Library views of student perceptions

The survey did not set out to determine students’ views directly (there are many other studies that have done that and some are discussed in accompanying Horizon Scan part of this study) but it did ask for comments ‘on the perception that there may be a growing problem with the way in which students interact with library resources'.

The Google metaphor

Almost all respondents acknowledged that Google ‘metaphor’ has changed the game, shifted the paradigm. There is clearly a high awareness of the problem that is summed up by Welsh understatement. ‘Generally, the delivery of library resources is not well attuned to student expectations, learning styles, study environment or lifestyles’. A university in the North West noted that ‘many students go to Google first and go no further’ and went on: ‘Students are working in different ways: they are often time limited and off campus and this will affect their behaviour: desktop searching for e-resources is easier. Google searches are based on content and relevance searching. Our ideal LMS would include a semi-commercial version of Google.’

An expectation that all resources should be full text was widely noted. Despite the shortcoming of the Google only approach, ‘disappointment is exacerbated when the students find a resource via Google etc only to find that they then do not have full-text access, because the library does not subscribe’ it may be perfectly rational behaviour, at least for undergraduates. A West Country university commented that, there is a ‘changing attitudes to study by students … a means to an end” – that end being a degree. The majority of students no longer come to university to “read” for a degree – to study a subject because they enjoy it – so there is probably little “reading around” the subject’. Google may simply be ‘good enough’

Recognising Barriers

Libraries noted a number of barriers to students in the existing institutional and library set up. A Russell Group university reported that ‘students, including academic staff, are having problems in distinguishing the e-journals we list and those with full text access. Not enough information is displayed to help them to understand what they are able to have access to. More is less in this case, as they lost their way in the maze of resources. Students are still not conversant with searching strategies’ A Midland University put it this way. ‘People tend not to think in terms of library concepts/flows, i.e., bib searching and then using multiple additional tools to find out where the material is and to access it. They want fast, accessible results which will suffice (good enough) not a fragmented utility for deep and exhaustive research’. Libraries and library systems tend to categorise and provide access to resources such as books, print journals, e-journal, thesis, databases etc by format, which is not the way users typically view the world.

One of the first barriers put in front of users is the need to ‘sign-on’. ‘Staff and students don't understand why we "need" so many logins!’ complained one college. Users are then confronted with a great complexity of resources and ‘Too many separate tools and interfaces which are not easy to use.’ And as noted above even if they find a relevant resource they may find it is not licensed by the institution and so not available to them. Users may find the lack of a UK wide approach to this problem of licensed resources confusing and surprising. The JISC supported National e-Journals Initiative (Nesli) is a ‘national initiative for the licensing of electronic journals on behalf of the higher and further education and research communities’ and is worthy of note but is far from addressing the problem from a user perspective.

Lowering Barriers

Libraries report three main tactics in overcoming the barriers to resources: ensuring easier sign on to resources, simplifying and unifying access and improving information literacy.

Single sign on - Some libraries are integrating sign on with VLE and Portals but there appears to be much room for improvement.

Access - Metasearch is seen as a key tool in unifying and simplifying access. Vertical Search products are also aimed at unifying and simplifying access (and will subsumed Metasearch) but were not mentioned at all in this context by libraries. They are probably too new in the market for most libraries to be able to consider their value. A major Scottish university reported that, ‘since implementing WebFeat we have seen a significant increase in our use of resources. We feel this is because of better access to content and less issues with finding items’ However a major northern university complained that, ‘federated searching hasn't delivered. Large union catalogues including A&I data would be better’. Another university qualified the success of Metasearch by commenting: ‘The use of e-resources is increasing exponentially since the introduction of Metalib/SFX; however significant numbers of students dislike it and would prefer a Google type approach to all resources. Training by either librarians or academics into how to access e-resources is essential. The information literacy sessions we put on for students pay dividends.’

Information Literacy - A minority of respondents supported this claim for the value of Information Literacy. A London university respondent was optimistic. ‘There is a tendency to go to Google but I believe with good training and support there is no reason why students should not recognise the importance and relevance of Library resources.’ A CURL university explained. ‘Clearly students do not necessarily start their research based around the library systems/resources. We have a good, embedded, Information Literacy program which is intended to help students make informed decisions about the information they are finding, and the mechanisms for finding it’.

Exposing library resources - In addition to these main tactics some libraries are also beginning to look at how they can ‘expose’ library resources outside conventional library based systems. A Russell Group university put it this way. ‘The library has to recognise the wider context in which students (and staff) are working and expose resources via a variety of different routes (search engines, portals, VLEs, PLEs, etc.)’

The influence of studying a particular discipline

Libraries were asked to comment ‘on the extent to which issues with students’ interaction with library resources may be specific to particular disciplines’. Some respondents warned against generalising with a major research university adding: ‘also worth noting is the split between teaching-led requirements and research-led requirements.

Nevertheless most perceived a clear gap between science and humanities, with users in science related discipline interacting predominantly electronically, and humanities and arts still relying to a large extent on print. Observations included:

  • That a large proportion of Art and Design students may be dyslexic, which can have a serious impact on their effective use of library resources
  • That Arts and humanities based users still have a heavy reliance on printed materials which may be in danger or being overlooked as the emphasis of the discussion moves towards e-resources