Web Magazine for Information Professionals

What Users Want: An Academic 'Hybrid' Library Perspective

Reg Carr reflects on the development of a user-centred approach in academic libraries over recent decades and into the era of the hybrid library.

User-focus in the Academic Library

It may seem odd to say it but, even in a self-respecting part of the information world like the academic library, users have not always been at the centre of the practitioner’s professional attention. Over thirty years ago, the writer heard a long-serving Head of Reader Services (in a major university library that will remain nameless) announce, after the redecoration of his library’s main catalogue hall had completely obliterated the library’s original hand-painted directional signs, that ‘if our students are bright enough, they should still be able to find their way around the place’! It would be good to be able to affirm that this incident was an untypical one-off. But, at the risk of shocking my younger academic library colleagues, I can only say that in the earlier part of my 36-year career - spent in six different UK university libraries - it was by no means uncommon to come across this kind of cynical indifference to readers.

In fact - in this country at least - it was not generally until the 1980s that the ‘customer-oriented’ ethos of the service industries really made serious inroads into the reader service departments of the older and larger university libraries. Until then, the emphasis in those more ‘traditional’ libraries tended to be placed more overtly on collections (rather than on services to users), on administrative procedures (rather than on ease of use), and on rules and regulations (rather than on what users wanted). Thankfully, the world has now changed for the better in this respect; but ‘old habits die hard’, and even now there are still a few library staff here and there who prefer, mistakenly, to think that their libraries exist primarily to provide them with employment, rather than first and foremost to serve their users.

The Principal Drivers of Change

Two factors above all, perhaps, have combined during the last few decades to bring users’ needs more explicitly into the limelight in academic libraries: the forces of competition (allied with the customer-centred practices of the commercial world), and the advent of information in electronic form (along with the rapid consequential changes in the information-seeking habits and expectations of students and scholars generally).

In retrospect, it was probably the ‘Thatcher years’ of the 1980s that saw the real emergence of information as a commercial commodity. The ‘monetisation’ of information certainly gathered strength during those years from the large-scale investments in commercial publishing which have since given rise to the ‘big-business’ enterprises which are such a significant part of the landscape in which libraries operate today. The earlier, more leisurely days, in which an academic library could blithely assume that its users had ‘nowhere else to go’ for the information they needed, gradually became a distant memory; and the cosy assumptions, that ‘librarians knew best’ and that users would supinely continue to accept the services they had always been given, were no longer valid (if they ever had been).

Under pressure of tightening budgets, too, the parent institutions of the UK’s academic libraries were expecting more-for-less from their central services; and competition between institutions within the academic world itself began a perceptible drive towards a more service-oriented approach, in which the notions of choice and convenience, of service quality and performance measurement, and of accountability, became key factors in shaping information provision in libraries throughout the academic sector.

All at once, it seemed, ‘the customer was king’. Formal research into ‘user studies’ became fashionable [1]. Library user surveys became more frequent, more comprehensive, and more integral to library service planning [2]. Statistics of library use began to be gathered more systematically and evaluated more meaningfully [3]. Internal and external library reviews became the order of the day, with major emphasis being placed on user satisfaction as an explicit objective of library development. Library staff at all levels began to be sent on ‘customer service’ training courses [4]. And even the more traditional back-room library operations came to be more overtly recognised as an essential part of the library’s ‘front-line’ services to readers. The largely unquestioned ‘Users get what we give them’ attitude was being transformed into the ‘What do users want?’ approach.

The Computerisation of Information

The emergence of information resources in electronic form in the late 1980s and, especially, the advent and pervasive dominance of the Internet in the 1990s served further to accelerate this new and welcome emphasis on giving prominence to the wants of library users, since students and academics generally were beginning to adopt very different forms of information-seeking behaviour. While some, at least, saw the development of global electronic access to information as a threat to the very future of the physical library, others rightly saw it as an opportunity to rethink, and to refashion, their library’s services according to what their users needed in what had become, for the first time, a fast-changing information environment.

An online catalogue became a sine qua non for most academic libraries: the old manual catalogue was passé, and remained acceptable only to a dying breed of older users whose research habits had been formed in an earlier age. A wide range of networked electronic resources; a comprehensive local intranet; document delivery to the reader’s desktop; the ‘portalisation’ of Web-based resources; the population of institutional Virtual Learning Environments with information tailored to the needs of students and teachers; and even the digitisation of materials already held locally - all of these developments began to come on stream during the closing decades of the millennium as libraries strove to keep their users happy in a world where the commercial search engines were becoming the almost universal choices of first resort. A new cadre of academic librarians, too, were showing themselves a whole lot more agile at keeping pace with the ‘Google generation’. Staying in touch with ‘what users want’ had become both a matter of ‘survival’ and a question of professional expertise and self-respect.

