Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

General Information Seeking in Changing Times: A Focus Group Study

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

General Information Seeking in Changing Times: A Focus Group Study

Article excerpt

Focus groups of undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty were asked about general information-seeking methods and how those had changed over the last three to five years. Questions about obstacles to finding information, criteria for good information sources, and a "perfect information source" were also explored with participants. Focus group sessions were recorded, transcribed, and loaded into the Ethnograph software program for textual data analysis. Seven prominent themes from the data and implications for assessment of reference service are discussed.

In Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, it takes seven and a half million years for Deep Thought, the second greatest computer in the Universe of Time and Space, to come up with the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. That answer is "forty-two." Faced with the disbelief and shock of those who had awaited this answer for so long, Deep Thought assures them, "that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you've never actually known what the question is." (1)

Undoubtedly the answer to how well academic reference librarians are helping people find what they need in the world of constantly changing information sources will not turn out to be as brief (nor, we hope, as cryptic) as "forty-two." And we hope to find the answer in less than seven and a half million years. Still, there is that nagging thought: Do we know exactly what the question is? Do we know how to ask it?

This project began with the idea of evaluating reference services in light of technological changes in the past five years. The goal was to try to find out whether reference service in academic libraries is keeping pace with the new forms of information seeking, access, and delivery. But, given the rapid and profound changes, we were unsure which questions to ask or the best way to ask them. This led to an exploration of various research methods and, ultimately, the focus group method. Personal conversations with other researchers (a Ph.D. candidate and a faculty member in the education department) about their use of focus groups helped to reinforce and amplify the usefulness of the method. Focus group interviews are recommended when you are looking for a range of ideas or feelings, when you are trying to understand differences in perspectives between groups of people, when you want ideas to emerge from the group, and when you need information to design a large-scale quantitative study. In the last instance, focus groups can help to determine what words people use to discuss the issues, and what the range of options is for answering a question. (2) Because this qualitative method can provide descriptive data derived from open-ended discussion, focus groups seemed to fit with the very aspects of this project that were important to us and that we wanted to explore.

Some specific questions arose as we pondered the issues:

* Is it easier or harder to find information now than three to five years ago?

* Do people want to learn how to use sources and strategies, or do they prefer to be given the answer?

* Is easy access and convenience more important than accuracy, depth, or relevance?

* Do people expect more of information sources now?

* Have expectations of the library or librarians changed in the past three to five years?

* Do library users expect to be able to find everything in electronic form now?

Hoping to provide a forum where these and related topics would arise naturally as part of a group discussion, we stepped back mentally from the reference desk, indeed, outside of the library's walls, and decided to try to explore the broadest possible range of information-seeking behavior and attitudes. If people do not think of the library as an information source, we did not want them to feel obligated to mention the library. …

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