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View the documentUser studies in university libraries

User studies in university libraries

by (Professors at the Inter-American School of Librarianship.)

Rocio Herrera C. (Professor of Research Methodology, Head of the Department of Library. Research, Inter-American School of Librarianship, University of Antioquia, Colombia.)

Libia Lotero M. (Professor of Cataloguing and Classification II, Inter-American School of Librarianship, U. of A.)

Ivan Rua R. (MLS. Professor of Cataloguing and Classification I and Administration, Inter-American School of Librarianship, U, of A.)

Beginning with an analysis of the role of the university library in the education system and in the information transfer process, and emphasizing the total interaction of the community with the library system and hence library-user interaction, the authors define what a user study is and traces its development in recent decades.

The concluding section of the paper outlines the considerations to be taken into account in preparing user studies on the basis of a predetermined methodology and bearing in mind the need to identify basic factors such as user information needs, both actual and potential, facilities for meeting those needs, the promotion of library resources and services, user response to those services, the use of information sources, the assessment and justification of existing services, and the role of the library within the library system.

Having identified these factors, the authors conclude that user studies are vitally important for library development since they are a means of determining user needs, the extent to which they are met, user response to library services and the effectiveness of the system; also because they are an effective way for the library to introduce user feedback.


A library is an open system, a subsystem of the wider education system, whose objectives and functions are determined by the community concerned. It follows that, in defining the objectives of the education system, one is specifying the objectives of university libraries, which should contribute to the goals of the system as a whole and respond to changing social needs.

Since university libraries are an integral part of the education system, they should provide support services not only for courses of formal and informal education but also for those geared to research and the generation of new knowledge in the universities to which they belong.

The aims and structure of a university library are influenced by the philosophy of the university, just as the quality of the library service within an institution is related to the quality of the education provided by that institution.

If the library is to fulfil its proper role within the education system, there must be continual interaction between it and the users it exists to serve. Interaction can be influenced both by factors directly related to the library, such as how efficiently and effectively it is run, the relevance of the information it provides and the communication channels it employs, and by others directly related to the user, including his personality, motivation, pursuits and specialized interests. Library-user interaction should be studied on the basis of a communication model, which is to be understood as an information transfer process involving a source, a means or method of transmission and one or more receivers. The source should emit the information clearly, the means should transmit it efficiently and the receiver should comprehend it completely. This process implies responsibilities on the part of both the communicator and the receiver of information, hence the need to take account of the feedback factor. However, the role and responsibilities of users have tended to be imprecise, and users have sometimes been reluctant to play an active role in the information acquisition process. As a result, there is a broad range of 'passive' information held by libraries whose value is ignored and which is under-utilized.

The under-utilization of library holdings and facilities is undoubtedly due as much to the fact that users are unaware of the facilities offered by libraries as to the fact that libraries do not have a precise knowledge of user needs.

In order to plan information activities that include provision for system development, it is therefore necessary to have a precise knowledge of the needs of potential as well as actual users and to understand adequately, recognize and identify in appropriate form their information requirements.

The best way of getting to know about users and their information needs is to carry out periodic user studies, which enable libraries to determine exactly how and in what direction they should develop in order to meet those requirements.


A library user study may be defined as any study relating to library use, in any or all of its aspects. In this connection, the following categories of user studies may be distinguished: studies aimed at determining the overall pattern of interaction with the user community, without reference to any particular mode of information reception by users; secondly, studies to assess the use of a given information source, such as books and periodical publications - generally known as use studies; and thirdly, studies to determine the information flow pattern in the system of communicating knowledge.

This paper will be specifically concerned with the first category, since the completion of a study showing the overall interaction of the community with the library system is a prerequisite for carrying out the other kinds of study.

The purpose of user studies is to improve existing conditions in a given library. This can only be achieved through user studies, which make it possible to identify users and their specific information requirements.

