Posted by: mhdiaz | February 22, 2011

User Perceptions of the Library

This guest post is the first in a new six-part series from Jane Burke,  Discovery and the User Experience, which focuses on the latest developments in discovery and their potential to impact academic library user communities.   

Posts will occur weekly through the end of March.  I hope that you will enjoy the series and look forward to your comments.



It’s not news that today’s end users don’t see the library as a primary destination for research.  Users have much shorter memories than we do.  Librarians tend to see the library as “evolving” from the print model to the electronic.  But, users, especially students, perceive the library only within their electronic paradigm.   And the library comes up short because user perception is that the library is not electronic.

The new OCLC study Perceptions of Libraries, 2010: Context and Community says “the library brand is still books.”  Given all of the academic library investment in electronic resources, this user perception must be (another) wakeup call.   Despite “evolving”, libraries are not perceived as the starting place for research.

For a decade, we’ve seen studies that report that the perceived importance of the library as the source of quality research is declining.  As early as 2001, the Pew Internet and American Life Project announced that a growing majority of students preferred the Internet to the library for academic research.   It was hard evidence of a new reality: end-users were finding the allure of the Internet too powerful to resist.  Said one student respondent, “Without the Internet you need to go to the library and walk around looking for books. In today’s world you can just go home and get into the Internet and type in your search term.

Time has not improved user perceptions – in fact, the opposite.  Our collections are primarily digital now and accessible online, erasing the barrier of having to physically visit the library.  But when they do come to most academic libraries, the building is still filled with books, so the electronic collections are not apparent.

Because users don’t have to come to the library, they often don’t perceive that the electronic information is made available for them by the library.   This further degrades the perception of the library.  After all, users find all sorts of information without anyone licensing it for them, so why would they think that someone has had to license the quality databases?

Faculty perceptions are important, too, and also not where we want them to be.   In 2008 Ithaka’s longitudinal study of faculty perceptions of the library said  “At the same time, while they value the library, they perceive themselves to be decreasingly dependent on the library for their research and teaching and they anticipate that dependence to continue to decline in the future. There appears to be growing ambivalence about the campus library.”

Ten years after the first Pew report, our plethora of electronic riches has ironically further eroded users’ perceptions.  As we have invested in expanded electronic collections – hundreds of databases and thousands of ebooks – we have often created barriers to use.  Navigation of many library web sites is complicated, especially compared to open Web searching, where users can find a clear starting point.

Open-Web search tools, such as Google, Yahoo and others, are easily accessed, simple and fast.  A study of student research behavior conducted by ProQuest and John Law (ProQuest, 2007), Serials Solutions’ Vice-President of Discovery Services, found that more than 60 percent of students consider Google to be the easiest place to start research, compared to less than 20 percent who find library databases the easiest starting point (see figure 1).

Figure 1 – Best Place to Start Your Research

A barrier for improving the perception of the library is that, everywhere in their lives, end users are faced with many electronic sources.  Results from a recent Project Information Literacy study show that users develop favorites.   “Our findings strongly suggest that many of today’s college students dial down the aperture of all the different resources that are available to them in the digital age.  Whether they were conducting research for a college course or for personal reasons, nearly all of the students in our sample had developed an information-seeking strategy reliant on a small set of common information sources—close at hand, tried and true.  Moreover, students exhibited little inclination to vary the frequency or order of their use.

All is not lost.  Every study says that there is a strong belief in the value of the library.  Perhaps the OCLC perception study says it best:  “When comparing libraries to search engines, overwhelmingly, Americans consider search engines to be more convenient, faster, more reliable and easier-to-use. Americans consider libraries to be more trustworthy and more accurate.”

This trust is good.  We can work with this.   Stay tuned.


Lenhart, Amanda, Maya Simon, and Mike Graziano. 2001. The internet & education:Findings of the pew internet & American life project. The Pew Internet & American Life Project. p. 4.

Housewright, Ross and Roger Schonfield. 2008. Ithaka’s 2006 Studies of Key Stakeholders in the Digital Transformation in Higher Education, p. 5.

Head, Alison J., PhD, and Michael Eisenberg PhD. 2009. Lessons Learned: How College Students Seek Information in the Digital Age. The Information School, University of Washington: Project Information Literacy Progress Report. p.3.

DeRosa, Cathy, Joanne Cantrell, Mathew Carlson, Peggy Gallagher, Janet Hawk, and Charlotte Sturtz. Perceptions of Libraries, 2010: Context and Community. Rep. Dublin, OH: OCLC, 2011, p.38-39.

In the next segment of this series, on February 28th, Jane moves from user perspectives to user behavior in examining How Users are Doing Their Research Right Now.


  1. […] this week.  Ms. Burke's first post regarding user perceptions of the library is found at  This new series adds a new dimension to InfoViews which explores the intersection of libraries, […]

  2. […] this week.  Ms. Burke’s first post regarding user perceptions of the library is found at  This new series adds a new dimension to InfoViews which explores the intersection of libraries, […]

  3. […] this week.  Ms. Burke’s first post regarding user perceptions of the library is found at  This new series adds a new dimension to InfoViews which explores the intersection of libraries, […]

  4. […] read this blog post User Perceptions of the Library over at […]

  5. I read the OCLC report with interest as well. Regarding the trust that readers put in library resources, it comes to my mind that when libraries buy to represent all viewpoints and ideas, they are actually degrading the trust others put in us. For example, if we have a creationist title, ‘Why Darwin was Wrong’, it reflects a social and political viewpoint, but degrades the science collection by giving this material a place in the collection.

    Is it time we let the internet be everyman’s place to speak and search for alternative viewpoints, and return the library to the century-old ‘place with reliable resources’ model?

    • Thanks, Tony. I have been thinking about this recently, too. If the library is to remain the trusted resource, having credible resources, how does that impact collection policies? Differentiating the library from the open web has an “authoritative” aspect to it that requires careful balance.

      And how to decide when money is so scarce? Should the library collect only the “best” resources with what little dollars it has? Or should the library adopt “Patron Driven Acquisitions (PDA)” and just let the users decide?

      On this topic, I think you might enjoy Rick Anderson’s post from last week on the Scholarly Kitchen blog. I certainly did. Rick points squarely at the Google Book project as having major impact. And there are lots of comments to his post.

      For all of us who care about the future of libraries, this debate is very important.



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