Guest Post: The Search and I (and You and Our Patrons)

by Mary Pagliero Popp, Indiana University Libraries, Vice-President/President-Elect, RUSA

I have been working on issues related to “search” for several years.  We have implemented two resource discovery tools here at Indiana in the last few years, bringing users search results that include books, video and other materials from our catalog, journal articles, and information from the broader web.  We are now hard at work developing a Blacklight open source version of our library catalog.  In each case, it was important to look at the way our users interact with our online resources and at the way they do their research.

A March 2012 Pew Internet and American Life study entitled Search Engine Use 2012 caused me to think about this more specifically.  In their overview, the authors note that “Though they generally do not support targeted search or ads, these users report very positive outcomes when it comes to the quality of information search provides, and more positive than negative experiences using search.”  Search experiences are more positive than negative and users report that they are confident about their results.

If we tie this to the recent OCLC report by DeRosa et al., Perceptions of Libraries, 2010: Context and community, we see many similarities, a few bright lights, and some causes for concern.  NOT A SINGLE RESPONDENT BEGAN HIS/HER RESEARCH AT A LIBRARY WEB SITE!  But library web sites are used by a third of Americans.   This use has remained steady since 2005.  In addition, when users find the site, they agree it fills their information needs.  Research activities are down as is use of library reference services and resources.  The favorability rates for information resources and libraries have declined. Information consumers say they “just know” whether an online resource is trustworthy. They are confident and want to serve themselves.

Google and other search engines have shaped the behavior of our users.  Connaway, Dickey & Radford (2011) believe that libraries should create or purchase systems that work similarly to Web search engines.  They note that the search engine experience is already engrained in users’ daily activities. (You can read the full article: Connaway, L. S., Dickey, T. J., & Radford, M. L. (2011). “If it is too inconvenient I’m not going after it:” Convenience as a critical factor in information-seeking behaviors. Library & Information Science Research, 33(3), 179-190. Their research closely mirrors the results of the Pew study.)

Okay, so let’s be honest.  Where do we librarians most often begin our research?  I would venture to say that we most often start with a commercial search engine, just as our users do.

Change is really difficult.  We know we need to do it, but we also feel that we know what our users ought to be doing.  That sort of thinking can cause real problems.  Libraries do not have enough money to make a lot of mistakes. Those of us who work in libraries need to gather data about users, about outcomes, and about impact.  Many librarians are not trained to handle this sort of research well; this is a skill that is growing in importance.   As a profession, we need to work on this skill.

Here is one place to begin:  Information about users and their behavior will be the theme of the RUSA President’s Program in Chicago in June 2013.  A committee co-chaired by Mary Mintz and Joe Thompson is hard at work to make it happen.  Do you have questions about information use?  Do you have names of people about whom you would like more information?  Please share them with me. I look forward to hearing from you.

One thought on “Guest Post: The Search and I (and You and Our Patrons)

  1. Pingback: The little joys of playing a Google a day | Chasing Reference

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