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User behaviour – what the librarian should know

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What do the studies tell us about user behaviour?

Here are some of the findings from the studies mentioned above.

  • One study (De Rosa, 2005, quoted in Connaway and Dickey, 2010, p.6) reported that users associate libraries with books, and do not think of using them to access electronic resources. However, an American Library Association report The State of America's Libraries (ALA, 2010) maintains that academic libraries are experiencing increased use, both physical and virtual (p. 19), with 20.3 million visits during a typical week in 2008.

  • Several of the studies reported in the Digital Information Seeking Report indicate (Connaway and Dickey, 2010, p. 38) that users prefer digital over print content, wanting more digitization (e.g. of older literature, images, etc.). One study on the information behaviour of the future researcher, from CIBER (Connaway and Dickey, 2010, p. 15) predicts that by 2017, the information environment will be that of a "unified web culture", with e-books becoming more and more important, and mass digitization of print books.

  • There is a widespread use of search engines such as Google for information seeking, which are often preferred to library-based search systems, such as the online catalogue, federated search, electronic databases, etc. Google is often used to access e-journal content, and can account for a third of traffic, according to a study on e-journals carried out in 2009 by the Research Information Network (Connaway and Dickey, 2010, p. 20).The publisher Springer noted that in the first quarter of 2010, 43 per cent of its article downloads came from search engines (Springer, 2010). Typing a keyword into a single search box is a popular search behaviour, while there is little support for the advanced search options favoured by OPACs (Connaway and Dickey, p. 44). The CIBER Europeana study also found that users favoured that site's big search box found on its home page, and rarely used the advanced search option (Nicholas et al., 2010, p. 135).

Figure 1: The Europeana website.

Figure 1. The Europeana website (note the social software touch with the "People are currently thinking about" feature)

  • However, evidence reported in the Digital Information Seeking Report would seem to indicate that in a scholarly context, all sorts of electronic resources are used. For example, a 2006 Research Information Network study (Connaway and Dickey, 2010, p. 12) found that users generally value a variety of tools, and that the most utilized resources were general search engines, library portals and catalogues, specialist search engines, and subject specific gateways. Another study (Hampton-Reeves et al., 2009, quoted in Connoway and Dickey, 2010, p. 22) found a high degree of awareness of the qualitative difference between the basic types of Internet content retrieved by search engines and more formal resources, and that many preferred the library's catalogue. Thus pre-conceptions about the Google generation may not always be supported by the evidence.

  • The Ithaka report (Schonfeld and Housewright, 2010), while confirming the importance of the search engine as a gateway to knowledge, also showed that faculty would often use discipline-specific resources as a first port of call (p. 3). The latter might be licensed by the library, but faculty would nevertheless bypass more obvious library service points in favour of a networked resource. In response to a survey question which asked them to rate the importance of the library building, the library catalogue, a general search engine or a specific research resource, there was a general bias towards the latter. In other words, the library's "added value" was as a purchaser and negotiator, rather than a gateway to information.

  • Whatever the resource, users prefer to have desktop access and use the virtual more than the physical library (Connaway and Dickey, p. 33). 24/7 access is important, and one librarian from the University Library of Utrecht in The Netherlands described the "ultramodern user" as thinking of computers and other virtual devices as another limb (Elsevier, 2011).

  • In the online environment, literature searching has changed dramatically, with users "bouncing" through content, scanning rather than reading in depth, demanding "instant gratification", according to a CIBER study on the information behaviour of the future researcher (Connaway and Dickey, p. 15).

  • Users are not just looking to electronic systems that help them discover resources: they want immediate and seamless access. "Discovery to delivery" is now the issue, and users want library systems that support this, and get frustrated when they do not (Connaway and Dickey, 2010, p. 34). Immediate information gratification has been encouraged by search engines, and users become frustrated when they have to pass through further virtual walls requiring password access, etc. Library functionality must also be in place to help them manage results, as well as enhanced catalogue content (in the form of metadata) to help them evaluate (Connaway and Dickey, 2010, p. 4).

  • There may be some users who view virtual devices as an additional limb, but their greater digital ability is not matched with increased information literary. The CIBER study on the information behaviour of the future researcher reports that users are not good at evaluating search results, put too much trust in Google, and tend to use natural language searching (Connaway and Dickey, 2010, p. 41). Many studies indicate that students are mostly self taught, although some also indicate a respect for the librarian's role as information broker (Connaway and Dickey, p. 41).

  • Disciplinary differences exist, at both student and more advanced researcher level. This is a central conclusion of Connaway and Dickey (2010), but it is also supported by the Ithaka survey (Schonfeld and Housewright, 2010), which analysed faculty according to whether they were scientists, humanists, or social scientists, finding that scientists were least likely to start their research from library specific starting points. Zhang et al. (2011) found that users' jobs correlated with the literature services they needed.

  • E-journals were vitally important for research, and difficulty of access, whether to current content or to back issues (Connaway and Dickey, p. 38), caused frustration.

  • E-books are definitely part of the information landscape, and are often "discovered" through library catalogues, so that libraries are a key player, according to the JISC National e-Books Observatory Project (Connaway and Dickey, p. 21).

  • There is no firm evidence as to the impact social networking (e.g. recommendations from Twitter, social bookmarking, etc.) on research or study patterns and information seeking (Connaway and Dickey, p. 48).

  • Although the above picture presents one of the user studying in isolation from the physical library, confident in use of digital resources although not necessarily skilled at evaluating them, human resources are still valued. Studies indicate that librarians will have an important role in the new information environment (Connaway and Dickey, 2010, p. 13), and that users value human resources such as colleagues, peers, family and teachers in their information seeking (p. 39). Virtual reference services (VRS), if users had had a positive experience, were also recommended.

  • The CIBER Europeana study reported that users were very keen on multimedia content: they were ten times more likely to select video content when viewing thumbnails (Nicholas et al., 2010, p. 135).