Before the Second World War, such studies were sporadic and unrelated to library development; it was only after 1949 that the term USE started to be employed independently in the literature on the subject rather than as a constituent of other headings, as was the case previously. One also finds in the library literature for the period 1960-1973, 477 entries under the heading. 'User studies', 293 relating to publications in the United States and 184 to publications in other countries (60 per cent and 40 per cent respectively). Analysis of the literature subsequent to this period reveals an increase in these figures, showing the growing interest that such studies have aroused among librarians throughout the world.

Analysis of the studies carried out by type of library shows that most were carried out in specialized libraries, followed by public libraries and lastly university libraries, studies on school libraries being almost nonexistent. The proportions are not the same in all countries: in Colombia, for example, as libraries have developed the limited number of user studies carried out have been mainly focused on specialized and university libraries.

Since this paper was prepared in the context of a higher education library seminar, an attempt was made to ascertain the number and scope of user studies carried out in this kind of library, taking Medellas a case-study. The results were as follows:

Questionnaires sent out 18
Questionnaires completed 13
User studies carried out 0
Studies and/or evaluations of collections 9
2 of these included user studies
Period covered by the survey 1974-1980

The studies and evaluations carried out regarded the user only as a statistical factor. It should be mentioned that two of the studies carried out in one of the libraries surveyed were intended to study the use of particular collections with a view to determining user satisfaction or otherwise.

A survey was also carried out in other regions of the country, either directly or through institutions concerned with library planning and development, such as the schools of librarianship ICFES and COLCIENCIAS. This revealed that there have been few attempts to carry out user studies in university libraries, although studies and evaluations of collections have been made in various parts of the country, employing a similar methodology and yielding similar results to those carried out in Medell

1.1 Importance

User studies, which have often been criticized for appearing to produce little in the way of useful results, are of great importance since they provide a substantial body of specific knowledge, facts and conclusions that are of great value for the development of new facilities.

A user study yields conclusions that can be used in improving the administrative process since they can be converted into indicators of successes and shortcomings in the planning and development of services.

User studies show the different channels employed by users in the information acquisition process and also the different types of information sources and the frequency with which they are used.

Another indication of the importance of user studies is the fact that they clearly reveal that the flow of information is not a simple process and that a whole range of factors help to determine the nature of the individual information collection process. They are also a way of identifying user needs and behaviour, which leads to greater efficiency in the information transfer process.

In general, it can be said that there are good grounds for carrying out user studies since they are the most effective way of determining user needs and therefore of being able to establish the facilities to meet them properly; they also enable continuous evaluation of the system to take place.

1.2 Scope

The scope of most of the user studies so far carried out may be said to have been very limited and to have yielded little benefit, the reason being that they were not preceded by a definition of specific objectives and because they were not based on adequate methodologies, the methods employed having generally been indirect, as in the case of statistics, which are known not to provide very reliable data for determining user needs and behaviour.

The result was that these studies were mainly concerned with the quantitative analysis of library use, disregarding the important role of the user in the information retrieval process and the need for continuity in carrying out such studies, which have consequently not been turned into useful basic tools for improving and restructuring library services.

This is why librarians who are aware of the real aim of user studies should tackle the problem of carrying out those studies in the correct manner, defining their scope in advance. Only in this way will user studies enable the library properly to fulfil its active role in the information transfer process through the identification of certain basic factors to be analysed in this paper, such as user information needs, both actual and potential, the facilities for meeting those needs, the promotion of library resources and services, user response to those services, the use of information sources, the evaluation and justification of existing services, the need to provide new services, and the need to participate in the information structure as a whole, i.e. not regarding the library as an object of study, as an isolated element, but as a component of a system.


2.1 Terminology

The first step in carrying out a user study should be to define the terminology relating to information needs. Definitions should be borne in mind at all stages of the study.

The need for information is a concept that is dependent on changing social values. It is a psychological state associated with uncertainty and the desire to fill a gap in knowledge. Although the concept of information need has been much debated in the information sciences, it is now agreed that the concept is restricted to distinguishing between a state of mind and its subsequent representation in the form of a question.

