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User behaviour – what the librarian should know

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User behaviour studies

There is no doubt that the move from a print-based to an electronic environment has given rise to a huge change in the way that people discover, access, use, and communicate information – who would have imagined tweeting about a useful article 20 years ago for example?

Mohamed and Hassan (2008, p. 419) define "user behaviour" as the way that people think, perceive, behave and feel about information retrieval systems when they interact with a software interface.

Not surprisingly, there have been a large number of research studies over the last 10 years which look at they way users interact with information. Some of which are outlined below.

The digital information seeker

Perhaps the most useful is a synthesis compiled by the UK's Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC): (Connaway and Dickey, 2010).

This report takes 12 studies from the UK and the USA, originated by key players in the area: JISC itself, the Centre for Information Behaviour and the Evaluation of Research (CIBER) at University College London, the UK's Research Information Network, and the OCLC.

The studies span the years 2005-2009, and cover general perceptions of libraries (including the non-academic user), the behaviour of undergraduates, graduates and faculty, catalogues, e-journals, e-books, resource discovery, and virtual reference services. In other words, a fair range of academic library user types, products, tools and services.

The real strength of the report lies in its meta-analysis: two researchers analysed the studies, and compared their findings. Thus there is triangulation not only of one study against others, but also of research methods (studies employ a variety of methods, qualitative and quantitative). It is also honest in admitting that some of the evidence is contradictory.

Other studies

Ithaca is a non-profit organization based in the USA which researches use of technology in higher education, and regularly conducts a survey of North American faculty. The most recent, in 2009, surveyed over 3,000 people, and dedicated a chapter to discovery and the evolving role of the library (Schonfeld and Housewright, 2009).

Both the Ithaka study and the digital information seeker report cover impressive numbers, but they originate from the USA and the UK (even though at least two of the latter's studies had participants from Australia, Singapore and India).

Emerald has published a couple of pieces of research from further afield: three scholars from Wuhan University in China surveyed the use of electronic resources in Wuhan universities (Zhang et al., 2011), while in Egypt, Mohamed and Hassan (2008) examine scholars' use of federated search engines.

Several studies are ongoing. CIBER, the pioneer of deep log analysis (see below), is looking at usage, information seeking and searching behaviour on , a multilingual and multimedia online collection of digitized objects from cultural and heritage collections (Nicholas et al., 2010).

The University of Oxford and OCLC Research are carrying out a short-term study of students in the transitional stage between senior school and university:

Research methods

Most of the studies referred to above use a variety of methods, both qualitative and quantitative such as surveys, in-depth interviews and focus groups. A couple also use deep log analysis, which analyses raw transaction logs to provide a lot of very rich data on how the user behaves, for example, when, who, and how long do they spend on the site, which can then be statistically analysed.


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