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A Summary of a Report Published by the Council on Library and Information Resources

Use and Users of Electronic Library Resources: An Overview and Analysis of Recent Research Studies

by Carol Tenopir
With the assistance of Brenda Hitchcock and Ashley Pillow
August 2003

In the last several years, many research studies have focused on how people use electronic resources or on their feelings about electronic and print resources in the library. These usage studies draw many conclusions about the behavior and preferences of library users, although sometimes the conclusions are contradictory or unclear. Use and Users of Electronic Library Resources summarizes and analyzes more than 200 recent research publications that focus on the use of electronic library resources. It provides information that librarians can use in making important decisions about collections, services, and product design.

The report analyzes eight major studies (identified as Tier 1 studies), each with multiple publications, and about 100 smaller-scale studies (classified as Tier 2). The literature reviewed was all published between 1995 and 2003.

The studies reviewed use a variety of research methods, including observation, surveys, interviews, experiments, and transaction log analysis. Some surveys or interviews ask questions about preference, including how users feel about the library or about specific media; others ask questions that provide information on user behavior. Observations, experiments, and logs also show what users do, but do not always reveal preferences or motivations. Each of these methods elicits different types of conclusions and it is only when they are taken together that we can get a full picture of what users actually do, why they do it, what they would prefer, and what they are likely to do in the future.

The Tier 1 and Tier 2 studies make several conclusions that shed light on user behavior with electronic resources. They include the following:

  • Both faculty and students use and like electronic resources and most readily adopt them if the sources are perceived as convenient, relevant, and time saving to their natural workflow.
  • Experts in different subject disciplines (work fields) have different usage patterns and preferences for print or electronic. There is no one right solution for services or system design for every subject discipline.
  • Print is still used for some reading and is part of research in almost every discipline. It is considered important in certain disciplines, especially in the humanities.
  • Print remains the most popular medium for books; e-book use is still in the very early stages.
  • Most e-journal users still print out articles that are judged useful-so a printing format such as PDF is popular.
  • Subject experts use hyperlinks to view related articles; students’ use of hyperlinks is less clear.
  • Browsing a small number of core journals is important (in print or electronic forms), especially for subject experts and for current awareness searching.
  • Searching by topic in an article database is important for all other purposes.
  • Users will read articles from a wide variety of journal titles and sources if available to them, although most of the readings come from relatively few journals.
  • Personal subscriptions to journals continue to decrease, so users rely more on electronic subscriptions subsidized by the library and on the Internet.
  • Articles within their first year of publication represent most journal article readings, but a sizeable minority of readings come from materials that are older than one year.
  • College and high school students use the Internet more than the library for research, and many believe they are more expert at searching than their teachers.
  • Students exercise some quality judgments about materials they retrieve from the Internet, but those quality judgments may not exactly match faculty members’ criteria for quality.

While there is no one typical user for whom a single system design or collection decisions can be made, users can be segmented into groups that display similar preferences and patterns of use. For example, high school students and undergraduate students turn first to the Web for research but will change behaviors if they are given a specific assignment or are asked to use a particular resource. Graduate students are heavy and cyclical users of electronic journals, especially for research. Faculty members and professionals will use electronic journals if they are convenient and support their natural work patterns. Peer-reviewed journals that are considered to be core to a researcher’s work are sought regardless of convenience.

For subject experts, behavior varies according to discipline. Scientists and business faculty members were early adopters of electronic journals and read from a variety of full-text databases and e-journals; some fields of science use many sources to get articles, including e-print servers. Social scientists and humanists use both electronic resources and print and rely more on books than other fields.

The report’s conclusion also notes, briefly, usage trends that emerge with respect to type of institution or workplace, task, age, and gender.

An extensive bibliography of user studies is provided at the end of the report. The listing includes several resources that provide advice for institutions conducting their own studies.


Use and Users of Electronic Library Resources: An Overview and Analysis of Recent Research Studies
by Carol Tenopir with the assistance of Brenda Hitchcock and Ashley Pillow, August 2003.
72 pages.

The text of the report is available free on CLIR’s Web site at

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