Posted by: mhdiaz | March 11, 2011

The User Expectations Gap – A Brick Wall Instead of an Open Door

This guest post is the third 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 continue weekly through the end of March.  I hope that you will enjoy the series and look forward to your comments.  Mike


Yesterday I was sitting on an airplane reading from my Kindle.  The woman next to me volunteered that she teaches web technology.  We talked about the future of the book and how students use information.  Her view was that students think they understand the Internet because they know how to use search engines.  But, she said, students are only “consuming.”  She sees the next challenge as teaching them how to be good creators of information for the Internet, not just consumers.

Libraries have a part to play in this, because we are a part of knowledge creation.   As this generation of researchers becomes teachers, professionals, and knowledge workers, the research skills they learn now will allow them to be good contributors—or not—later. Are we serving the needs for these future knowledge workers?

Last week I included a video clip from the ProQuest “anthropological research” in my posting.  It shows a motivated undergraduate attempting to search library resources for his topic.  Even though Aaron tried, and tried hard, he did not succeed in navigating the library web site.  Ultimately, he abandoned the library site for the open web.

I maintain that end users hold the library in high esteem.  If that’s true (and it really is!), why don’t they succeed?  Our research (including more than 10,000 survey responses) has identified several reasons:

  • Lack of awareness of library resources
  • Difficulty navigating the library web site
  • Confusion about the catalog search box and what it provides
  • Authentication barriers

We are making it too hard to discover the rich resources on which we spend increasingly scarce dollars.

Our library web sites often follow a design that has multiple lists of e-resources or multiple tabs.  A student user is often confronted with words and choices that are our words, not theirs:

For a user, especially a user trying desperately to finish a paper at midnight, what is the difference between “articles” and “databases”?  If the user does click on “databases”, they are often confronted with a long list of resources.  For example:

Users simply don’t know what is what in this list of rich but confusing resources.  The list itself provides no context for them, something they need to begin the research process.  While this approach worked for users when the library had just a few databases, it is simply overwhelming in today’s digital library.

Don’t say that you take care of this because you offer bibliographic instruction.  Yes, you do bibliographic instruction.  But is it effective?  Do you do it just in time?  (Remember our procrastinating researchers.)  Users who get a one hour introduction to the library early in their college career simply do not retain any of the information that you share with them. 

And it gets worse as you add more and more resources. Is it any wonder that users often go to the database that some faculty member recommended once upon a time, whether it is appropriate to their current query or not?   All of us have seen sessions where users searched JSTOR for scientific topics because their English professor had recommended it the year before.   It is often their only “database” context, whether it is appropriate context or not.

Because library web sites often do not provide a clear and compelling starting place for research, users go with what they know.  Whatever else we say about Google, it is a clear and compelling place to start.   Simple. Easy. Fast.

If users are going to learn how to create knowledge for the digital age, they need to use library resources, especially digital resources.  To entice them to do that, we need to make our library websites as inviting as our physical spaces.  Libraries need a “digital front door,” one that offers a compelling place to start and that offers clear context for research.


Law, John.  “Observing Student Researchers in their Native Habitat.”  VALA Conference 2008                   (


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