Potential total demand may be defined, in a formal sense, as the totality of potential individual or group demands relating to library materials, services and staff. This potential demand may or may not be expressed.

The total potential demand facing a library at a given moment depends on a number of factors such as the type of work carried out by the user, the level of user expectation and the level of services provided by the library, all of which factors influence or determine potential individual demand.

Potential demand at whatever level expresses to some degree the limitations in the provision of services and resources, and is probably viewed differently by the user and the librarian. This explains unfulfilled or misunderstood expectations and dissatisfaction on both sides. For this reason, it is necessary to establish priorities that can be used to identify all the forms of demand.

Potential total demand is converted in the course of time into expressed and unexpressed demand. Expressed demand may be defined as an action by the user to obtain data, information or documents from or through libraries and may be understood not only in terms of what the user requests but also in terms of those forms of demand that he satisfies directly.

It should be noted that not every expressed demand is satisfied, and the difference between a satisfied and an unsatisfied demand is a key indicator of the effectiveness of the system.

Expressed and satisfied demand leads to use; in other words, use is a function of the satisfaction of demand. There are differences between what the librarian and the user regard as use.

The relationship between these terms is illustrated in the following diagram:


2.2 Objectives

The first step in any user study is to determine clearly and precisely what it is intended to achieve. The logical development and scope of the study will depend on the precision with which the objectives have been initially defined.

The objectives must necessarily be defined in relation to the specific characteristics of the library and the users to be covered by the study; one should therefore bear in mind the objectives of a university library.

The objectives should be formulated in such a way that the results of the study can be quantified so as to be analysed and evaluated in relation to those objectives, thereby yielding information enabling the strong or weak points in the system to be identified.

In general terms, a user study in university libraries attempts to determine the use made of university libraries as an aid in the education and research processes, the main difficulties affecting the information-retrieval process, whether effective interaction exists between the library and its users, and the form in which information is transmitted to them.

Specifically, the objectives of a user study should be:

- to determine types of users;
- to identify their information needs;
- to establish priorities in relation to these needs;
- to establish the level of satisfaction of needs;
- to determine user behaviour in relation to information,
- to evaluate the services provided for the restructuring of information and/or the establishment of new services if necessary.

In the last analysis, the results of a study of this kind will show whether the service provided to users by the library meets their needs or not, and what could be done to make it more efficient, hence the emphasis that should be placed on properly defining the objectives of each study.

2.3 Library-user interaction

A user study should not be approached in unilateral fashion, that is to say, it should always involve the active participation of the users as an integral part of the interaction process that should exist between them and the library. As mentioned previously, this process is only possible through communication, in which feedback plays a basic role. Such a study should therefore be based not on a quantification of existing resources and services but on qualitative factors such as the identification of types of users, their information needs, their response to information and the use they make of library resources. This is the only way to achieve a greater level of satisfaction in the information retrieval process.

It is vital in this respect to clarify beforehand each of the qualitative elements:

2.3.1 Types of users

The successful transfer of information depends to a large extent on correctly identifying users in order to study their response to information.

A community is usually defined by geographical areas, the institutions consulted by users, areas of interests or a combination of all three. An initial classification of users distinguishes two categories: Actual users, or those who effectively make use of the library and its resources. Potential users, or those whose profile conforms to that for which the system was designed but who for various reasons do not make use of its resources. This group has been virtually disregarded in the various user studies; yet it should be a focus of interest, since one of the reasons why the library and its resources are not being used by this group might be that the library is not sufficiently geared to the needs of all its users; also, in order to establish information activities one has to identify potential users and to have a proper understanding of their information requirements.

Generally speaking, actual users may be divided into the following categories:

- those who seek information sporadically to meet needs as they arise, who constitute the majority;

- those who use information services frequently.

Within this latter category we may distinguish:

- those who know precisely what they need and therefore come looking for relevant and precise information;

- those who come to the library in search of general rather than specific information, that is to say, they are more interested in the quantity than in the relevance and precision of the information;

- those who use services directly, which does not necessarily mean that they always satisfy their information needs.

