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The purpose of the focus groups was to improve Planning Group members’ understanding of how faculty and students use the libraries in the Tri-Colleges, to communicate to participants the challenges facing the librarians, and to obtain participants’ feedback on the options being considered. Through this dialogue, we intended to advance the conversation on each campus and elicit insights useful for the planning process.

Focus Group Process

Seven focus groups were conducted in October 2001. One faculty and one student group was held on each campus, and a second faculty group was convened at Swarthmore.

The faculty members participating in the groups represented a broad range of disciplines. Between 4 and 12 individuals participated in each of the faculty focus groups; 5 to 7 upper-class undergraduates took part in each student group (at Bryn Mawr, graduate students were included). Questions were modified as needed to accommodate the number of participants and the nature and direction of the discussion.


Although participants used different phrases, they consistently identified three essential steps in the use of materials:

  1. Discovery: identifying the item
  2. Selection: deciding to use the item
  3. Delivery: accessing the full text

This summary of results begins with abstracted comments about these three steps. These comments are followed by other major themes that emerged from the discussions.


  • Online searching is good for finding known items.
  • Online searching is less successful for unknown items, new topics, and unfamiliar terms.
  • Shelf browsing is highly valued, especially by the humanities faculty, as a way to discover relevant materials.
  • Browsing is an important tool for print or electronic materials, but browsing in electronic sources is not as intuitive as shelf browsing.
  • Focus group participants were largely unaware of online virtual shelf browsing in the OPAC; those who were aware of it did not find it especially useful.
  • Some students reported finding more books by looking at the shelves than by searching online; others found both Tripod and PALCI to be good sources of materials.
  • Full-text searching for journals, especially in JSTOR, allows people to find materials they otherwise would not have known about.
  • Expanded information about each title in the OPAC would improve the discovery and retrieval process.
  • Online search capability gives students access to a broader range of resources than they formerly had. This ease of access and breadth of material are reflected in higher-quality work, according to faculty members.
  • Faculty members often expressed the opinion that students would not use books unless they were in their local library; students, on the other hand, reported frequently requesting books from other libraries in the Tri-Colleges and through PALCI.
  • Alerting services work best on narrow topics. They are of limited value for faculty teaching general interest courses.
  • Upper-level students felt they were familiar with the libraries and with significant tools in their disciplines.
  • The most effective instruction in library use occurs in relation to particular class-related assignments when students are motivated to learn about the resources.


  • The quality of information on the Web is not always good.
  • Students need to learn critical evaluation skills.
  • Shelf browsing is an effective way to find good materials and to reject inappropriate ones.
  • Students noted that faculty often encouraged them to use materials that were less than five to ten years old.
  • Tripod does not provide a lot of information about books; as a result, the user may not be sure whether a certain book will be useful. Students feel it is wasteful to order a book from another library if they are not sure it will be useful.
  • First- or second-year undergraduates were more likely than upper-class students to use e-reserves and links from the faculty syllabi without realizing that they were using journal articles.


  • Guaranteed long-term access to electronic materials should be assured before print copies are removed.
  • Print materials needed for curriculum support are time-sensitive and should be housed on the campus where the course is being taught.
  • Students using materials required for their classes prefer items that are easy to use and link directly to the full text.
  • If materials need to be retrieved, faculty members prefer that they be delivered to their offices.
  • Local ownership of the materials in the faculty’s disciplines is an important part of a good academic library; accessibility through other colleges is not the same.
  • Faculty members do not feel that remote storage is an attractive option.
  • Students seem comfortable using materials on other campuses, either by visiting the campus or by requesting them.
  • Some students reported weekly visits to or weekly use of materials on another campus.
  • Missing content (for example, letters to the editor or advertisements) in online journals is a problem; sometimes such information is important.
  • Microform is not an acceptable means of accessing full content. Users would rather wait to receive the print material or travel to another library to read it than use microform.
  • Students like e-reserves; however, they can be difficult to read if not properly scanned.
  • Both students and faculty found PALCI timely and easy to use.
  • Participants agreed that reading online resources on the screen is not acceptable; however, they also expressed concern about the amount of materials printed. Some printouts, they said, are never retrieved.
  • Once a journal is available in electronic form, science faculty felt that the print volumes could be stored off campus and that they could cancel their personal subscriptions.

Other Major Themes

Use of the Web

  • The Internet has had an undeniable impact on teaching.
  • The immediacy of the Web, especially for news and access to scholars’ Web pages, is highly appreciated.
  • Both students and faculty perceive that reliance on electronic resources varies by discipline. Individuals in the sciences and social sciences have considerable amounts of online resources; those in the humanities still rely heavily on print.
  • There are both faculty and students who are not comfortable with computers and electronic access.

Uncirculated Books and Weeding

  • Virtually all faculty members believe that the finding that a high percentage of books do not circulate is not an indication that collections could be weeded.
  • Faculty were concerned that studies of circulation do not take into account in-library use.
  • Having a unified collection in one physical location is important.
  • Browsing physical shelves is important for the discovery and evaluation of materials.
  • Lack of past use is no indication of lack of future need.
  • Older books may be used differently than newer books are. Instead of checking the older books out, faculty members may use them for reference and background information.
  • Faculty noted that students depend heavily on browsing.

