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In the interest of analysing and synthesising several user behaviour studies conducted in the US and the UK 12 studies were identified. These 12 selected studies were commissioned and/or supported by non-profit organisations and government agencies; therefore, they have little dependence upon the outcomes of the studies.

The digital information seeker: Findings from selected OCLC, RIN and JISC user behaviour projects

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There are numerous user studies published in the literature and available on the web. There are studies that specifically address the behaviours of scholars while others identify the behaviours of the general public. Some studies address the information-seeking behaviours of scholars within specific disciplines while others identify the behaviours of scholars of multiple disciplines. There are studies that only address undergraduate, graduate, or post graduate students or compare these individual groups’ information-seeking behaviours to those of scholars. Still other studies address the behaviors of young adults (Screenagers (Rushkoff 1996) and Millennials).

Executive Summary

In the interest of analysing and synthesising several user behaviour studies conducted in the US and the UK twelve studies were identified. These 12 selected studies were commissioned and/or supported by non- profit organisations and government agencies; therefore, they have little dependence upon the outcomes of the studies. The studies were reviewed by two researchers who analysed the findings, compared their analyses, and identified the overlapping and contradictory findings. This report is not intended to be the definitive work on user behaviour studies, but rather to provide a synthesised document to make it easier for information professionals to better understand the information-seeking behaviours of the libraries’ intended users and to review the issues associated with the development of information services and systems that will best meet these users’ needs.

12 studies listed chronologically

Perceptions of libraries and information resources 
OCLC, December 2005

Seeking synchronicity: Evaluating virtual reference services from user, non-user and librarian perspectives 
OCLC / IMLS / Rutgers, June 2008

College students’ perceptions of libraries and information resources OCLC, April 2006

Online catalogs: What users and librarians want OCLC, March 2009

Sense-making the information confluence: The whys and hows of college and university user satisficing of information needs IMLS/Ohio State University/OCLC, July 2006

E-journals: Their use, value and impact 
RIN, April 2009

Researchers and discovery services: Behaviour, perceptions and needs 
RIN, November 2006

JISC national e-books observatory project: Key findings and recommendations 
JISC/UCL, November 2009

Researchers’ use of academic libraries and their services RIN/CURL, April 2007

Students’ use of research content in teaching and learning 
JISC, November 2009

Information behaviour of the researcher of the future CIBER/UCL, commissioned by BL and JISC, January 2008

User behaviour in resource discovery
JISC, November 2009

A description of the key findings reported in each of the selected studies is included in this document. After this, the common findings of the studies as well as contradictory findings are discussed. The report ends with the identification of issues that librarians must address in order to meet the needs of diverse user groups. Some suggestions for further research and development are included.

Summaries of each of the selected studies

A brief summary of the findings of each study is provided to give the readers a basic overview and understanding of each study. URLs are included for each of the studies for those who are interested in more detailed and in-depth information about the studies.

Perceptions of libraries and information resources

 (De Rosa 2005) and College students’ perceptions of libraries and information resources (De Rosa 2006)

Presents two views of a global online survey of library use.  The 2005 report includes both academic and non-academic users. The results reinforce the library’s brand as one of “books” and the overwhelming nature of search engine use. Most users do trust library resources and information as much as they trust search engines. They do not think of the library for accessing electronic resources. The general population is using libraries and electronic resources of all kinds less often.

Sense-making the information confluence: The whys and hows of college and university user satisficing of information needs

 (Dervin et al. 2006; Connaway, Prabha, and Dickey 2006; Prabha, Connaway, and Dickey 2006)

Includes qualitative data from undergraduate, graduate student, and faculty perspectives on information-seeking and library systems. It offers a rich portrait of academic users’ information behaviours, including their rational and contextual decisions, their valuation of familiarity, convenience, and currency, and nuances to their use of Google and other search engines; each section concludes with concrete recommendations to improve library systems.

Researchers and discovery services: Behaviour, perceptions and needs

 (Research Information Network 2006)

Reports on a lengthy qualitative study using telephone surveys of researchers and librarians in UK universities, followed by in-depth interviews and focus-groups with postdoctoral researchers. The study indicates a “general satisfaction with the research discovery services available” (ibid, p. 6). The main frustration of researchers in the sciences and arts and humanities is accessing online journals, which is supported by librarians who report accessing online journals as a key problem. The most utilized resources are general search engines, internal library portals and catalogues, specialist search engines, and subject-specific gateways; researchers see the search as an integral part of the research process and have developed methods of searching to minimize any sort of information overload (ibid, p. 8).