Although a university library caters for a variety of users, four categories may be clearly identified: teachers, undergraduates, postgraduates and research workers.

On the basis of this classification it is possible to determine the differences between the groups and their information needs.

2.3.2 Information needs

The service provided by libraries should be governed mainly by the needs of the users, which calls for continual assessment of information needs and priorities.

Need is a concept that depends on the values of a society and on professional, social and economic factors; one of the characteristics of needs is therefore transitoriness, and this is one of the most neglected factors in evaluating user needs.

Another related problem is that of trying to determine needs unilaterally: the user thinks that the library is going to satisfy what he deems to be his needs and similarly, librarians suppose that they know user needs in advance and that it is sufficient to provide them with what they think will satisfy those needs.

The main information needs of users fall into two categories: The need to locate specific documents of which the bibliographical references are known - referred to as a need for a 'known item'. The need to locate documents relating to a particular theme - known as a thematic need. This need can in turn be divided into two categories, namely: The need for information to solve a particular problem. The need for information on the latest developments in a specialized field.

These two needs are different not only in their origin but also in the form in which information is sought in order to solve that need. But in the first case it is the user who initiates the search, and in the second case the initiative may lie with the library system.

Needs for problem-solving information may be of various kinds, but it is right to group them, as Lancaster does, in the following categories:

- the need for a single document of a factual type, for example, rapid reference queries commonly handled by libraries;

- the need to consult one or more documents on a particular subject;

- the need for a comprehensive search, Involving the retrieval of the maximum number of published documents on a particular subject in a given period of time.

The problem facing libraries is that users generally do not know their precise information needs and therefore do not express those needs completely.

Generally speaking, the various types of university library users think that their Information needs simply involve supplementary reading in their subjects of study, in the case of undergraduates; supplementary reading in their studies and research, in the case of postgraduates; the updating of their professional knowledge, the planning and preparation of new courses and supplementary reading as guidance for their students in the courses for which they are responsible, in the case of lecturers; and obtaining information for their everyday work, updating their knowledge in their specialized field and related fields and tackling new problems or projects, in the case of research workers.

In order to determine the information needs of the user of a university library, as of any other kind of library, it is necessary to establish continuous communication between all those involved in the education process and thus achieve satisfactory interaction. This interaction should not be disregarded, since the user is an active participant in the information system and it must be borne in mind that his needs should determine the shape of that system.

In some instances users may be unaware of many of the information sources and services available or potentially available, given that their information needs may be directed towards solving a limited number of problems whereas the system Is geared to very broad disciplines.

The staff of university libraries is responsible for the efficiency of the system and should direct users to the relevant sources and services, adapting their services to user demands. In addition, an information source should anticipate the requirements of users and gear itself to them; this can only be done through continuous communication, making it possible not only to establish current needs but also to discern trends which will lead to the system being faced with new information demands.

2.3.3 User behaviour

The work habits of users in any activity requiring information, the importance they attach to obtaining it and the facilities at their disposal, their knowledge of these facilities, their assessment of their value and the possibility of their obtaining what they are looking for are the factors that affect user behaviour in the quest for information.

The behaviour of the users of university libraries specifically is affected, in addition to the above factors, by others directly related to the university environment, such as teaching methods and the type of education provided. The country's education system is a teaching-learning process largly consisting in an essentially repetitive pattern in which the student consumes and reproduces the concepts transmitted by the teacher. This model is mainly based on the university lecture system, in which the teacher simply gives a course of study and provides the pupil with a brief bibliography consisting basically of texts. The result has been that education has not become a critical and creative process and library resources have accordingly been under-utilized.

As regards the response to the information services provided by university libraries, it can be said that research workers do not use the services properly since the role of the library as an agent for the transfer of information has been disregarded in the research process, this type of user tending to acquire information through informal channels of communication, such as personal contacts with other colleagues. In its turn, the library has neglected its task as a constituent part of the research enterprise, forgetting that one of the priorities of the university, in addition to its teaching role, is that of research, which is the source of much knowledge of benefit not only to the university but also to the community in general.