Library as Place

  • All agreed that space for viewing videos with small groups is highly desirable and should be added or expanded.
  • There is a need for comfortable space on each campus that would appeal to both students and faculty.
  • Faculty and students commented on the need for space for group use as well as for quieter, individual-use areas.
  • Faculty and students support social spaces and coffee service.
  • Faculty use of the library facility is declining because of desktop access to content via the Web and Tripod.
  • Faculty go to the library to read current issues of print journals that are not available online, to review approval books, to put materials on reserve, and to meet with students.
  • Some faculty members believe the campuses should strongly reconsider creating more space for books and other activities before any serious weeding is undertaken.
  • Students liked the wireless laptops that can be checked out at Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr for use anywhere in the library.
  • Faculty members with library carrels appreciate the convenience and quiet study space.

Key Findings

  • Use patterns of both print and electronic resources are driven primarily by convenience and time; for students, cost is an additional factor.
  • There is a need to develop new spaces in the library, particularly comfortable informal areas, group study areas, and video-viewing rooms.
  • Browsing the physical collection is highly valued; online browsing is not a satisfactory substitute.
  • Materials needed for classes must be held in the local library.
  • Faculty members want to have meaningful input into any decisions that affect the collections, particularly decisions concerning extensive weeding.
  • The online catalog and other searching tools need to have more ways to suggest similar materials and encourage serendipity.
  • Having additional online information about resources would improve the selection process and result in more efficient borrowing.
  • Faculty members almost universally rejected evidence of lack of circulation as a valid indication that collections could be weeded.
  • Many faculty members believe that students will not use books if they are not in the on-campus collection. Students, however, reported frequently requesting books from other libraries in the Tri-Colleges and through PALCI.
  • For some faculty, local ownership of the materials in the faculty’s disciplines is an important part of a good academic library; ownership and accessibility through other colleges is not the same.
  • Different usage patterns in different disciplines need to be taken into account; general systems for collection management should not be applied.
  • Electronic information sources are heavily used and appreciated, especially in the sciences. In some disciplines, they are changing the way research is done.

Understanding Student and Faculty Use

Both students and faculty see the library as an important place for study and social life. Some see it as a quiet refuge from noisy dorm rooms or office interruptions; for others, the library is a place to hang out and meet friends. Where caf? services are available, they are appreciated. Faculty commented on the ambiance of some of the library buildings, contrasting those with poor lighting and seating to those with cheerful, comfortable facilities. Both students and faculty wanted the spaces to be attractive and wanted services to be offered as a way to encourage library use. Among specific uses, video-viewing facilities and group study areas were most frequently mentioned as desirable.

Both students and faculty place a high value on browsing physical collections. Physical browsing is important for print materials because of the limited information available in the online catalog for both discovery and selection. Users mentioned that an online search for a topic might turn up only one or two books; examination of the shelves at those call numbers would reveal many more. Users must rely on searching the right terms used in cataloging, since the full text of most titles cannot be searched online. When selecting a book, users prefer to examine the book itself rather than to rely on cataloging data. Students and faculty both mentioned the utility of the table of contents data in newer titles. Faculty members feel that browsing is essential for students who, they believe, chiefly use what is available in their own library. Students, on the other hand, seem familiar with options for Tri-College requests and ILL and are comfortable using them, especially if the materials are delivered quickly.

Participants were asked what kind of material needs to be available in one hour, one day, or one week. All agreed that materials needed for classes must be located at the local library and that overlap is necessary if the same subjects are taught in more than one school. Faculty defined the materials very broadly. In preparation for a lecture, if a faculty member finds a need for a previously unused resource, he or she wants it to be immediately available. For research purposes and for summer school courses, when enrollments are lower than during the regular academic year, the faculty said cross-campus borrowing and ILL are acceptable ways to get materials.

Almost all patrons appreciate electronic databases and journals for ease of discovery and of use. The science disciplines rely most heavily on journal literature, and increasing numbers of their journals are online in full text. Faculty in the sciences said that print copies are not needed when e-journals are available and reliable. Scholars in the social sciences and especially in the humanities rely more heavily on monographic literature. The full text of journals is less readily available in these fields than in the sciences.

The discovery and selection processes for print books are hampered by the lack of sufficient information on book content in the OPAC and by the absence of full-text retrieval. Any weeding of monographic holdings would increase this problem by decreasing browsing, which in turn would increase the need for expanded metadata. Although online virtual shelf browsing and related item searching are available in the OPAC, these options are not obvious to patrons. An OPAC redesign aimed at emphasizing these and other functions would make it easier for users to discover appropriate materials. Emphasis should be placed on increasing usability with improved, yet simplified searching and software that will allow for serendipitous discovery online.

Faculty were not concerned about the large percentage of books that had not circulated in 10 years. They doubted the accuracy of the data, since it did not reflect in-library use, and questioned the advisability of weeding collections solely on the basis of lack of circulation. Although some faculty are willing to accept limited weeding to make space for new books, the more common reaction was to advocate for expanding library space on campus. Remote storage was not an attractive alternative. Students were more willing than faculty to accept quick delivery from another library as an option, provided they have good information about such books.

For students, electronic access has blurred the distinction between types of materials; for example, they do not always identify articles found online as “journal articles.” Having become accustomed to using online journals, they experience print journals as a new type of literature and find them difficult to navigate. They feel that they need more training in this area.

Students initially consult textbooks, reserve readings, and resources pointed out by the faculty before they begin to search aggregated databases of content with journal articles immediately available to them. Students appreciate electronic reserves as an alternative to print reserves. Once students begin working in their majors, they learn about discipline-oriented indexes from librarians or faculty. Students in each focus group commented that instruction in library resources needs to be linked to specific assignments.

Although all constituencies were concerned about the large amount of photocopying for journals and e-reserves, they also observed that they could not read more than one to five pages online at a single sitting. Not all users feel that they are computer-literate. In an information-based society, graduates need to know how to use information resources and multimedia and understand how to incorporate them into word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation programs.


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