Researchers’ use of academic libraries and their services

 (Consortium of University Research Libraries, and Research Information Network 2007)

Utilises quantitative data and 'qualitative insights' (ibid, p. 2) from researchers and librarians to provide information about how researchers interact with academic library services in the UK. The majority of researchers has embraced digital content and uses digital aides to find information, creating a decrease in library visits. However, the respondents do believe librarians will play a key role in this new information environment, and in new types of information resources. Evidence illustrates the importance researchers place on direct access to all kinds of digital materials.

Information behaviour of the researcher of the future

 (Centre for Information Behaviour and the Evaluation of Research 2008)

Attempts to recreate a longitudinal study from the literature together with some new primary data mining from the British Library and JISC web sites. The authors describe the project as a 'virtual' longitudinal study…refining many popularly-held notions of the information behaviours of the 'Google generation'. The findings state that although young people have 'apparent facility with computers' and confidence in their own ability, these are actually masking their lack of information literacy skills and performance. It concludes with predictions that the information environment of 2017 will be that of “a unified web culture,” e-book prominence, mass book digitisation, and additional forms of publication.

Seeking synchronicity: Evaluating virtual reference services from user, non-user and librarian perspectives

 (Radford, and Connaway 2008)

Evaluates the practice, sustainability, and relevance of virtual reference services (VRS) to libraries, with several complementary data collection phases from librarian providers, and both users and non-users of VRS. Among the outcomes of the project are significant implications for librarians’ best practices, data on user behaviour differences by age demographics, and empirical data on the “elusive” non-users of library services.

Online catalogs: What users and librarians want

 (Calhoun et al. 2009)

Includes end-user (both academic and the general public) focus group interviews, online pop-up surveys for users, and a Web-based survey of librarians to compare librarian and user perspectives on metadata and interface needs in library systems. The report identifies differences between the two respondent groups, and reinforces users’ desires for discovery-to-delivery seamless access and for enhanced catalogue content.

e-Journals: Their use, value and impact

 (Research Information Network 2009)

Encompasses a deep log analysis of several months’ usage of ScienceDirect and Oxford Journals in UK universities, in order to provide an analysis of how academic researchers in the UK have responded to the growing availability of e-journals. Data indicate that e-journals are a critical component to research institutions in the UK and prove to have a good return on investment.

JISC national e-books observatory project: Key findings and recommendations

 (JISC and UCL 2009)

Combines data from a deep log analysis report, a user survey report, focus group interviews, and print and circulation data reports for e-book usage at UK universities. It aims to find current attitudes towards e-books held by students and staff, and to evaluate JISC e-book usage. Overall, “e-books are now part of the academic mainstream” (ibid, p. 5) and “libraries…are a key player in the emerging market for e-books at present. Age and gender are also important predictors of e-book take-up” (ibid, p. 6). Most e-books are discovered through the library catalogue and links on the library web pages.

Students’ use of research content in teaching and learning

 (Hampton-Reeves et al. 2009)

Reports on a survey of undergraduates at three UK universities, with follow-up focus group interviews based upon the initial data. The students generally prefer keyword searches in a large number of tools, but do distinguish between more traditional sources of research information (journals, library catalogues) and the potential pitfalls of the internet.

User behaviour in resource discovery

 (JISC 2009)

Uses qualitative data gathered in focus group and in-depth user interviews to 'identify, understand and compare the information-seeking' behaviour of students and researchers in the Business and Economics disciplines who are “using subscribed and free resource discovery systems available” in three UK institutions (p. 17). The “poor usability, high complexity, and lack of integration” of many resources “acts as a barrier to information search and retrieval” (p. 6). That level of difficulty keeps the user from being able to concentrate on the actual content of the material. Additionally, information literacy skills were found to be lacking. Even though users may be able to use a search engine or other resource, they did not necessarily know how to get quality information from it.

