Kendall's Tau score indicated a positive relationship significant at the .00005 level. Hypothesis 4 was supported.

Comments on Acquiring Information

Responses to an open-ended question about advisers' experience in acquiring information reflected two major concerns.

One concern involved problems that advisers face in organizing their information files. Several advisers recommended a uniform code for Extension publications. Other suggestions included a computerized information retrieval system, a subject- matter classification system, and an indicated discard date on publications.

Another concern was access to computers in advisers' offices.

Summary and Conclusions

Results of this study underscore the continuing importance of a strong internal support system for field staff, including close linkages with subject-matter specialists. This internal system seemed vital, even as field staff gained access to agricultural information from a growing number of sources. The impact of electronic technologies wasn't yet apparent. Local agricultural Extension advisers in this study reported they drew heavily on information provided by their own Extension organization, through written and oral sources. The top three information sources were Extension publications, Extension specialists, and personal files. As advisers gained experience and contacts, they tended to use oral information sources increasingly often and continued to use written sources extensively.

Advisers also continued to use more information from internal than from external sources. When searching for information, they resorted to external sources mainly when their internal sources didn't provide it.

Electronic information sources, such as satellite programming and on-line bibliographic databases, were used infrequently, and by relatively few advisers. Problems of accessibility and user friendliness were major hindrances. Another problem was that literature included in major databases often wasn't easily translated into localized, field-level applications. These problems suggest directions for future efforts by the Extension Service.


1. Abdus Sattar and F. W. Lancaster, The Role of the Information Specialist in the Dissemination of Agricultural Information (Urbana: University of Illinois, Office of International Agriculture, 1984).

2. F. A. Bernardo, "Catering to the Information Needs of Extension Workers" (Paper presented at the Sixth World Congress of International Association of Agricultural Librarians and Documentalists, Manila, Philippines, March 3-7, 1980).

3. Everett M. Rogers and M. Dwayne Yost, Communication Behavior of County Extension Agents (Wooster: Ohio Agricultural Experiment Station, 1960); James F. Evans, "Potential Computer-Based Information Services for New South Wales Extension Officers: A Field Study with Recommendations" (Unpublished paper, 1980); Janet Agar, Information Used by Advisers (Edinburgh, UK: The East of Scotland College of Agriculture, Economics and Management Department, 1984); J. Keating, A Study of Agricultural Advisors' Perceived Need for Information and Their Use and Evaluation of Information Channels (Dublin, Ireland: National University of Ireland, 1979); and Abdus Sattar, "Information Seeking Behavior of Agricultural Extension Specialists: Its Impact on the Management of Information Services" (Unpublished paper, 1983).

4. Ovid Bay, The Cooperative Extension Service Information Delivery System and How SEA's Agriculture Research Results Reach Farmers (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, SEA- Extension, 1980).

5. George Kingsley Zipf, Human Behavior and the Principle of Least Effort: An Introduction to Human Ecology (New York: Hafner Publishing Co., 1949).

6. Jeannette Marguerite Kremer, Information Flow Among Engineers in a Design Company (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1980).