The university library should pay special attention to ascertaining not only the specific information needs of each type of user but also user behaviour patterns in the information retrieval process, in order that these needs may be met and the factors responsible for the non-use of the library restricted to a minimum.

This will be achieved through an appropriate methodology for conducting user studies, which will then provide guidelines for the organization of user training or instruction courses aimed at the various groups. These courses will influence the future response of users to information services.

Since user behaviour in the information retrieval process determines the level of library-user interaction, continual monitoring by the librarian of changes in that behaviour is necessary. These changes are dependent not only on information needs but also on the possible impact of the introduction of new services. This shows that, over and above the matter of training in the use of library resources, user behaviour presents a number of special features, largely reflecting the fact that the information needs of those concerned are not well defined and that their request for information are consequently vague and very general. It follows that library staff should bear in mind their active role in promoting and publicizing their services and resources since, despite the continual emphasis placed on the role of information in development, it has been shown that users tend to dispense with non-essential information, the usual practice being to rely on memory, to evade the problem or to solve it with vague or incomplete information.

However, it should not be overlooked that there is another group of users who consult libraries actively and effectively in order to satisfy their information needs; although accessibility influences the use that they make of resources, the most important thing for this group is their confidence and faith in the information system.

2.4 Methodology

User information needs cannot be determined solely on the basis of questionnaires containing questions such as: What are your information needs? or What should be done to satisfy your information needs?. It is necessary to develop appropriate techniques and methodologies for such studies. Although they are aware of the value of the user studies, most libraries hitherto have not been fully conversant with the problems and techniques associated with such studies. In this connection, Maurice Line in his work Library Survey writes that the results of such studies are often an indigestible mass of poorly interpreted data collected from inadequate and badly chosen samples, by means of unsuitable and unreliable methods and on the basis of an ill-designed approach.

We analyse below the steps that should be taken in carrying out a user study.

The first step is to plan the study - a fundamental step, since the decisions taken at this stage will affect the subsequent stages. The first thing is to define clearly what one wishes to find out, with a view to determining the scope of the study - , the methodology to be employed, the timetable for the study and the type of information to be collected. It is worth noting that the study should begin with a review of existing literature on the subject, which will be useful in both the planning and execution of the study and in the analysis of the data.

An important decision has to be taken during the planning stage, namely establishing the duration and timetable for each of the activities to be carried out under the study.

It is also necessary to decide the most appropriate times at which to carry out the study; for example, it is not advisable to carry out studies during exam periods, nor should they be carried out when new services are being introduced, since the results obtained before and after the introduction of such services may not be comparable.

The second stage is to choose the target group and the sample for the study. Because of the difficulty of targeting the study on the population as a whole, it is necessary to choose a sample. For the results to be meaningful, the sample must be as representative as possible of the population as a whole. The most effective method is a random sample. Sometimes it is necessary to stratify the sample if the population is not homogeneous, and the size of the sample will depend on the degree of precision required and the size of the population.

The third stage involves selecting and designing the data collection tools. Although user studies to date have been based on social research techniques, it has been observed that the best results are obtained when the questionnaire is supplemented with an interview.

The advantage of the questionnaire is that it can be applied to a large population, including one that is geographically dispersed. To be fully effective, It should be drawn up with regard to the need for such features as objective, clear and precise questions, preferably of the closed variety since the answers to open questions are more difficult to analyse, and employing terminology familiar to the user.

Once the questions to be included have been selected, they should be arranged in a logical order, bearing in mind that they should not take more than 30 minutes to complete.

To facilitate the analysis of the information gathered, the questions should be pre-coded.

It is also recommended that the questionnaire should be sent directly and accompanied by a note or letter in which its aims and importance are explained. The questionnaire should be tested before finally being distributed so as to identify any weaknesses in it.