The Role of the JISC

Academic librarians in the UK can regard themselves as singularly fortunate that, for the past decade and more, they have had the Joint Information Systems Committee (the JISC) working hard at national level to help them transform their services in user-oriented ways in the digital age [5]. Without the cutting-edge experimentation and service-oriented technological developments funded nationally by the JISC since the early 1990s, it is certain that the UK’s academic libraries would have lost much of the relevance that they have managed to retain for so many of their users. JISC’s internationally-envied ‘flagship’ Electronic Libraries programme (eLib); the national data centres at Manchester and Edinburgh; the Electronic Site Libraries Initiative (NESLI); the huge investment in the Distributed National Electronic Resource (the DNER - more recently known as the Integrated Information Environment); the intensive project work on VLEs, on digital preservation, and on institutional repositories; the Resource Discovery Network (the RDN); and the high-quality provision of the JANET network, with the largely invisible hardware, middleware and software that makes the network function so reliably and well - all of these things, and many more, have been developed by the JISC and have given the UK’s academic libraries the strategic advantage without which it is inevitable that they would have lacked the resources and expertise to provide adequately for their users’ rapidly changing needs.

But What Do Users Really Need?

There has almost certainly never been a time in the history of academic libraries when more attention has been paid to the needs of users. Web-based questionnaires; library performance reviews and service quality assessments; continuous feedback loops; the ubiquitous focus groups; summative and formative evaluation of services; and statutory institutional consultative mechanisms - all these are now an integral part of academic library management; and, combined with the availability of many surveys of researchers’ needs and behaviours [6], and the publication of regular ‘environmental scans’ [7], they have served to put users’ needs and information-seeking trends at the very forefront of academic library service planning.

But if our libraries are better placed than ever before to identify what users want, this does not necessarily mean that what users currently get is acceptably close enough to what they really need. The theory may yet be streets away from the actual practice. And it seems, to me at least, that our academic libraries still have quite some way to go to catch up with what their users want. This is especially true, I believe, in what might be called the present ‘twilight zone’ of the hybrid library, where the almost endless possibilities of the digital communications era are still bumping up uncomfortably against some of the big ‘legacy’ issues of the era of print-on-paper.

While the JISC undoubtedly stimulated much helpful thinking, and practice-oriented research, into the hybrid library during the 1990s [8], the clear emphasis of the projects funded under the JISC initiative was, perhaps inevitably, on the electronic aspects of the balancing act between digital and paper-based information provision [9]. And this important eLib strand still left the older and larger academic libraries with unanswered questions about the future management, exploitation and use of their important and extensive non-electronic holdings. For, if large-scale digitisation appears obvious as the ultimate way forward for the integration of such materials into a seamless electronic ‘search and retrieval’ service through a single institutional point of access and delivery, the fact remains that even the most well-resourced academic libraries cannot possibly afford such a ‘solution’ within any reasonably foreseeable time-frame. And, although the newly-established Research Information Network (RIN) has set itself the laudably ambitious task of addressing the biggest of these legacy issues over time [10], we are still very far from having either the national policies or the national funds that would be required to convert to digital form the countless millions of non-electronic library items which form so much of the ‘stuff’ of study and research, and especially in the Arts and Humanities. The conversion to digital form of vast historic collections of early printed books, extensive journal back-runs, newspapers, ephemera, theses, manuscripts, archives, photographs, microfilms, and cultural artefacts of every possible kind, has barely begun, and the sums already spent from public or private sources have merely scratched the surface of this issue [11]. And, still almost wholly unresolved, are the issues and constraints associated with the commercial restrictions on the copying or networking of in-copyright materials - whether printed or born-digital - and which, on their own, represent perhaps the single biggest barrier between ‘what users want’ and what libraries are able, legally, to provide.

So What Do Users ‘Really Really Want’?

The Spice Girls may know what they ‘really really want’ (though the lyrics of their hit single Wannabe are in fact somewhat impenetrable! [12] ); and librarians may sometimes wish that they had Mel Gibson’s preternatural insights into their users’ minds [13]. But in the potentially long-drawn-out ‘mixed economy’ of the hybrid library, it may prove more difficult than we have hitherto suspected to discern and interpret our users’ real wishes, and even more difficult to meet them fully. And there are several reasons why this may be so, quite apart from the ‘legacy’, resource, and copyright issues that may well constrain us for years to come.

