Researchers’ Use of Academic Libraries

library book shelvesA new report has been published by the Research Information Network (RIN) and the Consortium of Research Libraries (CURL): Researchers’ Use of Academic Libraries and their Services [pdf format]. This is based on information gathered from more than 2,000 UK researchers and 300 librarians. After being somewhat critical in an earlier post about the RIN’s Researchers and Discovery Services report, I feel honour-bound to record here that this report is much more comprehensive and well-written. Its authors are Sheridan Brown and Alma Swan of Key Perspectives Ltd. The report covers a number of areas, including the impact of digital services, problems of attracting enough funding, communication between library staff and researchers, and changing patterns of use.

Archive services within academic libraries get a number of mentions, with the interesting statistic that:

Archives are rated “very useful” by 50% of arts and humanities researchers and special collections by 46%. By comparison the figures for life science researchers are 10% and 8%.

Really? 10% of life scientists find archives “very useful”? Wow!

The report also noted that:

Most researchers use digital finding aids to locate both digital and print-based resources. Print finding aids are used by very few researchers, and these are mainly in the arts and humanities. This highlights the need for libraries to ensure that they provide online high-quality metadata for their holdings, and that they address cataloguing backlogs. Information resources that cannot be found electronically may well be overlooked, since few researchers will invest the time required to track down items that cannot be quickly be identified using digital finding aids.

And in the same vein:

Libraries have made significant efforts to optimise the visibility and usage of their archival or special collection material through digitisation programmes. Feedback from researchers is very positive, but many information resources that could be useful to researchers remain under-used currently, mainly because they exist only in hardcopy or are inadequately catalogued.


…material that is digitised and for which there is easily-available and accurate metadata will be visible and usable by scholars. What remains in print may well be sought out, but probably only if it is digitally catalogued. Indeed, some researchers as well as librarians pointed out that more use would be made of library holdings overall

Researchers and Discovery Services

Researcher at computerA study commissioned by the Research Information Network has just been made available on the RIN’s website. The study interviewed 395 researchers and 55 librarians/information professionals to assess their use and perceptions of resource discovery services.
I hoped that the report would have something interesting to say about access to information about archives, but found it rather disappointing in that regard.

Key finding 1.3.1 General satisfaction with discovery services

The picture that has emerged from the survey is one of general satisfaction with the research discovery services available across the disciplines. Researchers in the sciences are most satisfied with the resource discovery services on offer, whereas interviewees in arts and humanities have more concerns about gaps in service coverage. The interviews with librarians broadly confirm this: librarians in the sciences and social sciences are generally satisfied with the range of discovery tools available while those in arts and humanities identify some gaps. (Section 4.2.9)

One of these gaps is access to archives: sections 2.1.1, 4.2.9, 6.1 and 6.2 all mention “the need for more online archives and manuscripts”. Section 4.1 records that a whopping 61.5% of researchers look for “Original text sources, e.g. newspapers, historical records”. This percentage seems quite high, given that only 16% of the researchers interviewed were Arts and Humanities researchers, and 19% Social Scientists. Or perhaps the inclusion of newspapers has caused confusion for the interviewees on this point.

The authors of the study have categorised the work of researchers in the following way: Finding a reference
Tracing full details of a specific source (e.g. article, book, thesis, chapter in a book, presentation at a conference etc) when some information about the specific source is known, such as details of the author, or title, or journal number, or conference date. Literature review
The identification and critical appraisal of key sources published on a specific subject by other researchers. Researching a new area
The process of finding and analysing relevant sources covering a discipline, subject area, topic, or theme not previously researched by the researcher. Keeping up to date
Method chosen by the researcher to keep up-to-date on new research, new initiatives and other trends in a specific area. Finding datasets
Locating published or unpublished datasets. Datasets are groups of data from experiments or observations, or from surveys and other data collection methods. Published datasets are led by official datasets from government and multinational bodies, but other sources include trade associations and professional bodies, research organisations, academic research institutes, survey companies etc. Finding non-text sources
Locating images (photographs, DVDs, art work), audio, artefacts. Finding sources of research funding
Locating details of external sources of research funding such as national funding bodies, research councils, grant-making bodies, private-sector sources of funding etc. Finding organisations/finding individuals
Locating details of specific organisations and individuals, such as addresses, web sites, and contact details, plus general details of activities, research interests etc.

Of these, I would venture to guess that is the category that would include original historical research, but the analysis of how researchers approach this area of work (which is surely one of their most significant activities) is pretty minimal:

In comparison with the activities of finding a reference and literature review, responses to this group of questions showed less use of specialist services, but again a very wide range of ?other? tools… Google is by far the most popular starting point when researching a new area, but also important are research colleagues, bibliographic databases, Web of Science/Web of Knowledge, and books/monographs. Not far behind the top 5 choices are Google Scholar, library catalogues and portals, library visits, online journals, and PubMed.

And that’s it! A fairly wide range of online archival resources are listed in Appendix 2 (including the ArchivesHub), but with the rather mysterious explanation that guides to archives are “very similar to dataset portals”. My overall impression was that the study authors’ understanding of researchers’ activities and needs was rather limited. But I might just be being biased because of lack of coverage of my particular area of interest. I’d be fascinated to hear opinions from any ‘real’ researchers who have read the study, or from providers of any other types of resources.

Researchers need archives … but have problems finding them

A report published last month highlights the difficulties encountered by researchers in the humanities and social sciences when it comes to finding archival materials for use in their work.

Archival research, increasingly important among scholars across disciplines, is particularly challenging due to the idiosyncratic organization of archives and the range and variety of materials housed within them. Many archives