Notes from a 2012 User Survey

(This article appeared in the May issue of Computers in Libraries magazine.)

By now nearly every large research library is deeply involved in user surveys, and we depend on the data they produce as we craft flexible goals for changing times. Survey data is even more important when external review committees are charged to review the library’s mission, because evidence-based metrics provide a crucial basis for understanding and rating performance and service goals. Indeed, the data often fall out in our favor, as local history has often shown. In 1997 UC – Berkeley charged a “blue ribbon committee” to review The University Library in an era of state budget shortfalls. The University Library engaged its community quite effectively, relying on survey data as part of the process. In 2012, another blue ribbon committee was formed for the same reasons. The 1997 venture garnered strong support for building the staff and collections budgets, and raised consciousness levels in general. The current committee, hard at work as we go to press, has an updated charge to identify the most important objectives for all library services. Intensive survey work preceded the formation of the blue ribbon committee and definitely influenced its charge.

Although research libraries vary quite a bit in their operational structure, there are commonalities among peer institutions, and so survey work is always broadly interesting. With that in mind, I will leave aside my thoughts about the “destacked” library, and focus on the survey responses that were gathered on the Berkeley campus during fall 2012.

“Central to the University’s Mission”

After years of tight budgets, the University Library at UC – Berkeley found itself once again facing many hard decisions about its near and long-term future. Library leaders responded proactively in 2012, launching an internal “re-envisioning” process. Once they had data in hand, they took their findings to the faculty and campus administration. The survey reached more than 4,000 faculty, students, and staff. Read all about it on the Library’s web site (see Attitudes toward Re-Envisioning the UC Berkeley Library, an Online Survey of the UC Campus Community, ).

The re-envisioning process and accompanying survey data attracted favorable attention, and a blue ribbon committee was charged to study the situation and make strategic recommendations. Survey data were influential from the get-go. The survey produced one of those “keystone” metrics we always to hope to achieve: seven in 10 users said they used the library a “great deal” or a “fair amount.” The data suggest that the library is central to the University’s mission, to be sure, but another intriguing mindset was revealed. It turns out that “liking” the library inevitably means liking librarians, and the majority of survey respondents hold them in high esteem. Indeed, the survey also confirmed that the interactions we have with patrons leave them better off than they were before. This finding is a crucial value point that we need to return to over and over again, especially since debates about library space and budgets often tilt toward self-service and self-directed research models as a solution to staffing challenges.

The value of “high touch” services is confirmed elsewhere in the survey, too. At its core, the surveyors wanted to discover whether patrons preferred “stand alone, full service” subject libraries (of which there are many on campus), or whether they would accept “hub and cluster” services points. The latter would allow a much-reduced staff to pool their efforts—a big savings, as it would give the University a basis for permanently reducing of the total FTE in the library. But graduates and undergraduates expressed greater comfort with the full-service approach, which was welcome news. The faculty split 50-50 on this point, but a 50 percent favorable rating for stand alone, full service locations is nonetheless a compelling number.

“High Quality Collections?”

The responses on collection issues are particularly intriguing. The need to maintain high quality collections was a clear priority among all segments of the respondents. Moreover, they agreed that keeping collection funding levels robust was more important that trying to keep every service location open. This implies that in order to preserve collections and help them grow, the campus user community accepts—on some level—that service locations may need to be consolidated.

However, it is hard for library patrons to grasp that collections require a substantial amount of working hours to develop, maintain and preserve. It is easier to view collections as complete artifacts that are just waiting to be tapped, whether in digital or print form, and to miss the fact that they are the work of collection developers. But that belief may be changing. Another metric shows that even though “collections” stand as a distinct priority for the library, librarians were once again highly valued. When queried, users ranked the tasks of selection, cataloging and archiving, reference, and (interestingly) instruction as important.

These kinds of responses cannot help but direct the attention of external committees to the value of the library staff. This was timely information in fall 2012, as the University Library had lost a significant number of librarians—including many selectors—to emeritus status. Ultimately the data show that library users are beginning to perceive that “high quality collections” cannot be achieved without a high quality academic staff.

“Space” and “Place” Still Matter

If everybody can study and access information resources online, who needs library space? Well, it turns out that a lot of people surveyed value that space a lot. One out of four undergraduates stated that 24 hour access at least five days a week was a top priority. At the same time, one out of four respondents also said that they prefer to access information solely by digital means.

It would appear that student study habits are by no means homogeneous, and it is vital to remember this. Indeed, the optics of library space “in action” are glaringly clear. In any library on the central UC – Berkeley campus, many if not most seats are taken by students who are studying—online. Even as digital scholarship advances, there is continued value to the premise of the library commons. It may be that libraries are a bellwether of the limits of just how “digital” students wish to be; congregating together to study, whether in quiet or social space remains a priority and key aspect of student life.

We’re Still Digital-Plus-Print

There’s another question that arises from the experience and preferences of the 25 percent group of digital-only users: what does this low (but significant) percentage imply about the habits of the other 75 percent? Evidence from this survey and from other sources indicates that students continue to read textbooks and course readers, even if their e-readers are more lightweight. This is a datum worth paying attention to, as it confirms that individual preferences still dictate media choices.

I was particularly struck by a scene I recently encountered at the campus gym during a lunch break. In the stretching area, one student was doing “core strengthening” exercises (holding herself rigid in the form of a push-up) while studying a course reader, on the floor below. This double duty workout lasted as long as I was in the stretching room, about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, out in the aerobics atrium, every cardio machine user had either a book or a smartphone to study with or listen to music. But the hardware did not outnumber the print books—quite the opposite.

So: it would seem that libraries still need to plan for costly digital services while maintaining equally costly print acquisition programs. In order to do that, there is simply no way around the fact that funds are needed, and that cutting them means cutting something that is valued. Tough decisions abound, but this one is among the toughest, because administrators would like to save funds by going digital. What they need to hear—whether from survey data or from us –is that we are still in a hybrid environment, and we should be cautious in our conclusions about the right mix of print-plus-digital media.

Willingness to Compromise

My sense is that this particular survey uncovered a widely held set of beliefs among a diverse survey population, which included a balance of faculty, students, and staff. The users demonstrated broad awareness that years of budget cuts and staff reductions have had far-reaching consequences all over campus, and they are concerned. But they also perceive that it may no longer be possible to recreate the perhaps “elysian” dream of a fully staffed and fully funded research library. Instead, they are signaling acceptance of the idea that a new library service model might pose challenges, but that it might also bring new benefits to the campus.

This openness to change implies brings at least one major challenge, but also two opportunities, in my opinion. The challenge lies in how to frame a vision for the library’s future that folds negotiation and compromise by all stakeholders into a transparent process. That is never easy but is always worth the effort.

The opportunities are surely worth that effort. First, open minds create space for dialogue and learning, and if we emphasize communication and openness, a new library service model could integrate what is important both for users and for the profession. Second, if we are going to launch a new library service model, we had better make sure that it provides ample opportunity for “high touch” experiences. It is through meeting the library staff that users gain an appreciation for what they do, and the survey data bear this out. Whether the new service model deploys hubs and clusters, or full service branch libraries, success will hinge on building the model around the people who work in libraries because they are the agents who build loyalty, offer information counsel, and can help to interpret the digital future.