In the first place, there is a real danger that, armed with the data from all our user studies and surveys, we may again simply assume - just as in the bad old days - that ‘we know best’ (or at least ‘much better than we did before’), and that we will fall back once more on giving our users what we think is best for them. The attractive force of wide-ranging surveys like OCLC’s environmental scans, for example, runs the risk of making us over-confident, as professional academic library managers, that we now know enough about our users’ wants. Impressed by such detailed user feedback, and pressured by the competition from the commercial search engines for our users’ loyalty, we may be motivated to put our energies into finding the elusive ‘killer application’ which could put us once more right at the centre of our users’ attention. There will be few of us, for example, who are not already convinced that our ultimate aim should be to provide seamless, Google-like searching for everything that our libraries hold. But might not this widespread conviction be just a new orthodoxy, a knee-jerk reaction to the complex challenges of the digital information explosion? And though we certainly know a great deal about what our users say, do we actually know enough about what they ‘really really’ want?

The Importance of Context

But let me be specific. For many years now, one of the most experienced researchers in library user studies, Professor Tom Wilson, the former Director of the Centre for Research on User Studies at the University of Sheffield, has been warning us that we have so far paid too little attention to the importance of context in trying to understand what users want. In an important article published six years ago, but based on research carried out over the previous 20 years, Professor Wilson sounds the following notes of warning about the information user in context: “Paradoxically, user studies has been concerned with almost everything apart from the use to which information is put by the… information seeker.” And he continues: “The reason for this seems to be a desire to draw policy conclusions… from data on aggregated behaviour rather than a desire to understand the user”. And he concludes: “The ‘user’ may be found in many… contexts; and ‘user studies’ need to distinguish among these contexts… Any partial view demands rigorous definition of which context applies” [14].

So how much attention, in all of our planning to meet users’ needs, do we give to this all-important issue of context? And how much do we really know about the uses to which our users put the information that we provide, or would like to provide, for them? Do we really yet understand our users’ wants in such sophisticated terms? Professor Wilson clearly thinks not; but do we have the professional humility to recognise this?

What it all boils down to, of course, in simple terms, is that ‘users’ are not a conveniently homogeneous group; and even the term ‘academic library users’ does not represent a single category. Undergraduates, taught postgraduates, full-time researchers, teachers, external users from all walks of life and from many professions (including the general public, too) - all these are comprehended in the phrase; and they all have different ‘wants’ and needs. And those needs may vary at different times; subject disciplines will complicate the picture even further; and library use will be affected in various complex ways by the ‘hybridness’ of the local library. It behoves us, therefore, not to assume too much, and to be constantly on the lookout for deeper and more sensitive insights into our users’ contextual ‘wants’, and into the myriad ways they need access to information and make use of it.

We must be prepared also to be surprised by such deeper insights, even if they run counter to what we think we already know. Not many years ago, for example, the writer was involved as an external consultant, in two very different academic libraries, with reviews which revealed a number of mutually exclusive expressions of users’ wants within both institutions. In both cases, the library authorities and managers were looking for empirical evidence to justify the expansion of networked electronic information. Yet both reviews - using the same in-depth consultations with representative user groups - uncovered some diametrically opposing ‘messages’. ‘Longer opening hours, please’ versus ‘Just get it all out on the Web’; ‘More multiple loan copies urgently required’ versus ‘We need more research monographs on the shelves’; ‘More print subscriptions, please’ versus ‘Cancel all the hard copy titles’; ‘More librarians to consult’ versus ‘Spend less on staff and more on stuff’ - these were among the contextual ‘surprises’, some of which the library authorities did not really want to hear. But they all point up one thing: the ‘twilight world’ of the academic hybrid library requires us to be much more locally sensitive to users’ needs - in all their complexity - than we might have thought.

What to Do, Then?

If therefore, in the light of all this complexity, and in the context of the ‘hybrid’ state of our libraries, our understanding of what users really want is still in need of greater sophistication and sensitivity, how can today’s listening librarians make any meaningful progress towards a service which is better able to benefit those for whom it should be planned and managed?

The following interim and pragmatic conclusions may be helpful.

