Recent research into Swarthmore student library and information use: behaviors, habits, and preferences

Peggy Seiden, Mary Marissen, Pam Harris, Sarah Elichko

Do Swarthmore students use the library?  (Peggy Seiden)

How do students navigate Tripod?  (Mary Marissen)

What challenges do students encounter while completing capstone research projects? (Pam Harris and Sarah Elichko)


When do students prefer to use e-books? Print?  (Peggy Seiden)

What do we know about general library information seeking and use patterns of undergraduates?

What do we know about general library information seeking and use patterns of undergraduates?

National Studies:
• Project Information Literacy
• The Citation Project

User Studies:
• Local
• Database publishers
• Vendors


Data Sources:
• Cross-institutional surveys

• Standardized surveys

• Interviews and Focus Groups

• Web analytics, transaction logs

• Observation (video and audio transcripts)

• Ethnographic studies

What do we know about general library information seeking and use patterns of Swarthmore students?

• Ithaka Study of Swarthmore Undergraduates

• Space study and journaling

• Usage Data (circulation statistics, e-resource usage)

• Usability studies

• Capstone research study

• Reading Preferences Survey

Do Swarthmore students use the library?


56% reported visiting a library more than 6 times during the previous week.

When going to the library,
74% of students report spending more than one hour.

94% of respondents reported having visited a library at least once during the previous week.

Another 12% report spending at least 45 minutes.

What are they doing in the library?

Aggregate data indicates that majority of students in the library at any time are using laptops.

Using materials from the library collection:

• Swarthmore students checked out library materials

  28,000 times last academic year.

• Swarthmore community members used reserve materials

  an additional 25,188 times last academic year.

Where do Swarthmore students start their research?

JSTOR: 56,000 downloads

Ebrary (ebooks): 174,148 section requests

American Chemical Society: 4,210 downloads

Nature: 8,000 article downloads

Science Direct (Elsevier): 19,000 downloads

Anthropology Plus: 1,200 uses

EconLit: 7,900 uses

Eighteenth Century Collections Online:

     12,600 section downloads

Psyc Articles: 8,600 downloads

Naxos Music Library 16,000 clips streamed

MLA Bibliography: 5,400 searches

Index Islamicus: 7,000 uses

Usage of Online Resources

How do students navigate Tripod?

Tripod UX (User Experience) Study


Favorite author search

and grew in complexity


or another path

Narrow your search using facets

Question about "Other Collections"

Recall a recent research project and demonstrate how you began.

An open-ended task

What we learned:

We can do some simple clean-up.

We can improve our display even before redesign

and place facets on the left.

The redesign will help address many navigational difficulties

and provide opportunities for more intuitive organization

But larger questions of "what" and "why" remain in addition to "where."

What can be found under the books and more tab?

How are articles different from journals?

What are digitized archives? Institutional repositories?

Does our vendor prioritize certain kinds of content under the articles tab?

Information Architecture

"Enough theory for my thesis"
Student perspectives on the capstone research experience

Mellon TriCo Seed Grant, 2009-10 - Student Scholars: Enhancing Research Knowledge in the Humanities & Social Science   
Peggy Seiden, Pamela Harris, Barbara Milewski, Laurie Allen (HC)


Mellon, 2010-11 - Understanding the Student Research and Writing Process

Laurie Allen, James Krippner, Margaret Schaus (HC)
Pamela Harris, Melanie Maksin, Michael Reay, Peggy Seiden, Robert Weinberg


Mellon, 2011-2012 - Understanding the Student Research Process in the Humanities and Social Sciences

Maris Gillette, James Krippner (HC), Margaret Schaus (HC), Theresa Snyder (HC)

Tim Burke, Keith Reeves, Bob Weinberg, Pamela Harris, Melanie Maksin, Michael Reay, Peggy Seiden

A Brief History


• Distributed questionnaires to students in SOAN 098 and HIST 091

       - Academic years 2010-11, 2011-12, 2012-13

• Asked about research topic, reason for choosing it, challenges expected and encountered,

  what is/was helpful throughout the process, and advice they'd offer other students

• Received 90 completed questionnaires (69 respondents)

       - 61 were submitted early in the fall; 29 were submitted later, mostly after final draft

• Read and coded these responses (in Atlas.ti)

• Conducted interviews with pairs of faculty members from each department
• Gleaned insights from participants in an interdisciplinary AALAC conference “Assessing

  Undergraduate Student Research,” held at Amherst College in April 2013

What advice did students offer?

Start early, ideally over the summer

Draw on prior research experiences

    • Suggested by both HIST 091 students (one-semester    

      project) and SOAN thesis writers (two-semester project)

Stay connected to the process

   • Confidence and keeping the project in perspective

   • Familiarity with topic, relevant authors and texts, methods

   • Advisors, deadlines

Understanding relevance

Defining the appropriate body of scholarly literature to inform the thesis

I am worried there won't be enough about what I am specifically talking about, but that I will get overwhelmed by the broad material out there that applies.”

