Survey of Library User Studies
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.
- Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) and the Digital
Library Federation, Dimensions and Use of the Scholarly Information
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
- College Student Experiences Questionnaire, with data representing
“responses from more than 300,000 students between 1984 and 2002.”
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.”
- 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:
- More than 31% of all respondents use Internet search engines to
find answers to their questions. However, people who use Internet
search engines express frustration because they estimate half of their
searches are unsuccessful.
- Americans have not yet found an ideal information resources. Not
one participant said they would use the same resource time and again
when seeking answers.
- Nearly 9 or of 10 students (89%) also use the campus library’s
print resources, including books, journals, articles, and encyclopedias.
- 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.”
- 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:
- “Students are almost as dependent on the physical library (75.8%)
as they are on the library’s website to retrieve books and articles
- “Books and journals are still cited by most students when writing a
term paper, however the number of students citing websites does not lag
far behind. Books and journals were each cited by more than
three-quarters of respondents as types of resources cited in the
bibliography of their last research/term paper (84.8% and 77.8%
respectively), while websites were cited by 68.8% of the students.”
- “[F]or general assignments, students are more likely to turn to the
Internet, but for in-depth research assignments, they are somewhat more
likely to turn to library sponsored [i.e., restricted access]
- “Undergraduate students are more likely than graduate students to
use non-library sponsored electronic resources, while graduate students
are more likely to use library sponsored electronic and library
sponsored print resources.”
- “The majority of respondents use the physical library more than once a month (67.7%).”
- “Print is preferred for situations where the material is long or
dense, and the reader has to fully comprehend the material. Electronic
resources are preferred for situations where the reader is obtaining
supplementary or background materials, for current events materials, or
for looking up information for short papers/homework assignments”
- “The physical library is still an important destination for students.”
- “Search engines appeared to be a major difficulty in the use of
electronic resources. 80.2% of respondents agreed that search engines
were not as precise as they would like them to be and 67.3% agreed that
search engines are not as thorough as they would like them to be”
[emphasis added]. [Note that these statistics on the extent of the
problem are conspicuously absent from the report’s “Executive Summary”
of it Survey of College Students.]
- “Further, 71% agree that electronic resources increase their need
to separate out the reliable from unreliable information, while half of
the respondents report difficulty making these judgments.”
- “More than half of the respondents somewhat strongly agree that
electronic resources can result in an overload of information . . . and
almost half of the respondents agree that this overload can be
overwhelming for them.”
- School of Informatics and Urban Libraries Councils’ “The Impact of
Internet Use on Public Library Use,” a 2002 survey of of 3,097 adults.
As reported in the UB Reporter (January, 2005)7:
- “Internet use does not reduce library use.” [emphasis in original]
- “In [this] study, we found that while they tended to use the
Internet to get news, health information, recipes and other short-term’
material in a brief format, they used the library for in-depth research
and extensive reading.”
- “They reported that 75.2 percent of Internet users also used the library, 60.3 percent of library users also used the Internet.”
- “They found no evidence among respondents who used both the library
and the Internet that Internet use was changing the reasons why people
used the library or the frequency of their library use, but that
respondents used each information source for different reasons.”
- “Historians and Their Information Sources,” a 2003 survey of 278 university-situated
- Table 1: Materials Considered Important for Research
* * *
| Journal articles
- Table 4: Most Frequent Ways of Discovering Primary Information
|Method of Discovery
| Finding aids
- “Systematic bibliographic searches in databases, use of other sources such
as aids designed to disseminate information about resources, and careful, patient,
wide reading followed by pursuit of leads resulting from the reading are clearly
the foundation of historical research; the package was summarized by one historian
as ‘diligence.’” [p. 409]
- “One follow-up question asked the historians whether quality,
availability, or ease of use most affected their choice of an
information source. Most reported that quality was the most important
consideration . . . The historians, however did seem willing to exert
themselves to obtain what they regarded as necessary.” [p. 410]
- “Serendipity . . . plays a significant role in historical research.
Browsing is an invitation to opportunity and was a frequent method of
choice. Browsing usually meant scanning library shelves in an area that
was a logical, but not guaranteed location of information . . . . many
testified to its value.” [p. 410]
- “Comprehensiveness is clearly the highest priority in searching a database.” [p. 411]
- “Almost two-thirds (64%) used the Internet from home, and responses
to the question about which Web sites were most often visited showed
considerable familiarity with the range of possibilities. . . . The
single most frequently visited Web site listed was that of the Library
of Congress” [pp. 412-13]
- Conclusions: “Comparing the results of this study with those of the
1981 Stieg study demonstrates that although much related to historians’
information-seeking habits has changed, many things have remained the
same. . . . Browsing is still important. Print remains the principle
format of the information used, although electronic databases are used
extensively in the discovery of information, and books still dominate
the discipline. This domination of print is even clearer in the
citation analysis than in the survey results. . . One important change
that has taken place is that catalog and index use has grown and
continues to grow.” [p. 417]
- “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
Some reasonable qualifications must be noted:
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- “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).
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.
- 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).
Crawford, Walt. Cites & Insights (December, 2003): 18-19; online(accessed August, 2004).
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.
Available online (accessed December, 2004).
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.
Available online (accessed October, 2004).
Margaret Steig Dalton and Laurie Charnigo. “Historians and Their Information Sources.” College & Research Libraries 65 (September, 2004), 400-425.
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This page was last updated on November 22, 2005.