Libraries are for Use

Demonstrating the value of librarianship

Using and Experiencing the Academic Library: A Multi-Site Observational Study of Space and Place


Using and Experiencing the Academic Library: A Multi-Site Observational Study of Space and Place.

This pre-print from College & Research Libraries provides some pretty solid evidence that academic libraries are still primarily used for academic pursuits.  The value of this study, unlike so many conducted before, is the inclusion of five different institutions, each with different populations.

This study examines student use of five small to medium academic libraries in Canada. Institutions varied in size from four to twelve thousand (full time equivalent) students and included two community colleges, Lethbridge (LC) and Red Deer (RD) (smaller regional institutions offering primarily vocational programs and programs to prepare students for further study), two undergraduate universities, Grant MacEwan (GM) and Mount Royal (MR) (larger urban institutions offering bachelor’s degrees and some two year certificate programs), and a technical college, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (ST) (larger urban institution focusing on technical and vocational programs) (Table 1). Study libraries were selected both for variety and geographic convenience.

Applying the same research methods to different sets of populations in different locations is a common strategy for clinical trials, reducing the risk of bias.  They used two methods to gather data: observation (“seating sweep”), which was used to verify the activities self-reported in surveys.  Interestingly, response rates were higher for paper surveys, compared with electronic, with a survey response rate of 83%!  How cool is that?!

Interesting results

  • Males were more common in libraries than females.  Key to this result is that they used relative rates (emphasis added).
    • When averaged over the five institutions females were observed in the physical library less (by 7%) than one would have expected based on the ratio of students enrolled, though the numbers varied by institution, with several institutions showing a small positive difference.
  • Students in the library generally have good grades – most common grades: B’s, then A’s.
  • Use of technology and academic work were the key reasons students were in the library.
  • Nearly 25% of users were observed using print materials, and 13% were observed writing in print.  There were variations in this measure across the institutions.  The authors attributed this variation to differences in levels of degrees (technical versus bachelor’s).
  • Most students reported that they worked alone in the library.
  • While not surprising, survey respondents most commonly reported that problems with noise made the library only sometimes an ideal place to study alone, especially in the large urban institution.  The authors conjectured that the “combination of design and high occupancy levels” could explain this result.
  • Desire for using the library for group work varied by institution, and these variations could not be explained solely by the availability of group study rooms.
  • But the responses regarding the noise issue were very contradictory – some were bothered by the noise, while others commented that the noise helped them concentrate – perhaps like background or “white” nose.

The authors’ conclusions are noteworthy:

We argue that students perceive the combination of setting, resources and community that the library provides as an incubator for learning, and that by virtue of being among these things, they believe they will learn.

So here we have evidence that students come to the academic library primarily to learn.  Some questions this study triggers in me include:

  • Why are males more likely to use the physical library than females?  Are the questions of safety?  Do they (we) have different study habits?
  • What is the nature of the relationship between grades and library use?  I’m becoming convinced that good students have good study habits, including using the library.  This needs to be verified.  And if the relationship is that direction, how can librarians reach the struggling students?
  • How can librarians best accommodate the wide variation of desirable study environments?  Even with sections designated for quiet study, students complain about violators (often the library staff themselves!).

Here is a study that used established methods to gather data across a variety of environments.  There was no statistical analysis, because there were no hypotheses to test.  But the authors did address issues of potential bias and threats to validity – they applied the same methods at all institutions to increase reliability, they used statistical sampling to increase randomness, and they generated a large data set to increase generalizability.

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This entry was posted on February 22, 2015 by in Academic Libraries, LIS Research.

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