“I don't think it will be hard to find material that pertains, but I haven't found anything that is exactly what I'm researching yet. I have found articles and documents that surround the topic.”

“I often became overwhelmed or led slightly off topic in my research. Many books and articles were close to, but not directly about, what I was researching.
It also became confusing at times to keep track of through what lens I was interpreting
individual and organizational behavior.


“My topic is quite interdisciplinary, so in some ways I am doing the work of bridging academic fields that are not usually in conversation. But I was able to find (almost too much) research material to use. The challenge now is incorporating all of it in a concise and compelling way.”

Iterative research

“I kept my research question broad up until I reviewed my interview material, so I narrowed it. I allowed my material to shape my thesis. I tweaked my lit review post-analysis, and I felt I did not have many limitations. Rather, I had so many sources I wish I could have used, but didn't have enough time to read and review.”

“I feel a bit anxious because I have stacks & stacks of books that I want to read, but feel like I have no time to read them."


“Also, time management - I feel like I don't have the time to read enough of the existing material.”

Reading everything I feel is relevant, dealing with time issues.”

Reading on a deadline


Taxonomy developed by Peggy Seiden, Pam Harris, Theresa Snyder (HC), Margaret Schaus (HC), and Sarah Elichko

Reading Preferences Survey

February 2015

Reading Preferences Survey:



Distributed questionnaire to library student workers (120)

          92 respondents


Reading behaviors for different types of materials (books, chapters, articles), for scholarly and recreational purposes


Used scenarios to explore circumstances under which general reading preferences may shift (e.g. time to deadline, proximity to library)

Overall attitudes towards ebooks

Under what circumstances do Swarthmore students prefer print books or ebooks?


Factors driving choice:


Cognitive/Pedagogical Issues






Recreational Reading


94% reported having read at least 1 book in the past year

   Average was about 7 books; high was 38

Most students rely on recommendations, but 50% reported

   browsing stacks at least sometimes.


77% preferred print for reading longer fictional works, similar for longer non-fictional works (12% had no preference)

Fewer than half of respondents preferred print for other genres (e.g. short stories; poetry); 1/4 to 1/3 had no had no preference

Recreational Reading

“I love the feeling of holding a book and smelling it. I find it easier on my eyes to read as well.”

“I prefer the form factor of a tablet to that of a book. I like e-reader features such as the ability to resize text, choose a different font, and search a book.”

Print or online? Required reading

Scenario:  You are assigned to read two chapters of a required reading. Swarthmore has a print copy on reserve and an ebook.


38 will use print book (on reserve)

33 will print chapters from ebook

21 will read onscreen

Unless the reserve copy is checked out:
Only 9% would wait for it to be returned, rather than using the ebook.

“It is easier to get the ebook than the reserve print copy because you can write on the printed ebook chapters and have our own copy during class.”

“I try to avoid purchasing books unless I absolutely have to. I rely on reserve shelves, and I appreciate when Ebooks are available because I can use them anywhere and print the sections I have to read.”

"The nice thing about ebook for required readings… is that I can use the “Search” function that is very very very very very handy…”

"Also whichever is the most convenient for me is the method I will choose.”

“However, if a required reading is really boring and tedious, having a physical copy of the reading is another way for me to keep track of how far along I am in the reading assignment.”


“If I really want to spend personal time getting to know the material… I generally prefer to own the book itself because it helps me “own” the material more."

Required reading: far from deadline

Scenario:  A book you need for an assignment due in 3 weeks is available as a print book from Haverford,
or as an ebook.


61 students prefer to request the print from Haverford

43 students prefer to use the ebook


If both print and ebooks were available at Swarthmore:

75 students prefer to use the print

30 students prefer to use the ebook.


5% said that the ebook was unacceptable.

Required reading: due tomorrow

Scenario:  You're in your dorm, and a book you need for an assignment due in 24 hours is available as a print book from Swarthmore, or as an ebook.


63 students would use the ebook

43 students would use the print


If the print is only available from Haverford, 81 students would choose to use the ebook.

Required reading: due tomorrow






“Cry and promise myself I’ll never procrastinate again.”

A preference for printing...

No matter the length, a majority of respondents would prefer to print out an article found online.

“Printing allows me to focus on the text better.”

“When doing research I do not mind reading things on a screen, but when I am reading longer texts I prefer to have them printed out. Sometimes there is a balance between wanting to save paper and not wanting to read 50 pages off of a screen.”

A preference for printing...

No matter the length, a majority of respondents would prefer to print out an article found online.

...but not at any price.

When asked about paying for printing, at least ¾ of respondents would prefer to read an article onscreen (even a 1- 10 page article).

(At all.)

Image Credits

Icons: Glyphicons, Jan Kovarik (2014)

Photo of Chamber of Secrets: Drew Allen (Flickr)



Recent research into student library and information use

By Swarthmore Reference

Recent research into student library and information use

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