Common findings

These studies allow us to draw several broad conclusions about the state of user studies. Evidence produced by multiple studies is limited by the common problem that some studies have small sample sizes and purposive samples. However, this meta-analysis combines both quantitative and qualitative studies. Both have strengths and weaknesses and are complementary. The qualitative, exploratory studies provide rich data portraits of specific user groups while the large-scale quantitative studies confirm them. These rich data portraits combined with the large-scale quantitative analyses offer several common themes that were identified in the review of the twelve user behaviour studies.

Among the central findings
  • Disciplinary differences do exist in researcher behaviours, both professional researchers and students.
  • E-journals are increasingly very important to the process of research at all levels.
  • The evidence provided by the results of the studies supports the centrality of Google and other search engines.
  • Google is often used to locate and access e-journal content.
  • At the same time, the entire Discovery-to-Delivery process needs to be supported by information systems, including increased access to resources.
  • Journal backfiles are particularly problematic in terms of access

The realities of the online environment observed above led several studies to some common conclusions about changing user behaviours:

  • Regardless of age or experience, academic discipline, or context of the information need, speed and convenience are important to users.
  • Researchers particularly appreciate desktop access to scholarly content.
  • Users also appreciate the convenience of electronic access over the physical library.
  • Users are beginning to desire enhanced functionality in library systems.
  • They also desire enhanced content to assist them in evaluating resources.
  • They seem generally confident in their own ability to use information discovery tools.
  • However, it seems that information literacy has not necessarily improved.
  • High-quality metadata is thus becoming even more important for the discovery process.

In addition, some common findings regarding content and resources arise:

  • More digital content of all kinds and formats is almost uniformly seen as better
  • People still tend to think of libraries as collections of books
  • Despite this, researchers also value human resources in their information-seeking

In some cases, the studies reviewed included findings which seem to contradict one another, and for which evidence may be mixed:

  • There is evidence for both broad and narrow range of tools used for scholarly research
  • There is evidence both in favour and against formal training in electronic searching
  • There are mixed conclusions on the question of whether recommendations, provided by recommender systems, and social media are having an impact on information seeking

In a few cases, the above findings from the studies under review offered evidence that runs counter to popular perceptions of the current information scene.

  • Many popular media claims about the 'Google generation' may not be supported by all the evidence
  • In choosing among search engines, some evidence indicates that speed may not be the most important evaluative factor
  • The studies that addressed library OPACs provide little support for the advanced search options which are still popular in these systems

Implications for libraries

A synthesis of findings from these major user studies points toward a number of implications for libraries. The implications below represent broad tendencies. The various user studies themselves do take into account differences in behaviour based on age and gender of the subjects, and context and situation of the information needs. Differences based on academic discipline have been a common finding throughout the user behaviour studies. The studies ask different questions of their subjects. In order to generalize findings and to present a valid portrait of user behaviours, it is necessary to conduct longitudinal studies of large populations.

Implications for libraries which are shared by multiple studies
  • The library serves many constituencies, with different needs and behaviours
  • Library systems must do better at providing seamless access to resources
  • Librarians must increasingly consider a greater variety of digital formats and content
  • More digital resources of all kinds are better
  • Library systems and content must be prepared for changing user behaviours
  • Library systems need to look and function more like search engines, i.e., Google and Yahoo, and Web services, i.e., since these are familiar to users who are comfortable and confident in using them
  • High-quality metadata is becoming more important for discovery of appropriate resources
  • The library must advertise its brand, its value, and its resources better within the community

This review concludes with suggestions for future research. The studies included in this meta analysis used both qualitative and quantitative research techniques, which complement each other. The large-scale online and interview surveys conducted in the quantitative studies, coupled with the rich data portraits provided by the qualitative studies, identify key issues which can be studied using more statistically generalizable methods.  A large, random sample of specific demographic groups of information seekers should be identified in order to conduct a wide-ranging user behaviour study to identify how individuals engage in both the virtual and physical worlds to get information for different situations. Such an investigation would contribute to a better understanding of how individuals navigate in multiple information environments and could influence the design and integration of systems and services for devices and applications, as well as cloud computing. Such a study, undertaken at this pivotal moment in both library funding and explosion of information resources, could provide invaluable guidance for both libraries and the field of information science.

PodcastPodcast: What does the digital information seeker look like? (Duration: 13.57)

Lynn Silipigni Connaway and Timothy J. Dickey of OCLC Research
Publication Date
22 March 2010
Publication Type
Strategic Themes