Information-Seeking Behavior and Reference Medium Preferences: Differences between Faculty, Staff, and Students

Article excerpt

This study examined the information seeking preferences of 936 university faculty, staff, students, and librarians at a doctoral granting institution in the southeastern United States. Participants were asked to identify in what way they would prefer having both factual and research questions answered by the library. Findings suggest participants preferred face-to-face reference interactions over a suite of virtual reference options. In the aggregate, e-mail was the preferred virtual reference service over telephone and online chat with little interest in text messaging or Skype video. Statistically significant differences among users, however, emerged when interactions between type of question, age, race, and gender were considered. Faculty and staff preferred e-mail and telephone while students preferred online chat and, to a lesser extent, text messaging. Implications of the study suggest user preferences appear to be significantly influenced by demographic factors and type of question. Different library reference support strategies may need to be designed and implemented to meet those needs.

In the rapidly moving world of the information age, information seeking behavior is increasingly multifaceted, on demand, real-time, and diverse. Despite the emergence of the Internet and the availability of a wide variety of robust search engines that can seek information with increasing speed and accuracy, people are turning to their school, public, and academic libraries more frequently and in larger numbers than ever before. (1) Libraries are urgently attempting to reinvent themselves and fully embrace the challenge of meeting the needs of their users in a climate of rapid change where information seekers have many options, little patience, and use many different types of information and communication technology.

As academic libraries become fully immersed in the twenty-first century, they are beginning to realize that to best meet user needs, they must first look at user preferences. With the proliferation of online resources and distance education opportunities, many libraries are attempting to meet user demands by expanding their reference services beyond the face-to-face or telephone reference interaction. Rather than offer a one-size-fits-all reference service, many libraries now provide a suite of reference services which include both synchronous (real-time interaction such as online chat or video conferencing) and asynchronous reference services (such as e-mail and short messaging service (SMS)/text messaging). Developing a multifaceted "Ask a Librarian" approach to electronic reference "introduces the element of user preference to information assistance." (2) By offering a range of platforms, libraries seek to provide reference services at the point-of-need for their users.

While libraries are developing new reference services, providing these services is not always matched by actual use. (3) This has led to a number of digital reference projects being suspended or discontinued. Several recent studies suggest that the success of virtual reference does not depend solely on the quality of service. (4) Further, the design of the virtual reference interface may not play a major role in determining users' opinions of virtual reference services. In a two part survey (n = 100 academic library websites) and virtual reference services usability study (n = 23), Mu et al. found

   there is no significant difference in users' opinions of
   a VRS [virtual reference service] and their willingness
   to use it that is caused by the design of the interface,
   provided the link meets two conditions: users are aware
   of its existence (it is easily seen), and the link is clearly
   labeled with its function (i.e., the text "Ask a Librarian"
   as opposed to a text-free image). (5)

Other studies have found that users prefer particular types of reference mediums for particular types of questions. …