The ultimate warning note, however, is contained in a recent North American article which picks up many of the issues addressed here and which identifies many of the ‘disconnects’ between the services our academic libraries currently provide and the wants of the so-called ‘Net Generation’ now coming into early adulthood: ‘Finding the right way to achieve balance between traditional values and the expectations and habits of the wired generations will determine whether libraries remain relevant in the social, educational and personal contexts of the Information Age’ [15]. In the final analysis, it is possible that ‘What users want’ may always remain something of a mirage (or at least a moving target). But one thing is certain: failure to take it properly into account would be sure to leave the academic library high and dry in the desert of lost opportunities.


  1. From 1975 to 1985, the British Library Research and Development Department, for many years a reliable barometer of the fashionable trends in the library world, invested substantially in the University of Sheffield’s Centre for Research on User Studies (CRUS). On the development of user studies in the UK see: Rania Siatri, “The Evolution of User Studies”, Libri, 1999, pp.132-41.
  2. Hence the UK’s readiness, in more recent years, to take up the tried and tested North American LibQUAL+ library service assessment software package. http://www.libqual.org/
  3. The University of Loughborough’s Library and Information Statistics Unit has never been short of work since its establishment in 1987, and has carved out for itself a valuable place on the UK library scene with its authoritative time-series of annual statistical reports. http://www.lboro.ac.uk/departments/dils/lisu/index.html
  4. More recently, too, there has been a discernible trend, in library-related training courses, towards the ‘marketing’ of library services.
  5. The JISC Web site http://www.jisc.ac.uk - extensive though it is - barely does justice to the key role played by the JISC in the development of the UK’s academic library services to users.
  6. Such work included, for example, some of the studies undertaken or commissioned during the mid-1990s by the Research Support Libraries Programme http://www.rslp.ac.uk and the British Library/HE Task Force http://www.bl.uk/about/cooperation/pdf/blhe-overview.pdf. Education for Change Ltd. also undertook a major survey of users for the Research Support Libraries Group in 2002 http://www.rslg.ac.uk/research/libuse/. Since the late 1990s, the JISC itself has invested heavily in its Monitoring and Evaluation Framework, which includes a longitudinal survey of the use (and non-use) of electronic information services in UK Higher Education http://www.jisc.ac.uk/index.cfm?name=project_jmef. The UK, however, has nothing quite like the Pew Internet Project http://www.pewinternet.org whose surveys and reports are of particular value in monitoring user behaviour.
  7. For example: The OCLC Environmental Scan: Pattern Recognition http://www.oclc.org/reports/2003escan.htm, and Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources http://www.oclc.org/reports/2005perceptions.htm
  8. The ‘Hybrid Library’ concept was developed for a number of years under the third ‘strand’ of JISC’s eLib programme. Chris Rusbridge, “Towards the Hybrid Library”, D-Lib Magazine, July/August 1998 http://www.dlib.org/dlib/july98/rusbridge/07rusbridge.html
  9. Reg Carr, “Towards the hybrid library: the national perspective in the UK”. Presentation to the MALIBU Conference, King’s College London, 26 March 2001 http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/librarian/malibu2001/malibu2001.htm
  10. The first Strategic Plan of the Research Information Network is available at http://www.rin.ac.uk
  11. It would cost billions of pounds to digitise the entire contents of just a few of the major academic libraries in the UK. The cost of digitising the Bodleian Library’s 19th-century printed books alone has been estimated at over £15 million. These figures stand in stark contrast to the £10 million that the JISC was able to spend on digitisation during 2003-5 from funds obtained under the 2002 Comprehensive Spending Review.
  12. The second verse of the Spice Girls’ major hit single Wannabe (released in 1996) does, however, contain the following potentially significant hint for us in our search to provide user-satisfaction: “If you want my future forget my past,/ If you wanna get with me better make it fast,/ Now don’t go wasting my precious time,/ Get your act together we could be just fine.”
  13. The comedy hit movie What Women Want (released in 2000) starred Mel Gibson as a chauvinistic executive who wakes up after an accident to find that he can actually hear what all the women around him are thinking.
  14. T.D. Wilson, “Recent trends in user studies: action research and qualitative methods”, Information Research, 5(3) http://informationr.net/ir/5-3/paper76.html
  15. Charles F. Thomas and Robert H. McDonald, “Millennial Net Value(s): Disconnects between Libraries and the Information Mindset” http://dscholarship.lib.fsu.edu/general/4

Author Details

Reg Carr
Director of University Library Services & Bodley’s Librarian
University of Oxford

Email: reg.carr@ouls.ox.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/librarian/

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