As said above, an interview should supplement the information obtained from the questionnaire. A small sub-sample should be interviewed with the aim of checking the validity of the answers given to the questionnaire.

The fourth stage is the collection and analysis of the information. A proper analysis of the data will show whether the study carried out has been successful in identifying the specific information needs of users and their response to existing services and will also show if there is a need for overhauling services or establishing new ones.

Data analysis should be carried out carefully, since it is not possible to arrive at valid conclusions on the basis of the results alone if the predetermined aims have not been kept in mind throughout all stages of the study. The conclusions can be invalidated by an ill-chosen sample, the interpretation given to the questionnaires, badly conducted interviews or the method of data analysis.


3.1 The university library plays an active role in the information transfer process and, if it is to fulfil this role effectively, it should begin by making a study of needs. A systematic study of information needs, yielding a thorough knowledge of their nature, can be regarded as one of the most important outcomes of user studies.

3.2 For services to be properly planned, it is first necessary to identify the information needs of users and the degree to which these needs are met; the latter is a factor that should not be taken for granted but should be checked through user studies.

3.3 The library will be unable to satisfy users' information needs completely if there is no user feedback. Library staff should not expect that feedback will always be initiated by users, but should rather take the lead by introducing new policies and procedures when an unsatisfied need is perceived. User studies are extremely useful in this process.

3.4 The users' skill or ability in the use of information sources or resources affects their response to the library system in the information retrieval process. It is therefore important that the university library should provide user instruction courses geared to the different types of users. Reliable guidelines for carrying out such courses effectively can only be obtained from the studies described in this paper.

3.5 In general, it can be said that user studies are a valuable and necessary activity; however, to be useful they should be carried out using an appropriate methodology to ensure proper data collection and analysis. The results of such studies should be examined objectively and critically.

3.6 As we have seen throughout this paper, user studies are of great importance and are necessary for the development of the library system and, consequently, the education system. Library staff in Colombia have understood this, and a number of efforts have been made in this direction which, in association with a proper methodology, should be instrumental in achieving very valuable results.



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Articles in periodical publications

CARVALHO, Abigail de Oliveira. Biblioteca universitaria: estudo de usuario. Revista Escola Biblioteconomde UIMG, 5(2), September 1976, pp. 117-137.

FORD, Geoffrey. Research in User Behaviour in University Libraries. Journal of Documentation (London), 29(l), May 1973, pp. 85-106.

LANCASTER, H.W. User Education: The Next Major Thrust in Information Science. Journal of Documentation for Librarianship (Philadelphia), 11, Summer 1970, pp. 55-63.

MANN, Peter H. Communication about Books to Undergraduates. Aslib Proceedings (London), 26(6), June 1974, pp. 250-256.

MASTERSON, A.J. User of Libraries: A comparative Study. -Journal of Librarianship (London), 6(2), April 1974, pp. 63-79.

ROBERTS, Norman. Draft Definitions. Information on Library Needs, Wants, Demand and Uses: A Comment. Aslib Proceedings, 27(7), July 1975, pp. 308-313.

ROTH, Dana L. Las necesidades de los usuarios de las bibliotecas. Boletde la Unesco para las Bibliotecas (Paris), 28(2), March-April 1974, pp. 99-102.

RZASA, Philip V. and MORIARTY, John H. The Types and Needs of Academic Library Users. A Case-study of 6,568 Responses. College and Research Libraries (Chicago), 31(6), 1970, pp. 403-409.

TOBIN, Jaine Culver. A Study of Library 'Use Studies'. Information Storage and Retrieval, 10(3-4), March-April 1974, pp. 101-113.

TURNER, Stephen J.A. Formula for Stimulating Collection Use. College and Research Libraries (Chicago), 38(3), November 1977, pp. 509-513.

WOOD, D.N. User Studies: A Review of the Literature from 1966-1970. Aslib Proceedings (London), 23(1), 1971, pp. 11-23.

Discovering the User and His Information Needs, Aslib Proceedings (London), 21(7), July 1969, pp. 262-270.