Survey of Library User Studies

Thomas Mann

October 2005

Key points: User studies consistently show that while most students use the Internet as their first research resource, the majority also use real libraries in addition to the Internet. Search techniques such as browsing library bookstacks are still regarded as necessary because of the inadequacy of online keyword searches.

  1. Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) and the Digital Library Federation, Dimensions and Use of the Scholarly Information Environment.

    This study found, based on over 3,200 interviews, that 55.4% of all respondents (and 59.7% of undergraduates) still regard browsing library bookstacks as “an important way” to get information. 1 Two thirds of the faculty and grad students use print resources for research all or most of the time (73% for teaching). 52% of undergrads use print resources for coursework all or most of the time. (The figure was 72% for grad students.) More than 90% of them agreed that print books and journals “will continue to be important sources for me in the next five years.” . . . 59% of undergrads still use print abstracts and indexes, 93% use printed books, and 81% use print journals (97% of grad students use print journals). Only 28% said they “find reading information on a screen satisfactory.” 86% of students feel that “my campus library meets most of my information needs.” 55% still regard browsing the stacks and journal shelves as an important way to get information–and only 35% use the library significantly less than they did two years ago. 14% want more print journals as compared to 11% who want more e-journals–and 89% want more books.2

  2. College Student Experiences Questionnaire, with data representing “responses from more than 300,000 students between 1984 and 2002.” 3 This survey found that 65.5% of male students, and 63.2% of female students, reported that they “found something interesting [through] browsing” either “occasionally,” “often,” or “very often.” For students in “Doctoral Intensive” programs the overall percent is 67.7%, with 24.9% reporting that browsing [in library bookstacks] was useful either “often” or “very often.”
  3. OCLC White Paper on the Information Habits of College Students (June 2002)4 with sample of 1,050 qualified respondents.

    Among its findings are these:

  4. 2004 survey of faculty attitudes toward libraries done at the University of Oklahoma.5

    This inquiry, which interviewed faculty at Oklahoma and also surveyed other ARL libraries, notes the following:

    “Part of the faculty space’s value to researchers lies in its proximity to the collections of monographs and print journals. The importance of serendipitous browsing in library collections cannot be overemphasized by the majority of faculty space holders. ‘It’s that one minute out of fifty-nine [minutes], when you find that one gem on the shelf’ that makes the act of browsing not only effective but absolutely vital to many researchers. As one participant emphatically noted, ‘There is no substitute for walking the stacks. It’s not “browsing”–that sounds too aimless. It’s more directed–‘surveillance,’ really.’ . . .

    During the interviews, the theme of serendipitous browsing emerged repeatedly with regard to research.”

  5. The Electronic Publishing Initiative at Columbia (EPIC) survey of responses from 1,233 students and scholars.6

    Direct quotations from various passages of the “Survey of College Students” section:

  6. School of Informatics and Urban Libraries Councils’ “The Impact of Internet Use on Public Library Use,” a 2002 survey of of 3,097 adults.
  7. “Historians and Their Information Sources,” a 2003 survey of 278 university-situated historians.8
  8. “The Internet and Education: Findings of the Pew Internet & American Life Project,” a “survey of 754 children, ages 12-17, who use the Internet and one of their parents or guardians.”

    According to this study, “When asked to think about the last big report they wrote for school, 71% of online teens reported relying mostly on Internet sources for their research. Another quarter (24%) reported using mostly library sources, and 4% said they used both equally.”

  9. Some reasonable qualifications must be noted:

    1. This study is a survey of children below college age; the survey itself uses the word “children” (or “teens”) to describe them. The numerous surveys of college undergraduates, grad students, and senior scholars (above) report much higher percentages of library use. It is not at all surprising that children’s grade school and high school homework assignments do not require in-depth or substantive scholarly research.
    2. The wording of the findings, even in this study itself, is hedged: while it says that 71% of these children relied “mostly” on Internet sources, it does not assert that even this group used only Net sites.
    3. The study does assert that “Students cite the ease and speed of online research as their main reasons for relying on the Web instead of the library,” and, indeed, the phrase “instead of” (not “in addition to”) may well be accurate regarding the majority of these underage respondents. The limited applicability of this finding, however, based as it is on a survey of an immature population that is required to do only superficial research, must be viewed in the context of the many other surveys that consistently report much higher percentages of library use by older researchers who are required to do research that is both more substantive and more comprehensive.
    4. Although the study also interviewed the parents or guardians of these 754 children, and while it did ask these adults about their own use of the Internet, it did not ask the adults any questions about their own use of libraries. Nor does the study suggest that any of these adults have particularly academic interests or job requirements.

    In sum, it is a distortion of the evidence to assert that the Pew study “proves” (or even “shows”) that “most students do not use libraries.” One would have to equate college students, graduate students, and senior scholars (as well as the general adult population) with underage children in order to hold such a belief.

  10. “Counting on the Internet: Most Expect to Find Key Information Online, Most Find the Information They Seek, Many Now Turn to the Internet First,” from the Pew Internet & American Life Project (2002).
  11. This study confirms that many Americans now use the Internet as their first source in seeking information; but it says nothing at all about library use. It does not even mention the words “library” or “libraries.” From several of the other studies, above, that did ask about library use, we know that most researchers do not confine their efforts solely to the Internet. It is a misrepresentation of this Pew study to claim that it indicates people do not use libraries. It is silent on this question–it did not ask respondents about their library use.


  1. Friedlander, Amy. Dimensions and Use of the Scholarly Information Environment. Washington, DC: Digital Library Federation and Council on Library and Information Resources, 2003. Online (accessed August, 2004). See Table 650. A summary of the report may be found in Deanna Marcum and Gerald George’s “Who Uses What? Report of a National Survey of Information Users in Colleges and Universities.” D-Lib Magazine 9 (October 2003); online(accessed August, 2004).
  2. Crawford, Walt. Cites & Insights (December, 2003): 18-19; online(accessed August, 2004).
  3. Kuh, George D. and Robert M. Gonyea. “The Role of the Academic Library in Promoting Student Engagement in Learning.” College & Research Libraries 64 (July, 2003): 256-82. See Appendix D: 276-77.
  4. Available online (accessed December, 2004).
  5. Engel, Debra and Karen Antell. “The Life of the Mind: A Study of Faculty Spaces in Academic Libraries.” College & Research Libraries 65 (January, 2004): 8-26.
  6. Available online (accessed October, 2004).
  7. Available online
  8. Margaret Steig Dalton and Laurie Charnigo. “Historians and Their Information Sources.” College & Research Libraries 65 (September, 2004), 400-425.

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