CLIRinghouse Number 16

Quick insight into information-investment issues for presidents, CAOs, and other campus leaders from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) Number 16, May/June 2003

The Issue for Presidents and CAOs:

Who Uses E-Resources? How? And How Much?

Summary: How are students and faculty actually using digital resources, including those that campus libraries provide from their own collections and lease from others? How can budget-conscious administrators find out? A new report assesses methods used and results produced so far by relevant user studies. The studies show the importance of understanding differences among campus user groups-and among user-survey methods-for effectively planning library collections, services, and facilities.

Pulling Together 206 Studies

Now that substantial quantities of scholarly material can be accessed online, efforts are proliferating to find out how students and faculty use such resources. Carol Tenopir, an information scientist at the University of Tennessee, has looked at 206 user-study reports to see what they collectively tell administrators of help in planning and evaluating digital resource investments. The reports Tenopir selected contain research rather than speculation on the use of electronic resources by library patrons. Ninety-seven of the reports came from eight ongoing studies, covering multiple institutions, disciplines, and user groups. The rest were smaller, typically one-time studies in single institutions.

Understanding User Differences

The studies agree, Tenopir says, that the concept of a single, typical campus user is a myth. For example, unless directed to a specific resource, college undergraduates tend to go first to the Web to search for information for coursework. They feel enthusiasm for electronic resources, and consider themselves more expert at searching than their teachers, but they may need help in evaluating Web sources, and they still go to the physical library for study and socialization. Faculty behave differently. Particularly in the sciences, faculty tend when searching to go first to Web sites containing multiple journals with links to full texts. Faculty visit the physical library less as they use e-journals more. Faculty in the humanities, education, and social sciences also use electronic resources but continue to rely more than scientists on printed material. Faculty in physical sciences and business use a range of electronic resources; medical researchers tend to focus more narrowly on core journals. These are a few examples of many differences of importance to planners of collections, services, and facilities.

Understanding Survey Method Differences

For administrators who seek insight into information-resource use on their own campuses, Tenopir describes advantages and disadvantages of tested information-gathering methods. Transaction logs provide comparative statistics on how much use resources receive, but not by whom or for what purposes. Interviews and surveys can elicit information about purposes, preferences, and activities of individuals in identifiable groups, but require considerable time, careful questions, honest answers, and high response rates. Focus groups similarly provide qualitative information about kinds of users but may not be representative. Behavioral observations from asking people to keep journals of their information seeking and using behavior, or by watching how they pursue and use information, provide insight if subjects will cooperate. The type of method or combination to use depends on the kind of information needed for a specific administrative decision.

Additional Information

Carol Tenopir’s study, Use and Users of Electronic Library Resources: An Overview and Analysis of Recent Research Studies, will become available in July 2003 free on CLIR’s Web site: More detailed information on methods for assessing library-resource use is available in print and free on CLIR’s Web site in Usage and Usability Assessment: Library Practices and Concerns, by Denise Troll Covey.